Sunday, July 26, 2009

Imagine being remembered

Click to enlarge.

According to the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, somebody from the Illinois Central Railroad once took the trouble to save these images in an album. Eventually deposited in the archive and cataloged with accession no. 97155, the railroadman's instinct to remember still survives in physical form. Its phototaxidermy still tells the eye, "Remember!" 

The pictures were taken on April 30, 1927, and not many people remember now. In the archive, however, the pictures remain silently at work, replacing vanished memory with the words of a history. This history will tell us that in early 1927 the southern Mississippi valley was devastated by flooding, but heroic action saved thousands of lives. Once it has a hero, too, history becomes a tale. The hero of the tale "Mississippi" was the tireless and selfless United States Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, who organized the enormous rescue effort as brilliantly as he had organized the rescue of starving Europe at the end of the Great War. Two years later, he was President.

At the moment Hoover took on that power to make more histories, the editors of The Saturday Review of Literature tried to put his tale in its literary context. In an editorial called "Hoover and Literature," they wrote:
The moment in our political and social development where [Mr. Hoover] stands, and which he hopes to dominate, is deeply analogous to the moment in literature. Both are realistic, both point to a new idealism. It is increasingly clear that realism of the reportorial character is bankrupt. The interest in information dressed up as fiction and drama and poetry may go on for years longer — indeed there will always be such interest — but its literary possibilities are dead. The new writer is not going to make his literary reputation by discovering a new variety of prostitution, a new racial group not yet exploited, or a new domestic problem. Imagination — and a good deal of imagination — is going to be demanded of the next literary generation. (16 March 1929: 769)
Four years before the editors delivered themselves of that wish, Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy, the grim and belated masterpiece of naturalism, had treated its readers to an entire chapter about collar-making machinery. In the era of the man who imagined ways of helping people on the scale of epic poetry, something more interesting than that didn't seem to be too much to ask of language. 

Well, we know what happened instead. President Hoover read his laundry list of an inaugural address ("Enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment"; "Public Health"; "Special Session of the Congress" . . . ) into the rain on March 4, 1929. Seven months later the stock market collapsed and the exhausted ironies of the naturalist era flooded back, off the page and on. The literary imagination conceived then of soggy, desperate titles like Jews Without Money and I Am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang. And President Hoover was cursed in the language he had failed to change. 

But suppose we drop back to March 4, 1929, and contemplate this serene souvenir for the eye. Might it be capable of offering the imagination a second chance?

 The URL under this photograph is its link to a holding in the Library of Congress, where it is part of the National Photo Company Collection. The frost-like pattern it depicts is an artifact of the glass negative's deteriorated photosensitive emulsion. But how beautiful the actual trees are under their frost, black and gray on gray! The Library of Congress informs us that the trees had this picture of themselves taken in Washington on March 4, 1929. Above them floated the U.S. Navy's 656-foot-long zeppelin Los Angeles, soaring in silhouette over President Hoover's inaugural parade. That, perhaps, is another of the shapes we'll remember, as we manifestly haven't remembered the semi-nudes of Greenville, Mississippi, posed on their mule-drawn wagon before refugees.

I have tried to photoshop them back into memory. If I've succeeded, the nudes and the mules may now have their chance at a second life. But no, they can't compete with that obsolete mode of transportation, the dirigible, flying above trees and re-forming them into elements of a superhuman but not entirely inscrutable geometry. "Imagination -- and a good deal of imagination -- is going to be demanded," said the Saturday Review of Literature. "Cetus-like, O thou Dirigible, enormous Lounger / Of pendulous auroral beaches," replied Hart Crane later that year in the "Cape Hatteras" section of The Bridge, looking up from section 24 of Song of Myself toward the Los Angeles and finding a gigantic new sailor for himself on top.
Winds whose soft-tickling genitals rub against me it shall be you!
Broad muscular fields, branches of live oak, loving lounger in my winding paths, it shall be you!
This wasn't the kind of imagination that the Saturday Review had in mind, perhaps. But the Saturday Review is as forgotten now as Hoover policies, while imagination has helped the great shape over the trees escape from forgotten truth into memory.

Note: I first found the image of Los Angeles at, a fascinating website devoted to old photographs.