Subordinate clause: a sentence for the party of states’ rights and family values

At 5 PM on October 1, 1851, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal:

Just put a fugitive slave, who has taken the name of Henry Williams, into the cars for Canada. He escaped from Stafford County, Virginia, to Boston last October; has been in Shadrach’s place at the Cornhill Coffee-House; had been corresponding through an agent with his master, who is his father, about buying himself, his master asking $600, but he having been able to raise only $500. Heard that there were writs out for two Williamses, fugitives. . . . Accordingly fled to Concord last night on foot. 

In mid-nineteenth-century American English, “into the cars” meant “on the train.” However, the terms “agent” and “writ” haven’t changed since Thoreau’s time. They still have the social meanings now that they possessed in 1860, when

the South’s 4 million enslaved human beings were worth between $3 billion and $4 billion: the largest single asset in the entire United States, representing more than the value of all the nation’s railroads and factories combined. Slaves, even more than land, were Southern planters’ safest and most lucrative investment. Prices had been skyrocketing — doubling in the 1850s alone. Natural human reproduction ensured a further return. Slaves could easily be rented, mortgaged, or liquidated. A planter’s slaves were often, in modern terms, not just his work force, but also his stock portfolio.

(Adam Goodheart, “The Color of Money,” New York Times Online 21 June 2011)

With that transactional economics in mind, look at the little phrase I’ve printed in red above: “who is his father.” Grammar calls such an array of words a subordinate clause, meaning that it’s a statement of doing, being, or occurring which depends for its meaning on another statement of doing, being, or occurring. The word “because” in “Because I could not stop for death” changes a complete sentence into a subordinate clause. It’s an agent, like the man in 1851 who presumably charged a fee for trying to change Henry Williams’s relationship with his father from servile to independent.

The transaction wasn’t completed in Thoreau’s lifetime, but for a while in the twentieth century it seemed that the period at the end of the sentence could be in view and it might one day be possible to think of people as priceless. However, the grammar of politics is stubborn and conservative. Perhaps the family history of slavery and freedom is only a cyclical narrative after all, like Walden or the twin narratives of Isaac and Ishmael. If it is, the party of Ayn Rand may understand the idea of subordination better than the party of Henry David Thoreau. For the father and son in Thoreau’s little tale, at any rate, subordination is the basis to which words always return when they need to represent people in relation to other people. That power transaction is language at its ground state: the fathering grammar of what the New England conservative Emily Dickinson called (in “There’s a certain slant of light”)

internal difference –
Where the Meanings, are –



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First follow Nature, and your judgment frame
By her just standard, which is still the same;
Unerring Nature, still divinely bright,
One clear, unchanged, and universal light,
Life, force, and beauty must to all impart,
At once the source, and end, and test of art.


From where we stand on our hillside, the train at a station in Michigan can’t be seen. It’s there, however, or perhaps it was there a moment ago. We know, because a cloud of smoke is drifting away from the station. In a zone just outside the visible portion of this image, a steam engine is, or is about to be, somewhere else in space and time.

“Michigan Central railroad station”
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The image comes to us now trailing a Shorpy comment stream, and from there we can learn that this building in Michigan is located at 401 Depot Street, Ann Arbor. Still standing and in good repair, it looks much as it did when this image of horses and derby hats was captured. Two more images in the stream, captured at approximately the present time, demonstrate. One of the two is a download from Google Street, and with its help we can take a virtual walk around the building, just as if we were alive on the spot.

Simultaneously, from a dig where the stream cuts through the past, a researcher reports that The Awakening of Helena Richie, one of the plays advertised on the billboards to the left of the street, ran on Broadway from September 1909 to January 1910, then went on tour in the spring. That locates a terminus in time for the mixed group of buggies and cars in front of the station. The year when somebody put his head under a photographer’s dark hood to see the group this way was 1910, two years after Henry Ford’s Model T, forty miles down the rail line in Detroit, had begun changing the mix. The camera could record the mix but not the change. Photography is the art of stillness in the momentary.

But then, blurred a little by his passage into and then out through the stillness, a man carrying a winter overcoat but wearing a summer suit began climbing the hill from the station. Because he wasn’t in the stillness then, he will never stop now. Trudging toward us along a borderline between the seasons of his year, he is headed past the camera toward a destination somewhere over the camera’s shoulder. His course is set toward a space created by the educational conventions of perspective between ourselves and the composition’s foreground. If the lesson is successful and we bring ourselves to think of him coming to rest there, he will have left the picture’s depicted fraction of a second and arrived in a future.

However, that future isn’t depicted in the picture itself, and it can’t be depicted anywhere else because both the man and the fraction of a second when he was have vanished from time. It’s true that while the camera’s shutter was open, the man’s left foot in its buttoned shoe seemed still, as if it could claim a place, no matter how tiny, in a finally fixed and stable history. But of course it couldn’t. Freeze-framed on the pavement by the camera’s virtual way of seeing, visible there only as an illusion of motion stopped and about to start again, that not really unmoving shoe is something like a visual equivalent of grammar’s future perfect tense: the representation of an action completed (Latin perfectus) with respect to a moment in the future.

In that grammatical sense, perhaps every instant when a shutter opens and closes and time seems to stop is a perfect instant. It may be that an image is only an a perfect instant confined within a frame. Of this moment in 1910, at any rate, nothing remains except what is interior to its frame. As unconfined creating light passed westward through the exterior and away along its track, the end came for everything: the horses on their dirt road, the railroad station which is now a restaurant with a railroad theme, the men in their derby hats. But when we put the frame around our tiny image of the man walking up a little hill toward us, we locked in the illusion it had created of a moment held still for us to see, forever. It was a moment in the interior, with the end locked out.

Then, at the end, we let the man escape into the end. Hold his image up to the light, let the light penetrate, and look. From its foreground in the past, this picture seems to extend toward the invisible place over our shoulder where the man with his suitcase will finally have gone.

The pitilessness of alphabetical order: two poets named M. Moore

Appendix to the July 16 post about Merrill Moore:

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Professor Dryasdust to his class: Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” is a famously revised text, and what you see here is an early version, with three stanzas instead of the four in the penultimate version. That penultimate version, also famously, now exists as a footnote to the final version, which reads, in its entirety:

I, too, dislike it.
. . . . .Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
. . . . .it, after all, a place for the genuine.

As Ezra Pound used to say, “Dichten = condensare.” The German verb means both “to write poetry” and (sort of) “to thicken or (as in the Italian verb) condense.” The reduction from “One discovers that there is in it” to “One discovers in it” is an example of the process.

Whereas Merrill Moore didn’t revise.


Scurvy, Negress, typewriter and fountain pen: a poet’s photographs vanish

If it’s taken down from its shelf in a library at Harvard and opened, the crumbling old offprint from The New England Journal of Medicine can teach us that the Americans of three-quarters of a century ago inhabited bodies that were only partly like ours.

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Right at the start, for example, a pharmaceutical manufacturer reminds physicians: “In the absence of epidemic amebiasis attention may be diverted from the established fact that 3 to 10 percent of the general population is infected with Endamoeba histolytica. Outright clinical symptoms are most likely to occur during the summer months” (front matter, p. vi). In the technical language of medicine, those words say that in 1939 amoebic dysentery, a disease that Americans now associate only with third-world poverty, was still endemic in the United States. And of the patient discussed in the case record on p. 71, the text matter-of-factly notes, “Two years before admission she had been treated for scurvy.”

The historical strangeness of bodies from the past doesn’t originate only in their diseases, either. When people thought about other people’s bodies in 1939, every part of every body communicated itself through a language that we’d now have to call “1939.” On p. 49 of the offprint, for example, the authors of a statistical study of alcoholism report: “All but 76 patients were white. There were 62 Negroes, 12 Negresses, and 2 Japanese men.” To read the word “Negresses” now seems almost like experiencing a paleontologist’s instant of Keatsian discovery. Coming into startling view on its page, the extinct word emerges from its matrix in the text like a fossil emerging into sunlight under the blows of a sharp little pick-hammer.1

I’m reading the word now for the sake of the man who wrote it: Merrill Moore (1903-1957). In the 1920s, Moore was the youngest of a group of remarkable poets who gathered around the Vanderbilt University English professor John Crowe Ransom and published their work in a magazine called The Fugitive. The Fugitive group underwent two metamorphoses after that era: first into a group of right-wing anti-capitalists who called themselves the Southern Agrarians, then into the literary theorists called the New Critics. In English departments, the most enduringly famous members of the group are Ransom himself and his students Allen Tate and Robert Penn Warren.

Not Moore, however. As the mentor of the Fugitives, Ransom gathered his students for regular revising sessions, but Moore just wouldn’t revise. For that he had a genuinely amazing excuse: he was quite possibly the most facile poet in the history of the English language, and rather than bring one revised poem to the weekly meetings he’d bring fifty brand new ones. With only a few exceptions, all of his poems were sonnets, and he composed those as fast as he was physically able to write the words down. In fact, he learned shorthand so that he could physically write the words down even faster. That’s why one of his volumes of sonnets (one of many) is called just M — M for Merrill, M for Moore, and M for the Roman numeral. Yes, that one fat book contains a thousand sonnets — that is, 1000 x 14 lines, or a body of verse longer than Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained put together. I flipped through it once, and line after line called to me as I opened the pages into light. There’s no doubt that Moore was a poet. But so far as I was able to see in that one fast scan, he never finished assembling his lines into poems.2 The consequence was predictable. Sixty years ago the anthologist Louis Untermeyer (1885-1977) was still including a few of Moore’s sonnets in his collections, but nobody reads them now.

But Moore’s major at Vanderbilt was pre-medical, and in due time he became a psychiatrist who practiced at hospitals associated with Harvard and wrote the little monograph we’ve been looking at. It’s as a psychiatrist that he’s remembered now to American literary history, because in that capacity he figured in the lives of several other poets. He kept Edwin Arlington Robinson’s depression and alcoholism under control, counseled the Harvard sophomore Robert Lowell to transfer to Kenyon College and study with Allen Tate, advised against releasing Ezra Pound from St. Elizabeths, and failed to prevent Robert Frost’s suicidal son from killing himself but did save Frost’s own life by calling the ambulance when Frost was suffering a toxic reaction to some medicine. During that period, too, some of his sonnets were illustrated by Edward Gorey, who was then an unknown Harvard undergraduate.

You’ll find two more illustrations in the little Harvard biography of Moore at

— a conventionally posed photograph taken during World War II and a more dramatic photograph, all foreshortening and intent concentration, of Moore drawing a blood sample from a patient in 1939, the year of his monograph on alcoholism. As it happens, Moore was a photographer himself, and he took his pictures with the same energy he expended on healing patients, writing sonnets, learning languages (in the Pacific during the war, he picked up, among others, Mandarin and Maori), and swimming marathons. By his own estimate, he took 50,000 photographs in the course of his short life.

Ever since I learned that statistic, I’ve wondered it what would it be to experience a photograph by Moore. Might the image be as preternatural as its creator? For instance, might the dramatic photograph on the Harvard site be a self-portrait?

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There might be many things to say about this image: things about the power relationship between doctor and patient, for instance, and what the formalities of visual composition communicate about that relationship. And if the power relationship should also encompass a relationship between artist and model . . .

I sent a query to Harvard. Jessica Murphy, reference archivist at the Harvard Medical School’s Center for the History of Medicine, replied: “The only information with the image indicates that it was taken by Pix Publishing, New York, and was transferred to the library in 1939.”

Pix Publishing was an agency that marketed images by some of the twentieth century’s foremost photojournalists to magazines — most prominently, to Life. Life’s complete photo archive is now in Google, but this image isn’t there. However, Pix Publishing’s own archive is now at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

The Resource Centre at the Art Gallery of Ontario lists its hours of operation as 1:00 to 4:45, Wednesdays through Fridays. However (as of July 2011, at any rate), no one ever answers the phone during those hours, and voicemail messages are not returned.

For the practical purposes of ordinary understanding, then, the history of this image is gone. Free-floating now in an ahistorical space, an image that once had a journalistic context in what’s called the real world is now only a composition in black and white. It was once an illustration of Dr. Merrill Moore, but now that literary artifact has been buried on its page under a layer of silver halides.

Words can still cry out from under their coverings, of course. On a shelf at Harvard, bound into the back of Dr. Moore’s monograph in The New England Journal of Medicine, is this.

The due-date slip inside the back cover tells me that I’m the first person to have looked at these words since October 6, 1977. The slip itself is brown with age (its first date stamp is November 6, 1939), and its contents date from another era of economics and of prose style: “A fine of five cents a day is incurred by retaining [this book] beyond the specified time.” The bound-in letter too is appareled in the past: written on a manual typewriter and signed with a fountain pen. It is now one with the word “Negress” and the sonnets of Merrill Moore. There on its slip of Harvard stationery, the document has gone strange. Its verbal syntax is still intelligible, but its historical form is now on the way to incomprehensibility.

Of course that history is still extant, and we’re free to keep searching for dictionaries of its language. Moore’s papers — 590 boxes containing 131,750 items — are now in the Library of Congress.  There, the opening pages of their catalog entry read:

According to a separate catalog entry, the photographs, drawings,and prints include an album containing “136 portraits, World War II and photo of New Guinea female.” The images haven’t been digitized, but I suppose they may be viewed on site at the Library.

But how, now, can anyone see “New Guinea female”? Like a sonnet by the amazing Merrill Moore, which is read now only because it is a sonnet by the amazing Merrill Moore, an image called “New Guinea female” has lost the context it had at the moment it was created. We still own the female’s sequestered image and its companion image of a white man drawing blood from another white man, but even that still comprehensible white glyph has been translated out of our language. For us, now, it can signify only an instant in 1939 — one of the instants when it was possible for an unimaginative reader to understand without effort that Americans were getting scurvy and amoebic dysentery and Merrill Moore was writing sonnets with a fountain pen. That instant would have risen to consciousness through the language called “1939.” But like the word “Negress,” the language called “1939”  — the language written by the poet and photographer Merrill Moore — has now faded to white.

1 Technical addendum: the academic matrix surrounding the fossil word “Negresses” has its own petrified ancientness. In this statistical study, for example, no statistical analysis whatever has been performed beyond simple counting. A textual trait of that primitiveness is undeveloped logic, as in this non sequitur: “There appears to be some relation between occupation and certain age levels. Thus, it appears that older men [in this study of alcoholism] tend to be laborers and seamen, whereas the salesmen and longshoremen comprise the middle-aged group. Possibly this indicates a failure to make occupational adjustments and a gradual decline with increasing age into the less skilled or totally unskilled occupational categories” (61). In this passage, the words “failure” and “decline” refer to change within each age group, but there is no control for any difference (such as a difference in education) between the two groups. As of 2011 The New England Journal of Medicine, the most prestigious medical journal in the United States, couldn’t possibly publish such an elementary error. Physicians have a more quantitative education now than they did in 1939.

2 One possible exception to my complaint about no finished poems by Moore is the sonnet I was able to memorize from beginning to end in a single fast reading. It’s a psychiatrist’s sonnet, and it goes:

You’ll be all right, you’ll be all right, you’ll be
All right, you’ll be all right, you’ll be all right,
You’ll be all right, you’ll be all right, you’ll be . . .

etc., for eleven more lines.