Sunday, January 23, 2011


For a few weeks in 1977, the man in the hat was a problem. From his table in Johnny’s Dining Room, the friendly, noisy Greek restaurant where I usually ate lunch during my years at Wayne State University, he’d fixate on one customer and then begin glaring. While he was glaring, he’d mutter to himself and make marks in a tiny notebook with a stubby pencil. If you were close enough, you could see what was being inscribed on the page there: first a square, then black mark upon black mark, over and over, as the square filled with black and overflowed deep into the lower layers of the paper. It was frightening, and it happened every day. Then Johnny told the man to leave and not come back.

Not long afterward, I sat down at Johnny’s counter carrying a copy of Lyndall Gordon’s new biography, Eliot’s Early Years. “Look at this,” I said to the waitress, and I showed her this illustration.

Click to enlarge.

"Oh my God!" screamed the waitress. She grabbed the book from my hand, rushed over to the other waitresses, and showed it to them. Then they all began screaming in Greek. The picture’s caption attests that this image depicts T. S. Eliot with his mother on the occasion of her visit to England in 1921, shortly before Eliot suffered the nervous collapse which issued in The Waste Land. But along Detroit’s Cass Corridor in 1977, there could be no doubt: this was the man in the hat.

Lyndall Gordon’s latest biography, Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds (Viking, 2010), is also full of evocative photographs, but these images perform their work of evocation in a different way. They come to us by design, inseparable from the words that surround them, and in their textualized form they have a moral purpose:  to sort the author’s cast of characters into good guys and bad guys.

This sorting takes place within a standard genre tale: one more “Secret of Emily Dickinson” Gothic. The gimmick this time is a guess that Dickinson may have been epileptic, and it’s supported by some perfunctory scholarship.1 That too, however, is Gothic. It’s all emotion and intuition and gaze. “Mary Bowles,” Gordon writes as she gazes at one of her book's halftones, “had a washed-out face and a thin plait tightly coiled, like a platter glued to the back of her head. A photograph exudes unhappiness, not a passing mood but a gutted self. Because she felt unloved and therefore unlovable, Mrs. Bowles was prickly in company” (100). From image to interpretation to psychoanalysis in three sentences flat, and nice people don’t mention the distorting effect on expression of nineteenth-century photography’s long exposure times. As to a twentieth-century photograph:

"Before Mattie died Cousin Gilbert had let her know that he was reading her books on Emily. As his thin lips stretched to a self-satisfied smile, the long slits of his eyes narrowed" (370, with photograph). Quiz time, reader: can you tell whether Cousin Gilbert will be one of the book’s good guys or bad guys?

Well, Lives Like Loaded Guns is a trivial book. It isn’t the first trivial book about Dickinson, and it isn’t likely to be the last. No harm done. But from a photographic point of view it’s an interesting survival of a way of seeing that was still current in Dickinson’s time: the physiognomic way, the way articulated most persuasively in Emerson’s “Fate.”

At the corner of the street you read the possibility of each passenger in the facial angle, in the complexion, in the depth of his eye. His parentage determines it. Men are what their mothers made them. You may as well ask a loom which weaves huckabuck why it does not make cashmere, as expect poetry from this engineer, or a chemical discovery from that jobber. Ask the digger in the ditch to explain Newton’s laws; the fine organs of his brain have been pinched by overwork and squalid poverty from father to son for a hundred years. When each comes forth from his mother’s womb, the gate of gifts closes behind him. Let him value his hands and feet, he has but one pair. So he has but one future, and that is already predetermined in his lobes and described in that little fatty face, pig-eye, and squat form. 

Emerson himself understood the limitations of that view. By the last paragraph of “Fate” he had worked his way through to saying, “Let us build altars to the Beautiful Necessity. . . . Why should we be afraid of Nature?” Nevertheless, the fear persists. It can’t be consoled by mere logic. It animated us eaters in Johnny’s Dining Room who hoped a glaring face wouldn’t look at us; it animates the advertisements which caution women to starve themselves, lest they lose love; and it animates the interpretations of faces in Lives Like Loaded Guns. The picture of Dorian Gray was a painting, not a photograph, but perhaps Wilde’s tale could only have been written in the nineteenth century, after photography had begun to call our attention to the uncrossable barrier between our unambiguous visual acquaintance with a photographed face and the guesswork of our sense of anything that lies behind it.

Live on, then, in T. S. Eliot’s photographed gaze, man in the hat. Lyndall Gordon thinks she knows what was going on in your brain as you drew and blackened your squares, but she and her readers are probably mistaken.

1 This isn’t a review, but for what it’s worth: the epilepsy thesis has been discredited in a pair of reviews by Norbert Hirschhorn and Polly Longsworth. In his review in The Emily Dickinson International Society Bulletin (22, no. 2 [Nov.-Dec. 2010]: 36), George Gleason identifies a number of inaccuracies. A few more, within a few pages of Gleason’s: Edward Dickinson’s congressional colleague was named Thomas Dawes Eliot, not Christopher Dawes Eliot (pp. 78-79); the hours between 3 AM and noon were Dickinson’s bedtime, not her writing time (81-82); and the Gilbert brothers’ gift of money for furnishing the Evergreens isn't likely to have been $6000, since that was the cost of the entire house (83, 89).

As to the prose style and the logic – speaking of Dickinson’s reclusiveness on p. 82, Gordon comments, “Other all-time poets have counselled invisibility,” and she goes on to cite Chaucer and Yeats. But Chaucer was a high-ranking civil servant who worked with two kings, and Yeats was “a sixty-year-old smiling public man.” That wasn’t exactly Dickinson’s problem. But no doubt she too was all-time.