Lesson plan in another alphabet

As early as the 1940s, when the New Criticism was beginning to take hold, the caption under Berenice Abbott’s photograph of a bakery window must have begun to seem ludicrous. In 1939 it had been published in Abbott’s book Changing New York with a caption that noncommittally began, “BREAD STORE, 259 Bleecker Street, Manhattan; February 3, 1937.” Those modest factual words were in the same register as the simple rectilinear form in glazed brick with wicker embellishments that filled the image’s lower third: the bakery’s foundation, with a coal chute and some breadbaskets. None of those were anything but utilitarian. But then above the practical forms there abruptly appeared a vitrine window-dressed in the style of Abbott’s mentor Man Ray: a simultaneous reflection and refraction, displaying both a delivery truck’s curved roof and, through steamy glass, loafy shape, loafy shape, loafy shape, loafy shape, soft loafy hard-crusted shape, woman’s loafy face.

In the presence of that onslaught by the syntax of the surreal, the caption’s prose reacted with a spasm and went dark. Squeezing its eyes shut, it sat down on its bottom, swelled itself from a title to a treatise, and gabbled:

Although food chemists believe that bread baked on its own bottom instead of in tins is the healthier food, one now finds only a few bakeshops such as A. Zito’s, where the old-fashioned methods are still in use.

In the dark of the not seen, a simulacrum of something not there had been talked into something that would have looked (if it could have been seen) like being. It wasn’t actually present in the image, but in well-meaning intention it was meant to be. Trying to intend, it made its speaker sick with desire. Laugh at that feebleness of imagination, instruct the New Critics Wimsatt and Beardsley. They would have diagnosed the failed desperate maternal effort to create a nutrient force as a case of the intentional fallacy. As of 2017, we might call it fake news.

But the unfake history of the diagnosis makes the laugh unfunny. From Bonnie Yochelson’s 1997 study, for instance, we’ll learn that to read Changing New York in accordance with the artist’s explicitly voiced intentions is actually to read it dimly, as a subfusc artifact of New Deal social engineering. With the smile withering on our lips, we’ll learn then that what Yochelson calls “the caption catastrophe” (n.p.; page containing figure 14) refers not to the captions’ grim didacticism but to something grimly didactic about Abbott herself. In this collection, Abbott — Abbott, the woman who singlehanded saved from oblivion Eugène Atget’s diffident archive of not quite readable fragments! — seemed to have considered herself first a social educator trying to convince people of what was good for them and only thereafter a formalist artist with a formalist’s concern for making sure not to see what isn’t there.

And so her words failed her when the time came to use her mouth for something in addition to eating.

Two days before Abbott set up her sixty pounds of photographic apparatus on Bleecker Street, she had gone through the same ritual on Hester Street. There was a shop there, too, with, likewise, a person behind the window. But on the window the language shapes were different. “Yiddish,” says the caption about that difference, and then it begins executing the task of explaining, at a final length of six lines: “A complex dietary logic underlies the Jewish insistence that chickens must be newly killed before they are eaten. . . .”

But that opening word “Yiddish” isn’t capacious enough to hold the thought. On its own in Berenice Abbott’s edition, separated from Hester Street, it lacks etymology, which means that it lacks history. Etymologically, for instance, the three lines in the Hebrew alphabet under the number 55 are neither Hebrew nor Yiddish but transliterated English. Letter for letter, in English, those three lines read “Strictly kosher chicken market,” with the Hebrew loan-word “kosher” isolated from the rest of the phrase within a Jewish star. “Chicken market,” repeats the English once more at the bottom of the sign, this time undisguised. As of February 1, 1937, R. Cohen and his Hester Street culture seemed well on their way to American assimilation. On Cohen’s window, the one remnant line of his or his parents’ primal Yiddish is buried in the middle, in fine print. It also happens to map exactly, phoneme for phoneme and trochee for trochee, onto another language of the majority culture, German. Frisch geschlachten jede Stunde, reads this transliteration: “Freshly slaughtered every hour.”

No irony attached to that line in that language in 1937, and it would be an anachronism to read irony in now. Still, if you try to think of this image in 2017 without irony — formally, undidactically, as if these words painted on a window were just, well, words, painted — the image will lose an unseen but not unsensed remnant of prior meaning. It will be like a Jacob Riis photograph no longer able to access Riis’s photographically mediated understanding of the word “tenement,” or a Lewis Hine photograph no longer able to access Hine’s photographically mediated understanding of the phrase “child labor.” Go ahead and delete the caption printed alongside the image; Bonnie Yochelson does, even though her edition of Changing New York is much longer than the original. But the words that remain despite that, the ones painted on glass in three languages, probably aren’t erasable. It may be that that window never will be transparent again.

Sources:

Berenice Abbott, Changing New York, with text by Elizabeth McCausland. E. P. Dutton, 1939. Reprint (Dover, 1973) published as New York in the Thirties.

Bonnie Yochelson, Berenice Abbott: Changing New York. New Press / The Museum of the City of New York, 1997.

The two Abbott images have been photoshopped for contrast from prints in the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-4e64-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99 and http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-4fb7-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.

Estampe XXV: water and air in the age of coal

Source: “Pass Street boat docks, passenger boats and docks, Buffalo, New York.” Haines Photo Company, Conneaut, Ohio, 1909. Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2007661196/. Photoshopped. Click to enlarge.

 

 

Estampe XV: “After that I lived like a young rajah . . .”

After that I lived like a young rajah in all the capitals of Europe — Paris, Venice, Rome — collecting jewels, chiefly rubies, hunting big game, painting a little, things for myself only, and trying to forget something very sad that had happened to me long ago.


Source: “Model Yacht,” George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ggb2005018958/. Photoshopped.

Estampe XII: activity at the edge of an emptiness

 

On November 16, 1919, someone named George B. Parks notified what was then called The New York Times Review of Books that a book purporting to be a war memoir was so factually inaccurate that it couldn’t be non-fiction.

George B. Parks was undoubtedly correct. The book he was examining is only 84 pages long, and in that tiny intimate volume the facts stand out only because they are so few and so vaguely described. On the other hand, an extratextual fact, this one startling, is that as of November 1919 this book had already been in print for a full year. Just days after the end of the war, the Times had announced its publication this way.

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The book was so well received that its author eventually came forward and identified herself as the journalist and writer of children’s books Grace Duffie Boylan. The facsimile published by Forgotten Books bears a title page date of 1919, and the digitized copy at Archive.org bears a title page date of 1920.

But why? The book itself is not just vapid but almost totally empty. In heaven, wirelesses the dead soldier to his mother, the souls in khaki do, you know, stuff. They have dogs and cats and horses to keep them company, and the dogs travel busily back and forth between the astral plane and the terrestrial but the cats are looked on with suspicion. No reason for this is given. However, we do specifically learn that everybody spends time discussing the text “They shall be one flesh.” What the doughboys in the clouds wonder is: if a woman has been married more than once, with which one of her husbands will she be reunited in Paradise?

(Grace Duffie Boylan herself was married four times.)

Well, the answer to the question “Why?” is in the history books. It isn’t surprising: in the horrible stillness after the guns of the Great War went silent, millions of readers went gleaning for grains of comfort in bookstores, where businesspeople were waiting to accommodate them.

New York Sun 9.21.1919Click to enlarge.

The same thing had happened after the Civil War, when Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s consoling theological fiction The Gates Ajar provoked Mark Twain into a full-length parody, Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven.

But you wouldn’t read The Gates Ajar or Thy Son Liveth the way you’ve read my paragraph of literary history about them. The consolations of Thy Son Liveth were made available in 1918 and 1919 and 1920 by the respectable Boston firm of Little, Brown, and Company for the reasonable price of 75¢, and of course it was a large predicted multiple of 75¢ that motivated the literary labor of Mrs. Boylan, Mr. Little, and Mr. Brown. The old-fashionedness of that symbol ¢ is the kind of topic that literary history is loquacious about, but emptiness in the heart of a grieving mother is mute. Around the wordless emptiness there bustle George B. Parks and the journalists of the New York Times and Sun and assorted Little, Brown businesspeople, but by contrast with their cheerful realism (“Another foot of books for the spiritualism shelf” [laughs]) the emptiness is only darker, more unimaginable, and more mute, if there could be degrees of muteness.

Ten years earlier, a vast excavation was being hollowed out under New York for the new Grand Central Station. As fast as it was created, however, it was filled again. In this hole, life was ongoing. As of 1908, someone looking at it through a fence might have felt exhilarated on behalf of the excavation’s embodiment of life growing up toward the light from deep in the earth. But ten years afterward, Grand Central was complete and its newsstands were selling fictions purporting to speak in a language from beyond the grave. The excavation had been completed by then, and light no longer shone into it.

Detroit Publishing Company Collection, Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/det1994001893/PP/
Photoshopped. Click to enlarge.