Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Notes for a commonplace book (17)

Luc Sante:
The game may not be over, but its rules have irrevocably changed. The small has been consumed by the big, the poor have been evicted by the rich, the drifters are behind glass in museums. Everything that was once directly lived has moved away into representation. If the game is ever to resume, it will have to take on hitherto unimagined forms. It will have much larger walls to undermine, will be able to thrive only in the cracks that form in the ordered surfaces of the future. It is to be hoped, of course, that the surface is shattered by buffoonery and overreaching rather than war or disease, but there can be no guarantee. It may be that whatever escape routes the future offers will be shadowed by imminent extinction. Life, in any case, will flourish under threat. Utopias last five minutes, to the extent that they happen at all. There will never be a time when the wish for security does not lead to unconditional surrender. The history of Paris teaches us that beauty is a by-product of danger, that liberty is at best a consequence of neglect, that wisdom is entwined with decay. Any Paris of the future that is neither a frozen artifact nor an inhabited holding company will perforce involve fear, dirt, sloth, ruin, and accident. It will entail the continual experience of uncertainty, because the only certainty is death.
The Other Paris (2016)

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Right to Left: When Company Comes

A seasonal song, sort of, in that many of us will be having company over the next few days. The short-lived band heard here, Right to Left, morphed into the Indiana incarnation of the Vulgar Boatmen. The singer is Dale Lawrence. Black Brittle Frisbee was a compilation album featuring various Indiana bands.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Notes for a commonplace book (16)

Luc Sante:
The occult forces in the city are always at work, indifferent to rationality, scornful of politics, resentful of urban planning, only intermittently sympathetic to the wishes of the living. They operate with a glacial slowness that renders their processes imperceptible to the mortal eye, so that the results appear uncanny. But much like the way stalagmites and stalactites grow in caves, such forces are actually the result of long passages of time, of buildup and wear-down so gradual no time-lapse camera could ever record them, but also so incrementally powerful they could never be duplicated by technology or any other human intent. Over the course of time they have worn grooves like fingerprints in the fabric of the city, so that ghostly impressions can remain even of streets and corners and cul-de-sacs obliterated by bureaucrats, and they have created zones of affinity that are independent of administrative divisions and cannot always be explained by ordinary means.
The Other Paris (2016)

Leonard Lopate's radio interview with Luc Sante is available here, and below is a representative chanson by Damia (Marie-Louise Damien), mentioned in the book.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Vulgar Boatmen Update

Time Change Records in Indiana has just released a 25th-anniversary remastering of the Vulgar Boatmen's You and Your Sister. The Indiana incarnation of the Boatmen, led by Dale Lawrence, has been making a few appearances to coincide with the re-issue.

This CD version includes three bonus tracks, of which the keeper is the spunky "Nobody's Business." I don't think there are any available videos directly associated with this release, but below are two favorite Boatmen tracks, the first [no longer available] from an earlier CD release of You and Your Sister, the second from their subsequent album, Please Panic. The lead vocalist on the former, if I'm not mistaken, is Robert Ray; on the latter it's Dale Lawrence.

Previous Vulgar Boatmen-related posts:

Mary Jane
We Can Figure This Out
The Boatmen, Rowing On

Sunday, December 13, 2015


Note: This post has been updated (September 2019) based on new information from the family. See new post for a photo of Alexandra's sister Marie. Thanks, JH.

According to the inscription below the image, the subject of this carte de visite was named Alexandra Marie Fulton de Lipowski. The photograph was taken in 1887 by the studio of Photographie Prost, also known as Bruant, in Meaux, a bit east of Paris.

The young woman can fairly safely be identified as the daughter of Gen. Ernest de Lipowski (1843-1904), a French military officer who served with distinction in the Franco-Prussian War. His daughter Alexandra was born on May 28th, 1874, and thus would have been twelve or thirteen at the time this photograph was taken. Her mother, Marie Eggerickx, died in 1875, and her father remarried a year later, to an English woman named Marianne Eastwood. Alexandra Marie (she also went by Alexandra Mary) eventually married a prominent French architect, Charles Blondel (not to be confused with the more famous psychologist of the same name), who died in 1912, and then married one François Geanty five years later. She died in 1971.

Ernest de Lipowski (more fully Joseph Antoine Ernest, Comte de Lipowski) was a French-born descendant of Polish aristocracy, though one document suggests that his parents had at some point resided in Spain. In October 1870, he commanded a unit of French francs-tireurs that temporarily held off a much larger force of German infantry at Châteaudun, and for his service he was made a Chevalier of the Légion d'honneur. Towards the end of his life he served in the Russian Army.

De Lipowski's career was evidently distinguished, but it wasn't entirely without stain. In 1873 or 1874 he was fined and sentenced to a month in prison for escroquerie — a type of fraud. The gist of the accusation seems to be that he traded on his laurels (and perhaps on assurances of a fortune he did not in fact possess) to run up debts he didn't intend to pay off.

The whole affair strikes me, frankly, as a bit odd. Légion d'honneur archives preserved in the Base Léonore contain various documents related to the matter, most of them written longhand and with elaborate formality by various functionaries of the French government. Several of the documents suggest that de Lipowski was at least temporarily stripped of his title in the Légion d'honneur (and perhaps of his pension as well) as a result of his conviction, yet by 1880 he had ascended to the higher rank of officier in the Légion. Whatever it was all about, it appears to have eventually blown over. There is a bust of de Lipowski surmounting his tomb in the Cimetière du Montparnasse.

Below: From the Base Léonore, the 1873 judgment against Ernest de Lipowski, his death notice from 1904, and a mention of Alexandra's marriage in 1901.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Neapolitan Lives

After having read a couple of reviews raving about Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels I decided to try the first volume, and quickly became hooked. A few weeks and some 1,700 pages later I've come to the end. Are they all they're cracked up to be? Close enough.

"Elena Ferrante" is the pseudonym of an Italian writer whose true identity is apparently known to only a handful of people. She has written a few other books, was born in Naples, and is probably in her sixties or thereabouts; she doesn't grant many interviews, although there is one in the Paris Review. There seems to be no particular reason why we need to know more than that, and she herself has bluntly declared "I believe that books, once they are written, have no need of their authors."

The narrator of these novels, who must be at least roughly contemporary with their author, is named Elena Greco, but no one ever calls her that. She is known as Lenuccia or Lenù, just as her closest friend, who is named Raffaella, is always referred to as Lina or (by the narrator) as Lila. The two grow up in an inward-looking, tightly-knit, and often violent neighborhood in Naples. Lila, depicted as the more charismatic and gifted of the two, leaves school at a young age and enters into a disastrous marriage (few if any of the relationships in the book bring enduring joy to the participants). Lenù, on the other hand, applies herself to her studies, attends a university, marries a professor, and becomes a successful author, becomes, in fact, the notional "author" of the narrative we read. Through the course of the books, which span roughly fifty years or a bit more, the two women orbit each other like twin suns, often at a distance but never entirely escaping each other's gravitational fields.

The story the books relate is too complex to try to summarize here (William Deresiewicz's longer consideration in the Nation is worth seeking out); there is an Index of Characters at the beginning of each novel and if you are anything like me you will refer to it regularly. The books are not flawless (and see the pointed demurral from the Ferrante admiration society by Tim Parks). The narrative could have been tightened and several hundred pages cut without sacrifice, the prose occasionally resorts to summary instead of description, and much of the third book, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, parts of which are set in a sausage factory, struck me as, well, a bit of a sausage factory itself. But in the end, these are quibbles. The books manage to maintain an intensity and integrity that are rare in the contemporary novel, while creating both a vivid (and uniformly dark) portrait of Neapolitan society and a meticulous delineation of a not untroubled friendship between two women.

All four books have been translated by Ann Goldstein. I don't read Italian well and didn't have access to the originals in any case, but the translations struck me as thoughtful and workmanlike despite the very occasional turn of phrase where the English and Italian languages seemed to have battled to a draw. The handsome, sturdy paperback editions shown here are published by Europa Editions. My only complaint with them is that the cover art lends the books a more burnished, lyrical tone than suits Ferrante's narrative. These are not comforting books.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Demain dès l'aube (Victor Hugo)

Demain, dès l’aube, à l’heure où blanchit la campagne,
Je partirai. Vois-tu, je sais que tu m’attends.
J’irai par la forêt, j’irai par la montagne.
Je ne puis demeurer loin de toi plus longtemps.

Je marcherai les yeux fixés sur mes pensées,
Sans rien voir au dehors, sans entendre aucun bruit,
Seul, inconnu, le dos courbé, les mains croisées,
Triste, et le jour pour moi sera comme la nuit.

Je ne regarderai ni l’or du soir qui tombe,
Ni les voiles au loin descendant vers Harfleur,
Et quand j’arriverai, je mettrai sur ta tombe
Un bouquet de houx vert et de bruyère en fleur.


Tomorrow, at dawn, the moment the countryside is whitened,
I will leave. You see, I know that you wait for me.
I will go through the forest, I will go across the mountains.
I cannot stay far from you any longer.

I will trudge on, my eyes fixed on my thoughts,
Without seeing what is outside, without hearing a single sound,
Alone, unknown, back bent, hands crossed,
Sad, and the day for me will be like the night.

I will not look upon the gold of nightfall,
Nor the sails from afar that descend on Harfleur,
And when I arrive, I will place on your grave
A bouquet of green holly and heather in bloom.

(Uncredited translation from Wikipedia; photo via Cachivaches.)

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

From Niagara Falls to Juárez

Peter Case has a new album out. Its title, HWY 62, alludes not only implicitly to Bob Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited but also to the 2,248-mile road that, in its easternmost stretches, runs through Hamburg, New York, where Peter was born. "As a kid," he writes in the liner notes, "I was fascinated by the sight and sound of the trucks hauling by, and U.S. Route 62 always seemed like the connection to the world I wanted to live in, the American West. I tried to run away down HWY 62 for the first time when I was four."

Other than a fine cover of Dylan's early "Long Time Gone," the songs are all originals, and, as always with Peter, they mix the personal and the political. The haunting "Bluebells," featuring Ben Harper on slide guitar and Cindy Wasserman's backing vocals, may be my favorite so far:

HWY 62 can be obtained from Omnivore Records.

Monday, November 02, 2015


They emerged from the forest footsore, hungry, their panting dogs at their heels. Somewhere at their backs — a few hours, a day at most — their pursuers could take their time, knowing they would find them waiting where the river tumbled into the frigid sea. In any other season the shoreline was an arrow-shot further out, the water deep but untroubled enough to raft across. Not now; swollen by meltwater, the river churned, rising and falling, disgorging shards of ice and fallen trees — birch, larch — in a ceaseless roar. They stared into the torrent; its face bore the patient features of Death.

Brittle strands of rockweed skittered between their feet. In the offing, high above stray bergs, gulls dipped and soared in a wind so cold it struck the heart like a hammer. The mist lifted, but the sun failed to warm their bones. The bleached and broken skeleton of some great sea beast lay upended on the beach, as if welcoming them home.

Friday, October 09, 2015

The Water Street Mission, Revisited

This little "Manual of the Water Street Mission" in New York City was published in 1880, and seems to have served both as an introduction for prospective clients and as the mission's annual report. The founder of the mission, a onetime "river rat" and reformed alcoholic named Jerry McAuley, was still alive at the time. Following his death in 1884 a number of subsequent publications would keep track of the mission's activities, including the Rev. R. M. Offord's Jerry McAuley: His Life and Work (1885), Samuel H. Hadley's Down in Water Street (1902), and Mrs. S. May Washburn's "But, Until Seventy Times Seven": The Story of the McAuley Water Street Mission (1936).

The image at the top of this post shows the pamphlet's very nice engraved frontispiece; the cover, which sports another engraving, is shown below. Neither image is credited.

Laid inside my copy, but definitely later in date, I found the gatefold photograph below, which bears the caption "This photograph was taken by Mr. Thomas Savage Clay, and shows the class of men from which we get our converts." A cropped version of the same image is reproduced in "But, Until Seventy Times Seven."

Previous Water Street Mission posts:

The Madonna of Cherry Hill
Death of a Salesman
A Manhattan Mission
Cassie Burns

Friday, October 02, 2015

Faithful objects

María Paz Otuño, writing of the late Spanish novelist Ana María Matute:
Her idea of order was her own; with her writings she was very meticulous: she knew where everything was, what it was, and whether or not it was of use; entirely the opposite of the disorder that presided over her life, her apartment, her table. Only what really mattered to her (books, pages, texts, pencils, papers, paint pots, brushes, figurines...) was ordered in the manner she thought fit, every object occupying its place in the world, in her world. They were her "faithful objects": "I refer to little things, ordinary and humble: a piece of red pencil, a key that no longer opens anything, a coin from before the war, who knows what, an infinity of things that stubbornly accompany us wherever we go, that resist abandoning us, stubborn in the face of, first, our indifference, then our curiosity, and finally our love." Objects that meant so much to her and that, when they disappeared, took away with them a little part of her life. "Perhaps to live is to lose things" – and in her case nothing could be more true: she left few material things behind, perhaps because she lived so much.
From a text appended to the end of Demonios familiares, Matute's final, unfinished novel. The passage is very simple, but allows almost endless possibilities for translation; in this case the translation is mine.

Earlier posts on Ana María Matute:

Last words (on Demonios familiares)
Bonfires (on Primera memoria)
Childhood (on Paraíso inhabitado)

Monday, September 28, 2015


Bacbuc threw something into the fountain, and suddenly the water began to boil fiercely, as the great cauldron at Bourgueil does when there is a high feast there. Panurge was listening in silence with one ear, and Bacbuc was still kneeling beside him, when there issued from the sacred Bottle a noise such as bees make that are bred in the flesh of a young bull slain and dressed according to the skillful method of Aristaeus, or such as is made by a bolt when a cross-bow is fired, or by a sharp shower of rain suddenly falling in summer. Then this one word was heard: Trink.

'By God almighty,' cried Panurge, 'it's broken or cracked, I'll swear. That is the sound that glass bottles make in our country when they burst beside the fire.'

Then Bacbuc arose and, putting her hands gently behind Panurge's arms, said to him: 'Give thanks to heaven, my friend. You have good reason to. For you have most speedily received the verdict of the divine Bottle; and it is the most joyous, the most divine, and the most certain answer that I have heard from it yet, in all the time I have ministered to this most sacred Oracle.'
Translation by J. M. Cohen (1955).

Harry Mathews:
Consulting his watch, he continued: "The hour is right, you won't have to wait. Here's what you do: take the boot off your right foot, and your sock if you're wearing one, and stick your leg in up to the knee. Keep it there for a minute plus eight seconds, which I'll time for you; then remove it quickly. The prophecy will follow."

I did as I was told, although I could not believe we had reached the bog. It was nearly dark.

Supporting me by my left elbow, the Count said, "Ready? Now," and I stepped forward. My foot sank slowly into heavy mud still warm from the sun.

A minute passed. Renée counted the final seconds: ", eight," and I extracted my leg from the mire.

Following the Count's example, I knelt down. In a moment there was perhaps a liquid murmur or rumble and out of the ooze, as if a capacious ball of sound had forced its passage to the air, a voice distinctly gasped,


The mud recovered its smoothness. After a pause, the Count shook his head and said, "Aha! Rather enigmatic. But there won't be more. And," he chuckled, "you can't try again for another year."
I've found only passing mention of the possible influence of Rabelais on Harry Mathews (truth to tell, there isn't all that much critical literature on the latter), but here the inspiration seems clear enough. Since I've been reading Mathews for decades but Rabelais only recently, this gives his novels an interesting new light — as does the description of the intricately contrived, magnetically opened temple in Chapter 37 of Le cinquième livre de Pantagruel, wherein is engraved the motto "All Things Move to their End." Readers of the last chapter of The Conversions will no doubt know what I mean.

N. B. J. M. Cohen regarded the chapters describing the Temple of the Bottle as "so dull that it would be charitable to ascribe them to another hand." Without weighing in on the debate over the authorship of parts of the cinquième livre, I can't quite agree. They're certainly bizarre, but maybe they just were ahead of their time.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Sharing a world

A bit of incontrovertible wisdom from Herakleitos, in Guy Davenport's rendering: "We share a world when we are awake; each sleeper is in a world of his own."

Couldn't we equally well say, though, that the opposite is (also) true, that in sleep we return to what is common to all, but that in the light of day we must, each of us, live out our own solitude?

Friday, September 18, 2015


This unidentified and undated snapshot shows the effects of time and much handling; it may have been folded in half at some point before being pasted onto a low-quality paper backing, most of which still adheres to the reverse. Perhaps before that it was kept in a wallet. It shows two men walking together, one of them holding the hand of a small child. There's a woman a few steps back who may be part of the same group; the camera has caught her just as one foot lifts from the ground.

A block of row-houses appears in the background, but the lot to the right may be vacant, and the sidewalk has been neglected. Based on the clothing styles I'm guessing that the photo dates from some time after 1950.

Sunday, September 13, 2015


'So you come from Paris,' said Pantagruel. 'And how do you spend your time, you gentlemen students at this same Paris?'

'We transfretate the Sequana at the dilucule and crepuscule; we deambulate through the compites and quadrives of the urb; we despumate the Latin verbocination and, as verisimile amorabunds, we captate the benevolence of the omnijugal, omniform, and omnigenous feminine sex. At certain intervals we invisitate the lupanars, and in venerean ecstasy we inculcate our veretres into the penitissim recesses of the pudenda of these amicabilissime meretricules. Then do we cauponizate, in the meritory taverns of the Pineapple, the Castle, the Magdalen, and the Slipper, goodly vervecine spatules, perforaminated with petrosil. And if by fort fortune there is rarity or penury of pecune in our marsupies, and they are exhausted of ferruginous metal, for the scot we dimit our codices and vestments oppignerated, prestolating the tabellaries to come from the penates and patriotic lares.'
Translation by J. M. Cohen (1955).

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

St. James Infirmary

Any number of sources will inform you that the classic jazz composition "St. James Infirmary" is derived from an Anglo-American traditional ballad called "The Unfortunate Rake," which relates the sad end of a dissolute young man who has fallen victim to syphilis, and whose dying request consists of the instructions for his funeral procession. But are they right?

Those arguing in favor of a connection can point, first of all, to the title institution itself, which is mentioned by name in at least some of the versions of "The Unfortunate Rake," and which may allude (no one seems to be sure) to a long-vanished hospital in London. And then there are lines like the following (from "The Unfortunate Rake"):
Get six young soldiers to carry my coffin,
Six young girls to sing me a song,
And each of them carry a bunch of green laurel
So they don't smell me as they bear me along
This is evidently echoed in "St. James Infirmary" (in a version recited in a 1931 trademark infringement case) as follows:
Give me eight black horses to carry me
Eight pretty women to sing me a song
Let them sing me a song to my grave
As the bells toll on and on
Those similarities are real enough, but how much do they really tell us? The problem is that the familiar versions of "St. James Infirmary," which have been recorded countless times beginning in 1927, have nothing evident to do with an unfortunate rake dying of syphilis. In fact it's a little hard to say what the song is about. When I first learned the song, many years ago and who knows where, it began something like this:
I was down in Old Joe's barroom
On the corner by the square
The drinks were served as usual
And the usual crowd was there
The narrator then describes one of the patrons (one version calls him Joe McKennedy), who in turn sings what are no doubt the most familiar lines from the song:
I went down to St. James Infirmary
I saw my baby there
Stretched out on a long white table
So sweet... so cold... so fair...
Having described the corpse, most versions continue with something like this (I should note that the lyrics below are, deliberately, a composite, making use of both published texts and ones drawn "from memory," which may or may not match any single existing recording. In any case, the gist is clear):
Let her go, let her go, God bless her
Wherever she may be
She may search this whole wide world over
But she'll never find another man like me
Robert W. Harwood, the author of a fine book on the song which attempts to partially untangle its extremely convoluted history, confesses to finding the "Let her go" stanza "wrong, self-congratulatory, and, in this context, demented," but I think it's darkly hilarious. The speaker — McKennedy, or whoever he is — has been "jilted" by his lover because she has died; the woman will be conducting whatever searching she'll be doing in regions unknown to mortal man. I suspect, in fact, that the stanza has been interpolated into the song from an unrelated source, and originally had nothing to do with death, but if so the borrowing was a stroke of genius.

At this point, the song generally continues with the recitation of dying wishes. But whose — and why? Some observers have attempted to rationalize the lyrics, drawing on the "Unfortunate Rake" tradition, by saying that the woman has died of syphilis and her lover knows that he will soon follow. That's plausible, but it's worth asking whether whoever it was that assembled "St. James Infirmary" in its classic form would have made that connection. If not, can we really say that that is what the song is "about"?

Perhaps the best-known rendition of the song is the one first recorded in 1928 by Louis Armstrong. This version omits the frame verse ("I was down in Old Joe's barroom") and jumps directly to "I went down to St. James Infirmary..." After the "Let her go" stanza, it concludes with the following request:
When I die I want you to dress me in straight lace shoes
Boxback coat and a Stetson hat
Put a twenty-dollar gold piece on my watch-chain
So the boys'll know that I died standing pat
What if anything remains of "The Unfortunate Rake" in the Armstrong recording? Does it even matter? I would argue that the song as we are most familiar with it is so stylized — so modernized, if you like — that it no longer makes any difference if the narrative is coherent or if it follows its supposed ancestral source, that what we have is a composite made up of bits and pieces of "The Unfortunate Rake" tradition combined with other elements that were originally unconnected to it. What the song "is" now is a melody, a few familiar verses, and a public identity; all the various versions are instantly recognizable as "St. James Infirmary" (even if sometimes they bear other titles) no matter what story-line they seem to convey.

Below is a refreshingly irreverent rendition of "St. James Infirmary" recorded by Alphonso Trent and His Orchestra in 1930.

Friday, August 14, 2015

From the House of Bondage (update)

There is now a tentative publishing date as well as a cover image for the edition of Austin Reed's 19th-century prison memoir The Life and the Adventures of a Haunted Convict. The book, which will carry an Introduction by Caleb Smith and a Foreword by David W. Blight and Robert B. Stepto, is due out from Random House on January 26, 2016; the ISBN is 9780812997095. Here's my earlier blog post.

Monday, August 10, 2015


My colleagues and I are seated around a picnic table at the edge of a farm field in the countryside. Below us, beneath some trees, is a small stream, and beside its muddy banks the neglected grave site of a German Catholic priest. I listen to the end of the presentation that precedes mine, and am about to preface my remarks with a sarcastic aside to the effect that, in our field, everything we study must be justified retrospectively by the influence it had on Bob Dylan, when two rafts come into view heading downstream. Both are jammed with trussed animals, among which we are astonished to see two live jaguars. Before we have time to react the poisoned darts come flying through the air.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Funeral Rites Revisited

In a 2013 post I juxtaposed the self-glorifying funeral instructions left by Oscar Thibault, the patriarch in Roger Martin du Gard's multi-volume novel Les Thibaults, with the intricate and preposterous obsequies commanded by the "wealthy eccentric" Grent Oude Wayl in Harry Mathews's 1962 novel The Conversions. Above is one more: Willie McTell's 1956 rendering of "Dyin' Crapshooter's Blues," which tells how the last wishes of the gambler Jesse Williams were carried out.

Though McTell recorded the song three times, the version above being the last, his repeated claim to have written it is open to question. Elements of the lyrics can be traced back to at least the 18th century (blues scholar Max Haymes has untangled some of the tangled strands of its prehistory), and Robert W. Harwood has attributed the song's creation in the form in which we know it to the elusive African-American composer and bandleader Porter Grainger. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that McTell's versions are the definitive performances.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

Americans (V)


The image above is unlabelled, but knowing that its likely provenance was Oklahoma made it possible to take a guess at its location. It was printed in the real photo postcard format that was used by both commercial and amateur photographers to create mailable photographic prints, and the particular variety of Azo postcard stock on which it was printed is believed to have been manufactured between 1904 and 1918. There was only one historically black institute of higher education in the state of Oklahoma at that time, and that was the Colored Agricultural and Normal University (now Langston University) in Langston, Oklahoma. As it turns out, the guess was right; a little digging produced this photographic montage from The Oklahoma Red Book published in 1912:

Below is a closer view of the school's Mechanical Building:

Here's the same building, from the university's 1911-12 catalog:

The building in these pictures is a close fit for the one shown in the postcard, although the latter is more of a close-up and the entire smokestack is not shown. (There are no trees in the Red Book photo, which perhaps was actually taken several years earlier, before they were planted.) The identity of the young woman remains unknown, but at least we know where she was, and why she was there: she was taking advantage of one of the few opportunities for educational advancement open to African-Americans in the state of Oklahoma.

The two photos below may also possibly show Langston students, but from a later period; if so, then the family whose album this belonged to saw not just one but several members pass through Langston's doors.

The portrait photo of the male graduate is undated and unidentified, but judging by the mount it is probably later than the postcard of the young woman holding a book. The group photo is dated "Class of '33,'" and bears the inscription "From Baby to Mother Rebecca" (there is an arrow in ink over the head of the third woman from the right), which might make an identification possible (although it's not clear whether "Rebecca" was the student or the given name of "Mother Rebecca").

With these photos, or with the photo of "Laurence" from the preceding post, which might be a bit more recent, the trail grows cold. At some point, the family's careful custody of their photographic heritage came to an end. Perhaps they died out, or surviving members moved on or lost interest in their past. We don't know. Some of the photos were damaged by time and the elements or even deliberately defaced; but they survive, and even in their fragmentary fashion they carry reminders of the powerful currents of American history that formed them.

The town and university of Langston are named for John Mercer Langston, who among many other accomplishments was the first black member of the US House of Representatives from the state of Virginia. His great-nephew, the poet Langston Hughes, wrote these lines:
I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,"

They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Americans (IV)

Guss Crader

Finally, a name we can trace; the reverse of this snapshot photograph bears an inscription from one Elder Guss Crader of Jennings, Louisiana.

I don't know whether Crader was the man in the dark hat and possible clerical collar at left, or the other man, or neither; the identities of both men were presumably known to the recipient. There were both black and white Craders in the Jennings area, and several alternative spellings, but the sender was probably the Gustave Crader, "negro," whom census records indicate was born in Jennings in 1879. By 1910 he had married a woman named Rosa and was living in Grayburg, Texas, but in 1920 and 1930 he and Rosa were back in Jennings again. His occupation is listed as "pastor" in the 1930 census, and he was employed by the Holiness Church. The photo is undated but I'm guessing it is from the 1920s or '30s. The inscription, with two spelling errors corrected and the Bible verses interpolated, reads:
here is 2 men you can have them if you know them now mind you they are yet Friends Looking for the hope of him that Said St. John 15:14 [Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you] and we are on the way to the Church as Said in Heb 10 C: 25 [Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching] and we are glad as Said in Psalm 1.22:1 [I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the LORD] this Picture was taken at John your Brothers house with you and husband in mind wrote By Elder Guss Crader of Jennings La
There's an interesting border around the picture, showing what I take to be artist's palettes and easels. The number 31 has been stamped on the back.

Vivian Garrett

Though this portrait is smaller than the previous one, everything else about it suggests a common origin. The photographic paper stock is very similar, there is a border (though a different one), and a number (12) stamped on the back. I haven't been able to identify Vivian Garrett, but I suspect she was also from Jennings and would have been known to the same two men.


The dealer I obtained these photos from thought that this photo might also have come from Louisiana; I suspect it's later than the other two images. On the back, in a reminder of the fleeting nature of life and the inevitability of loss, is the following note: "this is Laurence it was taken about a week before he died"; the "u" in his name could also be a "w." There is something — it may well be a camera — slung over his shoulder. In the background, just to his left but almost invisible in this scan, is a Coca-Cola sign and another sign, almost legible, that may be for a bar or restaurant (see closeup at bottom of page). There's still a trace of a smile on Laurence's face.

Census records indicate that Guss and Rosa Crader had a son named Lawrence, born in 1901 or 1902, but I suspect that's just a coincidence.

More to come.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Americans (III)


This photograph may be the pivot of the collection. The image itself has some unusual features (which I'll note shortly), but its greatest interest may lie in the fact that it exists at all, and in how it relates to the other photos.

The photo shows two unidentified men and an unidentified woman, possibly siblings or a married couple and a brother-in-law. Someone — probably a child — has scrawled a line between the two men and a sort of spiral on the woman's mouth. The mount bears the inscription — apparently in pencil — "Wallace Sallisaw, OK." This would be the photographer L. N. Wallace, who was active in Sallisaw, Oklahoma at least by 1910 and as late as 1917, and who sometimes signed his work in that manner. (During that period he reportedly photographed an adolescent Charles Arthur Floyd, later to become notorious as Pretty Boy Floyd.) The photo above is probably no earlier than 1907, because Sallisaw was not in "Oklahoma" before then.

Wallace was a professional photographer, but I'm not clear whether this photograph was taken in a studio. What makes me wonder is the curious pose: the woman seems to be supported by the two men, and the object in the center foreground may be a bedpost; was she perhaps lying in bed, too ill to sit up? There is a seriousness and tenderness to the image that suggests this might have been the case, but maybe there's another explanation. Be that as it may, we can now start to assemble a series of pieces of evidence:
1) The family album or family collection from which all of the photographs in this series of posts were drawn came from a dealer who himself purchased it in Oklahoma.

2) The oldest of the photos that can be assigned a location came from Franklin County or elsewhere in Tennessee and date to c.1880.

3) The latest photos that can be assigned a location (these will be examined in future posts) come from Oklahoma and Louisiana.

4) The photograph at the top of the page, which is from Sallisaw, Oklahoma, is probably later than the Tennessee images, but it is earlier than the latest Oklahoma photo or photos in the group.
What the collection appears to document, then, is a movement after c. 1880 of some members or associates of the family network out of Tennessee and into what is now Oklahoma, and possibly into Louisiana. The evidence of this migration seems stronger in the case of Oklahoma because of the fact that there would have been relatively few African-Americans (there were some) in what was then known as Indian Territory c.1880; Louisiana, on the other hand, had long had a large African-American population. It's not impossible that the subjects of the Sallisaw photograph were descendants of African-Americans enslaved by the Cherokee, or descendants of other African-Americans who arrived in the area at an early date, but it is probably statistically more likely that they were part of the larger migration of African-Americans that took place in the 1880s and 1890s with the opening of Indian lands to settlement by non-Indians.

So the pivotal questions are 1) can the photographs be said to document a migration of one or more family members from Tennessee or another former slave state to Oklahoma?; and 2) how would this fit in with the historical context? The answer to the first question, given the fragmentary nature of the evidence, can only be tentative. Even if the photos could be definitively assigned to a single family network, there are too many other possible narratives that could serve to fit them together. We can't prove that any of the subjects of the Tennessee photos, or any of their descendants or relations, ever migrated west; we can't make any conclusions about the connection of the subjects of the Louisiana and Missouri photos to the other subjects; and we can't prove that the Oklahoma subjects came from Tennessee. The most we can do is say that a migration from Tennessee to Oklahoma is a possible narrative connecting the evidence. But in answer to the second question, we can say that such a migration, if true, would be an emblematic narrative in line with documented migrations that took place within the time frame represented by the photos.

So the remaining questions I'll pose in this post are these: why would African-Americans have migrated in significant numbers to what was then the frontier of US settlement in the West, and did they in fact undertake such migrations? Fortunately, the answers to both of these questions are firmly historically established. Following the Compromise of 1877 and the collapse of Reconstruction, political, economic, and social conditions for African-Americans in the former slave-holding states became extremely precarious, and by the time of the Kansas Fever Exodus of 1879 a classic push-pull migration dynamic had developed to which thousands of African-Americans responded. The "push" was the reinforcement of white supremacy throughout the South, accompanied by violence and intimidation against African-Americans who sought to hold on to their rights; and the "pull" was the prospect (in some cases illusory) of independence and prosperity in newly opened lands that had no tradition of slavery. The movement of African-Americans into Kansas was soon followed by migration into Oklahoma. Over the next decades the thousands of settlers from the east would form a number of black-majority towns in Oklahoma Territory (the state of Oklahoma from 1907), and would establish the prosperous Greenwood business district of Tulsa which was later destroyed by the white riot of 1921.

Sallisaw, the seat of Sequoyah County, was not a "black town," although it may have been one of the few towns in the region to offer a photographic studio. The three subjects in the L. N. Wallace photo may have been residents, or just people passing through. Were they part of the post-Reconstruction exodus from the Southeast? We don't know; all we know is that they could have been, and that such a migration would have been common at the time.

More to come.

Further reading:

Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution (New York: Harper & Row, 1988)
Nell Irwin Painter, Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1977)

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Americans (II)


The portion of the apparent family collection that I was able to obtain consists of thirteen photographs in a variety of formats, dating from c.1880 to at least 1933. Those that bear indication of their source come from four states: Tennessee, Missouri, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. Some were taken by studio photographers (all were apparently white) whose activities have been documented elsewhere; others are casual snapshots, probably taken by amateurs. A handful of the subjects are named: Vivian Garrett, Guss Crader from Jennings, Louisiana, Laurence (no last name). I've examined the auction listings of the other items that I wasn't able to obtain, but there isn't much more information to be gleaned there.

The images in this post include some of the earliest photographs from the group. All are studio photographs, and three come from Franklin County in the south-central portion of the state of Tennessee. The badly faded but haunting portrait at the top of this page, which is in the carte de visite format, was taken by Rufus B. Williams of Winchester, Tennessee. The reverse of the mount is shown below.

Williams, who was born in 1851, was in business by 1883 and remained active as a photographer for some years thereafter; he would go on to serve several terms in the Tennessee state legislature. The sitter's eyes have been marked with tiny pinpricks, perhaps to make them stand out.

The next photograph was taken by C. S. (Charles Stewart) Judd (1844-1892), a member of a family that included several other professional photographers.

The image, which is only 1.5 x 2.25 inches excluding the mount, is from the studio in Sewanee that Judd established in 1879; at various times he also operated in Columbia, Pulaski, and Monteagle. The same photographer was also responsible for two other images from this collection that are not in my possession; one, very similar to this one, depicts a young man whose last name may have been Miller; the other was taken in Judd's Columbia studio.

The next two photographs are by unidentified photographers and depict unidentified subjects. The first, of a standing woman with her hand on the shoulder of an older woman, is quite beautiful; having the two women stare in entirely different directions may have been a conventional studio pose, but it is deeply moving nonetheless. The water-damaged one that follows it, of a woman and child, is more awkward and uncomfortable.

At first glance the studio where the cabinet card below was taken is unidentified, but one corner of the image has begun to peel back from the mount, exposing the name "Schleier," and in another corner the word "Nashville" is legible through the thin photographic paper.

This would almost certainly be Theodore M. Schleier, a well-documented photographer who operated studios in New Orleans, Nashville, and Knoxville at various times between the 1850s and 1890, before serving as consul to the Netherlands under the administration of Benjamin Harrison. Schleier, who had Republican ties, was known for his portraits of Union soldiers. I'm not sure why the photo was mounted so as to hide the name of the studio; perhaps it was simply a mistake. The subject's mustache has been darkened by hand.

The last picture on this page, shown below, was taken at the Byarlay Studio in St. Joseph, Missouri. Byarlay, who was also an agriculturalist, was active as a photographer over a long period stretching roughly from 1880 to 1920, after which his establishment was renamed Bloomer Byarlay Studio. The photograph is almost certainly twentieth-century; the mount is similar to that accompanying the graduation portrait of a young man that will appear in a later post. The woman holds a relaxed, conventional pose; both she and the photographer have done this before.

One thing that should be noted about all of these photos is that they exist at all because the sitters voluntarily chose to be photographed. They aren't "documentary" or "colorful" images taken for the amusement or edification of white viewers. As far as I can determine, the identifiable photographers — Williams, Judd, Schleier, and Byarlay — were white, but subjects and photographers alike apparently felt comfortable in engaging in a commercial transaction centered around one of the ubiquitous rituals of late-19th-century bourgeois life: having one's photograph taken. Doing so would not have involved any great expense (some of the cruder and smaller images would have been very inexpensive), but it required a level of participation in urban or town life. They are, that is, portraits of citizens, in a social if not political sense. The photograph in the next post, however, may give a hint at the extent to which that citizenship was constrained.