A historiography of mainstream and margin

In its online record from the Library of Congress, the original stereo pair at http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/cwp2003004989/PP/ isn’t very satisfactory as a record in three dimensions. Its two images are differently sized, and they seem to have been taken from too far apart. Worse: most of the history they’re meant to record is in a caption in the margin, and there it communicates little until it’s been augmented by more captioning.

Here’s a mediocre anaglyph of the uncaptioned pair.

Analyzed by your red-and-blue viewer, this image will resolve only into a clichéd nineteenth-century stereoscopic composition, with the illusion of depth communicated by contrast between a merely pictorial detail in the foreground and a subject communicating extra-pictorial significance at some distance behind it. Not much of the extra-pictorial significance will come through, however, because its photographer didn’t anticipate how much of its future history he’d have to document as a viewed object. The glyph’s foreground detail does its cliché chore well enough visually, but historically it’s too prominent to work well with the Library’s caption for the pair, “James River, Virginia. Ships on the [James River].” At that, the craft in the river aren’t technically ships. Less complete but more accurate, and hinting in its incompleteness at a potentially more complete history, is the label on the negative’s original envelope: “Boat on James River.”

Specifically, gunboat. After I supply that three-letter addition to the text, you’ll notice the gun on the boat in the background, and then you’ll notice a second gun (covered) on the boat in the foreground. Oh yes, explains my three-letter augmentation: you’re looking at an image created as part of the Civil War — in the spring of 1865, I’d guess, to judge from the military history I’ve consulted offline and the state of the tree’s foliage online. After that first addition, more become available, and now their source can open into the image itself. Oh yes, says one of the new, image-born corrections: the detail in the foreground shows a man who is black, and furthermore his blackness is no longer just pictorial, no longer merely a contingent detail of the composition. The blackness now takes the form of a living man. This man who is now seen to be black can now be seen to take part in a new, free way in returning spring, and his freedom is owed, as a matter of non-pictorial truth, to the black boats pictured in the stream behind him.

So let me make a compositional correction to this image of a river and its margin, cropping it and adjusting its contrast to make the black ships more prominent by blackness and the black man more prominent by lightness against the black. The moment I do that simple Photoshop thing, the composition too seems to become visible in a new way, as if it has now come to depict both an excerpt from an archival history of the dead and a suspended instant of dance. It shows us a vernal gesture signifying a coming of guns.

Gesture may require a different kind of historiography from the one that generated the static one-liner, “Boat on James River.” The still, moored boats, those “expensive delicate ships,” turn out to be freighted with only one significant detail each: a gun (now obsolete and merely historical) at the prow. But the man and his moving hand are now seen to be reaching outward forever. That which has freed the man is now behind him, and he and we are now companioned together, dancing along one of the margins of time.

The phrase “expensive delicate ship” comes from Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts.”

Memorandum: repeating pattern


Memorandum book, Cotton Bale Medicine Company, Helena, Arkansas, 1888. Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2005687684/. Photoshopped. Click to enlarge. Eleven years into the Jim Crow era, it says, “FREE TO ALL.”

Television interview with former Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, Face the Nation 10 May 2015. http://www.cbsnews.com/news/face-the-nation-transcripts-may-10-2015-huckabee-sanders-gingrich/


In the course of the siege of Atlanta, the building has undergone some damage. Part of the fascia has become detached from the roof and two or three panes in the second-story windows appear to be broken. A Union corporal is sitting in front of the building, but his back is to the structure and he isn’t reading any of the words written there: neither “Lamp, Pine & Kerosene oils” nor “Auction & Negro Sales” nor “Queensware.” He isn’t looking at the pictures, either, but they’re up between the windows on the second floor: a couple of paintings in classical style. They may have been intended to make the term “Queensware” an emblem: a pictorial representation of an idea.

George N. Barnard, 1864. “The slave market, Atlanta, Ga.” Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2011647092/. Requires an anaglyphic (red and blue) stereo viewer.

Queensware, originally Queen’s Ware, was a cream-colored china which the classicizing Josiah Wedgwood created in 1765 for Queen Charlotte, the consort of George III. The next year, a Midlands newspaper announced, “Mr Josiah Wedgwood, of Burslem, has had the honour of being appointed Potter to Her Majesty.” In this building, the business transacted with only a conventional minimum of decoration on the first floor made possible the more luxuriant typeface on the second, and the chaste urns emblematizing a classical ideal of beauty.

It’s the word “urn” that throws sweet pathos over Herrick’s “Upon Prue, His Maid.”

In this little urn is laid
Prudence Baldwin, late my maid,
From whose happy spark here let
Spring the purple violet.

Herrick’s language ordinarily contemplates only women with single Roman names: Silvia, Perilla, Perenna, Anthea, Julia. Such classical women need only one name, because when they die they will be interred under many other words.

Frontispiece of Herrick’s “Hesperides,” 1648

But Prue’s two English names teach us that her tomb is no more than a small, plain stone. Above its humble English flower rises an urn made only of text: 21 lapidary words written in Prudence’s memory by a kind master.

Before he marched north to Savannah in the fall of 1864, General Sherman evacuated the remaining population of Atlanta and then burned all sites in the city with military value, including the railroad station.

George N. Barnard, 1864. “Last train out, Atlanta, Ga.” Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2011648000/

After the last train left, the corporal with his book left too. No one was left then to read the words that once sang to Atlanta, “Queensware” and “Negro auction.” Unread, the words at the top of the image and the words at the bottom had come at last to belong to a common language. It was the silence of the urn.


“Queen’s Ware.” The Wedgwood Museum, http://www.wedgwoodmuseum.com/learning/discovery_packs/pack/lives-of-the-wedgwoods/chapter/queens-ware

Details of the slave market can be seen more clearly in this photoshopped copy of the right frame.


Free (special glasses required)

Virginia, July or August 1862. A Conestoga wagon fords the Rappahannock and approaches the lines of the Union army, carrying slaves traveling in search of freedom. As they enter Timothy O’Sullivan’s visual field, he opens the twin shutters of his stereoscopic camera. On a cracked glass plate, its record of the moment survives. Click any image below to enlarge it.



In Photoshop I separate the two images and equalize their brightness and contrast.




Then I recombine them into an anaglyph.



After I have viewed my work product through specialized lenses


I appear to have consummated the illusion of a three-dimensional experience that Timothy O’Sullivan’s camera created a century and a half ago. Yet I haven’t been able to see in anything like the freedom that the moment of passage through the water demanded of me. There’s this to remember about specialized lenses:

To preserve the illusion of the Emerald City, Dorothy and Toto are fitted with emerald-colored glasses

if we can see the passage to freedom only with their aid, perhaps the moment when a camera opened onto freedom was (as the Penseroso says)

too bright
to hit the sense of human sight.

Source: Library of Congress, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/cwp2003000117/PP/


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 –