August 2002 Archives

Byron in America


Byron in America

It is great to know experts to ask about some of these bizarre topics I’m exploring. It never fails that every question I come up with hasn’t been directly addressed, and because of that, would be a great thesis topic. Dr. Yoder e-mailed Dr. Ghislaine McDayter, a Byronist that I met a couple of years ago, regarding my question about Byron’s reception in America. I got a couple of great clues from her. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Lady Byron Vindicated: A History of the Byron Controversy, from its Beginning in 1816 to the Present Time in 1870— how’s that for an on-topic lead? The best news is that our library has it on microfiche. She also recommended a historical critical survey work, and told me that Byron mentioned his American fans occasionally in his letters.

On my own, I found a rather interesting thread in Emerson’s journals from 1841-1843. He uses Byron as a bad example in one spot (not to mention noting that he just “didn’t get” Shelley), but Emerson also mentions that his favorite teacher from Harvard, Edward Everett, used to quote both Milton and Byron, though he quoted Milton more frequently. I hadn’t heard of Everett before, but he’s certainly a prominent American of the early 19th century. It turns out he was the featured speaker at Gettysburg, not Lincoln. Another of those big guys who has been marginalized in standard histories. I tracked down Everett’s speech. It’s pretty good— though no match for Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Emerson’s deprecating remarks are in the context of a rant against Benjamin Disraeli’s novel Vivian Grey:

The young men are the readers & victims of Vivian Grey. Byron ruled for a time Vivian rules longer. They would quiz their father & mother [,] lover & friend. They discuss sun & moon, liberty & fate, love & death, and ask you to eat baked fish. They never sleep, go nowhere, stay nowhere, eat nothing, & and know nobody: but are up for anything, Festus-like, Faust-like, Jove-like, and could write an Iliad any rainy morning, if Fame were not such a bore.

Men & women [,] the greatest or fairest [,] are stupid things, but a rifle and a pleasant gunpowder [,] a spaniel and a cigar are themes for kings. (192)

It’s safe to say that Emerson wasn’t into the Byronic hero, but I haven’t a clue about the baked fish thing.


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A phrase I wrote a while ago seems to have hooked into the memory of if. “Creativity can take care of itself.” Jonathon Delacour wrote a long time ago about his experience, distinctly parallel to mine, of letting go of “fine-art” aspirations in order to create the most satisfying work of his career. The whole enterprise seems rather Zen to me, but I think I’ve figured out why I think the conscious attempt to be creative is doomed to failure. Aphorisms are always drastic oversimplifications. It’s a philosophical thing, that works for me but may not be well suited to others. Pardon the religious stuff involved, but there is no other vocabulary available to express it clearly.

There are different types of imagination. I tend to think of it along the lines of Coleridge’s theories. In his view, imagination is the force that creates our world. There is a primary imagination, which actively reaches out from our consciousness toward God. The zone of contact, between human consciousness and god consciousness is the world as we perceive it. One implicit assumption that can be drawn from this is that the force of human will and the force of God’s will are at least on some level, balanced. Otherwise, our commonplace perceptions would be unstable and crushed by the force of God. This also echoes Blake’s proposal that “God became as we are so that we might be as he is.”

Also implicit to this is the concept of an internal/external relation. The world is a synthesis of both an internal and external will. Attempting to divide artistic products, Coleridge offered the thesis that creativity comes from a secondary form of imagination, which is unstable as it penetrates the mysteries of that external will, recombining the human consciousness with God’s consciousness in new ways. Note that this is not idealism, a search for a perfect form that lies outside human understanding, but a recombination into new creative forms. Distinctly separate from this endeavor is what Coleridge called fancy, the recombination of internal states to form amusing patterns. While useful, it was not what Coleridge named imagination.

Accepting the difference between fancy and imagination means accepting that imagination must reach beyond the self in order to exist. By definition, what is external cannot be found by soul-searching. No matter how hard you look at yourself, you will not find true creativity there— only fancy. Yes, you can understand yourself better. Yes, you can learn how to create fanciful recombinations. But true creativity cannot be narcissistic; it has to reach outside itself. Having left yourself, there is no map to guide you. If you take the religious point of view, there must be an implicit faith in the force coming from the other direction, outside, to create that new synthesis which creates, rather than restates an image of yourself. You’ve got to quit screwing around with the fanciful, narcissistic attitude of selfish creation in order to become creative.

I am not religious. But I also do not believe that there is anything inherently imaginative to be gained by “soul-searching.” I believe that truly imaginative work comes from the recombination of what is inside, with what is outside (whatever that might be). You’ve got to let go of your self-important, fanciful (not imaginative) tendencies in order to create anything that matters. I believe that if you know yourself well, this aids you in discerning what comes from where. You have to take care of yourself, because it is the only variable you have control over. Creativity is the synthesis of the internal and the external, and the external takes care of itself.

But that’s just my opinion. I could be wrong.

San Francisco

Edwin Rosskam— from San Francisco: West Coast Metropolis, 1939

Long Day

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Long Day

I haven’t done a 6am to 9pm day in a while. But I’ve successfully survived it. Yesterday, my brain was just too confused and ill to write. A lot of the blogs I read seem to be lapsing as new semesters gear up. If anything, there will probably be more activity around here, since I seem to write best in this public format. I like it. Apologies in advance for any upcoming academic tedium, but I think I’ve orchestrated a project in which all of my academic interests converge in one way or another. I’ve got a wealth of resources to digest, and I’m sure I’ll do it here.

Dr. Barb turned me onto an excellent article in TCQ on William Henry Jackson and the rhetoric of the land survey photographs of 1860-1890. The articles on Edwin Rosskam have arrived as well, with extensive bibliographic notes to track down. My conference with Dr. Levernier pointed me toward reading some WEB Du Bois, to track down the rhetoric of the “talented tenth.” Conversations with Dr. Yoder suggested that William Blake may actually figure in some abolitionist rhetoric, through his “black boy” poems. He told me that he’d be talking to a friend who is a Byronist that may help me out in figuring out the American reaction a little better.

In my document design class, I may have the option of doing a presentation on the evolution of the twentieth century photographic book. Now that would be fun. Another thing that may come of that, is a web page which traces some of the major developments in visual form. Because of the lack of well-formed bibliographic essays on the web, I may actually write one to use in my composition classes. I think I’ll do a survey of the books from 1937-41. Maybe doing just a blank summary in plain language will do me good too.

While updates around here may come in fits and jerks, they will still be happening. It saddens me to see so many great blogs going on hiatus, but I really do understand the pressure and burnout involved. I guess it’s because I don’t have much of an audience that I feel so comfortable spilling whatever crap flows into my head.

Never Plan Ahead

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Never Plan Ahead

I’ve always made it a practice to read ahead but planning ahead has never worked. Classes went really well this morning. I started yesterday trying to sketch out what readings I was going to give and when, but I gave up. I’m glad I did. Unlike the massive crop of nursing students and jocks I had last time, this time I actually have some bona-fide English, Art, and Rhetoric candidates! I can use literature without feeling like I’m signing to the deaf. While it’s a fairly small percentage, it’s enough to shift the syllabus a little more that way. I’ve also got a dyslexic student, and one with some sort of motor function problem. New challenges. I love it.

I made the rounds to discuss my project with some friends/experts. Dr. Levernier, the 18c Americanist, and Dr. Murphy, the Modernist, were thrilled that I’m coming over to their team. Dr. Murphy sits on some NEH committees, and he told me that my project has good funding potential in the current research climate. Dr. Levernier, who also specializes in African American lit hinted at some great leads regarding the Centennial Exposition of 1876, and the way that black people were represented to the public in the later 19th century. I set up a meeting with him for Thursday.

I went by to talk to Dr. Parins, the Victorianist and 19th century Native American specialist, and he liked the project as well. He suggested that I talk to Dr. Littlefield, the 20th century Native specialist and I am glad I did. Another thread comes together. The Omaha Exposition of 1898 sounds like a real side-show, deeply documented by another photographer/ethnographer F. A. Rinehart. The parade of “Expositions” in the US from 1876-1916 is an interesting bridge from the spectacle of the minstrel shows, to the public relations ministry of the 20th century. Of course, there are a million splinters to this to get lost in but it seems to me that the “entertainment value” of the other, be they an ethnic other or an economic other walks hand in hand with these developments. I get the feeling that I’ll be doing primarily 19th century stuff for a while, but since there is a great Native American archive here, I want to take advantage of it.

One thing I want to figure out is the Native response to Roosevelt’s New Deal. According to Dr. Littlefield, almost all Native American presses were bankrupted and shut down in the 30s. There are a few things available though, I’ll just have to dig deep for them. One book on the sharecropper’s plight was published by the University of Oklahoma press in 1938; I ran across that a while ago. But it will take some deep digging to figure out what the real effect of the depression was on Native American peoples.

After all that, I went to my Queer Theory class. It felt so weird, after all the other introductions to come out and say: “Hi, I’m Jeff and I’m straight.” Everyone else had a declaration of one sort or another, so I felt like I should declare my sexuality. It bolstered the confidence of the only other straight person in the room to go ahead and admit it too. The role reversal involved was just hilarious. This class is perhaps only tangential to my other research, but I wanted to read more of the theory since it does deal with marginalized people. Gender issues are definitely in play in the modern re-issues of some classic documentary books. Dr. Barb and I were talking about the problem of writing histories after the class. She made the observation that though you have to use narrative threads to weave histories, it is impossible to stitch in another thread after a history is written to maintain a sense of completeness.

I can tell this is going to be a really fun semester, already! Having a good crop of students to experiment on will help keep my spirits up. But at this stage, I really can’t plan ahead. There are too many possible discoveries out there to have much of a clue.


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Time passes, and it’s hard to picture. I got some disturbing news. Shirley, my brother Stephen’s first wife, is terminally ill. I haven’t seen her since the early 90s. She’s had a double mastectomy, and that didn’t stop the cancer. She’s never been above the poverty line. Last I heard, she was living in her sister’s garage.

I’m not sure how old she is, but it can’t be more than two years older than me. It’s hard to think of dying so horribly.


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Dealing with complexity

Just the early years...

I’ve been playing with Inspiration 7 software. They use it at our writing center for clustering activities. The demo is free and fully functional, and I think I’m going to buy it. It is much easier than using a conventional drawing program for visually mapping ideas. The intersecting network of photographers and writers in America in the nineteenth century is difficult to sort out, and looking at it like a map helps me.


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A teacher I had few years ago had a theory about “comfort foods.” She believed that the food you liked best as a child was a source of comfort as you got older. I don’t remember any foods in particular. But I do remember music.

Growing up in the 70s, I hated popular music. That is, except for the late-night FM stuff, where they would play songs that went deeper than three-minute pop tunes. I’ve always had a tendency to take things far too seriously, and I was genuinely outraged by disco, and most pop phenomena. I suspect I was far too humorless about the whole thing. My first long term relationship ended because “I wasn’t funny.” Having someone leave you for someone else is always traumatic, but more than the trauma I remember the way I discovered how to cope.

I’d heard a few Frank Zappa tunes on the FM before, like “Stink-foot” and “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow.” Right after this woman left me, Zappa released a new album called Sheik Yerbouti. I decided to give it a try. It hit me at just the right time. As the needle dropped in the groove, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The first song was a mellow send-up of syrupy AOR which parodied a recently released Peter Frampton album, I’m In You. Zappa’s version was “I Have Been in You.” I was amused, but when it got about halfway into “Flakes,” I was sold:

I’m a moron, and this is my wife
She's frosting a cake with a paper knife
All what we got here’s American made
It's a little bit cheesy, but it’s nicely displayed
It was so refreshing to hear someone make fun of the “American Way” with such humor. But still reeling from the breakup, when the next song kicked in I found strange comfort:
*Hey! Do you know what you are?*
*You’re an asshole! An ASSHOLE!*

Some of you might not agree
‘Cause you probably likes a lot of misery
But think a while and you will see . . .
Broken hearts are for assholes
Broken hearts are for assholes
And you’re an asshole
Broken hearts are for assholes
And you’re an asshole too
So whatcha gonna do, ‘cause you’re an asshole . . .

What kind of artist calls his audience assholes by the third song? This was before I crossed over into punk, mind you. The remainder of the song is positively hilarious. The album traverses from incredibly complex modern jazz, to bone-crushing hard rock, the guy was just all over the planet. If someone this talented could take life a bit less seriously, maybe I could too. From that point on, I became a devout Frank Zappa fan.

I was watching a recently downloaded copy of the Zappa’s movie Baby Snakes yesterday, and decided to pull out Sheik Yerbouti for the first time in many years. It was perfect timing. Going to academic conferences, there’s a lot of smoke blowing about. People take me far too seriously. Yes, I’m passionate about things but that doesn’t mean I’m humorless. This record has always been a comfort for me in moments of tragic seriousness. It’s my version of “comfort food,” I suppose.

Yes, Zappa’s humor can be puerile. “Disco Boy” and “Jewish Princess” aren’t exactly politically correct. But as the saying goes, “fuck’em if they can’t take a joke.” I also downloaded a Dutch documentary on Zappa from 2000, which has so much truth in it that I watched it twice yesterday. The closing lines are the most perfect description of the rhetorical concept of Kairos I’ve ever heard. Zappa looks gray and ill, as he emphatically states:

What something is depends on when it is more than anything else.
Gail Zappa also contributes a bit of Zappa wisdom that has been bothering me tremendously, as I attempt to write about the development of documentary photography in the 1930s:
He’s a guy who lived by the idea of “expect the unexpected” . . .

Or, judge everything simultaneously so that you’re not judging at all, in essence . . .

Always judge everything every moment or not at all.

Don’t stay fixed in the idea of a previous moment, because things can change and they do.

Unraveling history is difficult because of this. There was so much going on, from so many different directions that it is hard to write a sketch of the fabric of time. It’s so much easier to write about a single person than it is the confluence of events. Everything changes everything else, nearly simultaneously. It’s hard to create the concept of when, because it is not merely a linear series of cause and effect. But there are moments of comfort, when the confluence of events actually make sense, if only for a moment.

Skin and Bones


Skin and Bones

I was really blocked-up last night, after two full days of presentations. It’s taken a while for things to sort themselves out. Too many ideas at once, I guess. Not to mention the rising conflict in me regarding my future degree track— I’ve got at least four years invested in British literature, and now I find myself increasingly interested in American lit, or more precisely, American cultural studies. I heard something yesterday that helped it make sense.

“Writing is a way of becoming more comfortable in your own skin.” I can’t recall who it was who went down this path. I heard too many smart and talented people speak to keep it all straight. But the thrust was that everyone, to one degree or another is uncomfortable with themselves. Writing raises those things into high relief, and forces us to deal with them— we are impelled into things we can’t resolve.

I’ve never been comfortable with being an “American.” My first conscious memory was seeing John F. Kennedy getting shot over and over on the T.V.. The shooting deaths of students at Kent State University, death at the hands of their own government, when I was twelve years old had a more profound impact. Up to that point, my heroes were mostly American inventors, like Thomas Edison and Robert Hutchings Goddard. Now, I can look back and see that it’s just the same old Horatio Alger trope of dedication and passion paying off— at least the way the biographies for children were written, at any rate. You didn't learn that Edison exploited a lot of people, or that Goddard was ripped off by everyone, including his own government.

Kent State changed all that for me. When I saw the face of the girl kneeling over the body of her friend in Life magazine, I realized for the first time that what was supposed to be my government was killing people who looked just like my older brother and his friends. Gradually my heroes became foreigners— British citizens like William Blake, and émigrés like Hungarian photographer Andre Kertéz or the Swiss transplant Robert Frank. Living through the debacle of Nixon, and especially the ignorant election of Ronald Reagan, while growing up I didn’t see much to be proud of in being “American.” These cultural events and personages, up to and including the latest crop of idiots are really only the “skin” of the national identity. I’m not comfortable with my skin at all. But these flashes of cultural idiocy aren’t the bones.

I was reminded by another adjunct at the conference of a book I read before going back to school— Writing Down the Bones. I’d recommend it to anyone interested in creative writing, but to be fair about it anyone who has read the Beats knows most of the tricks presented in it: reading and writing in unusual places, etc. The book is slammed in many critical articles I’ve read, for it’s emphasis on expressivist practice. But I have to give it a lot of credit, for wanting to reach beneath the surface of the writer’s skin. That skin, is the words they use rather than the thoughts you convey. Most of the teaching exercises I heard focused on the skin first, using examples from literature to convey an idea vividly. “No ideas but in things” sums it up perfectly— no presentation of structure (in postmodern pedagogy, structure=bad). The most universally acclaimed writing prompt in our department is this one:

Now that I can only have ________ in memory . . .

The sample text that is read before this is a memoir that focuses on concrete detail, collected with elaborate vocabulary, to present an image of the Native American writer’s dead grandmother. It’s all skin. I remember when I was given it in my first writing class. It caused me to write something that embarrasses the hell out of me. I remember watching other students break down and cry as they read their papers. A prompt like this forces a student to confront loss, place it into a suitably artful skin, and satisfy the voyeuristic desires of the teacher. It avoids the issue of how to write, focusing on issues of self-disclosure and how to craft compelling images to prove your creativity to the teacher instead. Perfect for a creative writing class, yes— potentially damaging to anyone who wants to learn how to put writing to use in an academic environment, in my opinion. It demonstrates how language can move people, but to what end?

To be fair, all the teachers who use this exercise balance it with other activities that promote learning to structure writing, because like it or not most writing is structured, especially in the academic and business environments. What bothers me most about it is that it makes the “creative” writers in the class feel empowered, and the more common, practical sort of writer feel like crap. That’s the state they’re in when the enter my Comp II classroom. I work hard to give the sense that anyone can put writing to use in their lives, not just those who are “creative.”

But I’ve gone tangential again . . . The crisis regarding American lit vs. British lit has to do with my hatred of most of the American “skin” when compared with its foreign competitors. But I have American bones, and I suppose it’s about time that I owned up to it and tried to figure out how they’re put together. My interest in the practical parts of discourse grows directly from that national identity which I’ve avoided all these years, and I begin to wonder if that might be the reason why writing departments might simultaneously cling to both social constructivism and expressivism, unable to let go of either. I suspect that pragmatism is rejected in American Universities precisely because it is too damn American.


Jeff Ward— Bakersfield, California, 1986

School's In

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School’s In

I accidentally set my alarm for seven p.m. instead of seven a.m. and missed half the teacher disorientation this morning. It’s not a big deal, since I’m fairly disoriented already. I’ve decided to make some fairly big changes to my syllabi, though it goes against the opinions expressed by quite a few people I met with today. The changes are based on my experiences last semester; I’m not even going to attempt the “warm fuzzy” getting to know you essay like I did last time. Nothing against what the other people do, but it just isn’t me. I’m into research and argumentation, hardcore.

But I heard some really interesting “process oriented” approaches from other folks that I’ll be anxious to learn the results of. I love teaching in such an open department. I can do whatever works for me and my students without many worries about specifics. My evaluations have all been positive, from both faculty and students, so I think I’m just going to try to refine what I’m doing to be even more focused. Rhetoric is such a chaotic discipline, really. Most of the other teachers are more “creatively” focused than I am. I have trouble with that; I don’t think you can teach creativity. Most of the process games don’t work for me, so find it hard to recommend them to other people. But I’m the exception, and not the rule— most teachers just love free-writing and all that stuff. I’m more interested in critical thinking skills. I’d rather see evidence of that, rather than creativity. Creativity can take care of itself.

“But Jeff, you’re so creative . . .” I get so sick of hearing that. Being creative never did me much good. I don’t mean to be so bitter about it, but I am. I think of critical reading and writing as fundamental life skills. Being able to express yourself is a life skill as well, but if you can read and write critically, then being able to express yourself will naturally follow— this is an ass-backwards way of looking at it compared to most pedagogical practice. But it works better for me.

Precious few people can earn a living expressing themselves. College costs a lot of money. It seems foolhardy to me to even suggest that creative writing is a way of conquering the world, especially at these prices. However, it’s a powerful way of getting to know yourself. I believe in the utility of literature, and of composition, and in helping people understand themselves and the way the world conspires to steer them into being good little cogs. It’s important as hell. But the skills of being able to research and evaluate arguments across all disciplinary boundaries must be taught by someone, and personally I think that is the primary job of first-year composition.


Jeff Ward— Wister, Oklahoma, 1984



Emerson on “Goodies”

I hate goodies. I hate goodness that preaches. Goodness that preaches undoes itself. A little electricity of virtue lurks here & there in kitchens & among the obscure— chiefly women, that flashes out occasional light & makes the existence of the thing still credible. But one had as lief curse & swear as be guilty of this odious religion that watches the beef & watches the cider in the pitcher in the table, that shuts the mouth hard at any remark it cannot twist or wrench into a sermon, & preaches as long as itself & hearer is awake. Goodies make us very bad. We should, if the race should increase, be scarce restrained from calling for bowl & dagger. We almost sin to spite them. Better indulge yourself, feed fat, drink liquors, than go strait laced for such cattle as these.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journal Entry, June 23 1838.

for the children

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for the children

I was reading the most delicious allegory about the United States in Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables when it reminded me of a Bill Mahr routine. I’m not judging, just reporting. The transcription I found on someone’s web page may not be accurate, but as I recall it’s true to the spirit of the routine:

Fuck the children.

Day after day it's shoved down our throats: We have to love the children and prepare them for tomorrow. We're supposed to prevent them from falling down wells and out of cars, and we're supposed to keep toxic chemicals out of their reach. We're supposed to change the babies' diapers and call a doctor when they stop breathing. Christ almighty, when do we get a break? Do the children ever stop taking? For just once, let's let the children fend for themselves.

They were spouting off the same crap back in the '60s, about how we have to take care of the children because they're our planet's future. And you know what happened when we didn't take care of them? Nothing! They grew up and became adults, and the planet didn't end!

I swear, if I hear one more word about the goddamn children, I'm going to choke somebody.

Babies are dying, children are starving, teenagers are turning to drugs and prostitution. Blah, blah, blah. How many times can you hear about kids living in cardboard boxes and young girls being sold into sexual slavery before you just have to say, shut up about the goddamn children, already?

Of course, Hawthorne’s response is a lot more subtle and nuanced, and told through an observation about chickens:

All hens are well worth studying for the piquancy and rich variety of their manners; but by no possibility can there have been other fowls of such old appearance and deportment as these ancestral ones. They probably embodied the traditionary peculiarities of their whole line of progenitors, derived through an unbroken succession of eggs; or else, this individual Chanticleer and his two wives had grown to be humorists, and a little crack-brained withal, on account of their solitary way of life, and out of sympathy with Hephzibah, their lady patroness.

Queer indeed, they looked! Chanticleer himself, though stalking on his two stilt like legs, with the dignity of interminable descent in all his gestures, was hardly bigger than an ordinary partridge; his two wives were about the size of quails; and as for the one chicken, it looked small enough to still be in egg, and, at the same time, sufficiently old, withered, wizened, and experienced, to have been the founder of an antiquated race.

Instead of being the youngest of the family, it rather seemed to have aggregated into itself the ages, not only of these living specimens of the breed, but all its forefathers and foremothers, whose united excellences and oddities were squeezed into its little body.

Its mother evidently regarded it as the one chicken of the world, and as necessary, in fact, to the world’s continuance, or at any rate, to the equilibrium of the present system of affairs, whether in church or state. No lesser sense of the younger fowls importance could have justified, even in a mother’s eyes, the perseverance with which she watched over its safety, ruffling her small person to twice its proper size, and flying in everybody’s face that so much as looked towards her hopeful progeny. (140-1)

I suspect the whole “for the children” thing is one of those excellences (or oddities, depending on how you look at it) that is deeply rooted in the American psyche. I’m not quite sure what that means.

Ozark Children

Ben Shahn— “Children of Ozark Mountaineer”
Not from the brittle orchards: barren gardens:
Dog-run houses with the broken windows:
Hen-shat houseyards where the children huddle
Barefoot in winter: tiny in too big rags:
Fed on porkfat: corn meal: cheap molasses:

Fed on famine rations out of fields
Where grass grew taller than a child could touch once

Archibald MacLeish, Land of the Free, 1938

More Roots


More Roots

Received Gardner’s Photographic Sketchbook of the Civil War today, as well as Jame’s Guimond’s American Photography and the American Dream. But the real gem was Land of the Free by Archibald Macleish— what a score! This book is incredible, and markedly different from all the others. It is a long poem, with groups of lines attached to photographs from different sources. It has a somber tone, and lacks the political fervor of Richard Wright’s book or the blatant optimism of Sherwood Anderson’s. But I’m still too involved in the nineteenth century aspects to go too far into it as yet.

I couldn’t sleep last night. I kept thinking of Byron. Though I got sick of studying the permutations, Byron did create the popular notion of the “hero.” His works were printed in at least 100 separate editions in America when he was alive. Of course, he died in 1824 and doesn’t seem to be a profound influence on most of the American progressive thinkers of the 1830s, that is, unless you count a reaction against Byronmania. Andrew Jackson could have been a Byronic hero, perhaps, but he wasn’t really smart enough— but he certainly was flawed enough. Emerson skipped over the late romantics, diving directly into Wordsworth and Coleridge as models. But Emerson’s involvement with Swedenborg brings out yet another interesting road to chase down— apocalyptic rhetoric.

A popular cult of the 1830s was founded around William Miller, who predicted the world was going to come to an end in 1843. It lies at the roots of the modern day Seventh Day Adventists, but in the 1830s it attracted a lot of members from the Abolitionist movement. Looking at a study of Millerite rhetoric, there is a strong current of vox populi rhetoric. Swedenborg was an apocalyptic mystic type too, but his view of history is different, more positive— and was much more of a foundational figure in Emerson’s cheerleading positivist rhetoric.

What is really fascinating is the connection of Swedenborg with Mesmerism. Holgrave, the daguerreotypist in The House of the Seven Gables was a mesmerist before he became a photographer... so there are currents of Swedenborgism to go along with the Carlyle style philosophical view in Hawthorne’s depiction of the attitude of an early photographer.

Just more breadcrumbs to scatter along the path, along with the facts that Andrew Jackson was the first US president born in a log cabin, and that Martin Van Buren, his stooge who was president when photography entered the United States, was the first president to actually be born in the USA.

Just opened to colored

Richard Wright— from 12 Million Black Voices, 1941 (not printed in the reissued version)

More Notes


More Connective Notes

Henry Crabbe Robinson’s diary has observations on Thomas Carlyle in 1832. Ralph Waldo Emerson left the ministry and journeyed to Europe in 1833. He met Carlyle, Walter Savage Landor, Coleridge, and many others. According to Crabbe Robinson, Landor thought that William Blake was the greatest English poet of all time. This makes it remotely possible that Emerson was exposed to Blake’s work, though to my knowledge he never mentioned it. Emerson wrote several reminisces on Carlyle based on his own diaries in English Traits, published in 1856.

Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus was first published serially from November 1833 to August 1834, in Fraser’s Magazine, published privately for an edition of 58. An introduction to an 1899 edition of Emerson’s works noted the “Sartor” characteristics to the writing style of Emerson’s 1833 journal; obviously, Carlyle shared Sartor Resartus with Emerson before it was published. The first public edition of the book was an American one, which included an unaccredited preface by Emerson in 1836. A second American edition followed in 1837, before the first English edition in 1838.

Carlyle’s lectures on Heroes and Hero Worship occurred in 1840. They were issued in book form in 1841, 1842, and 1846. Margaret Fuller praised Carlyle in an 1841 edition of The Dial. Crabbe Robinson has reminisces of Emerson from 1848, from his second visit to Europe. In 1850, Emerson published Representative Men in 1850, coincident with Matthew Brady’s Illustrious Americans. Emerson’s work is based on a series of lectures from 1845-46; Brady began collecting portraits of celebrities in 1844.

Don’t mind me. . . . I just had to write this down before I got confused. . . . I’m reading too many things at once!

Twisted Path

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The twisted path of research . . .

I thought it might be fun to explain how I get from A to B, because I’m sure it’s quite confusing. Researching the early genres of photography in nineteenth century photography, I noted a passing mention in Silver Cities: The Photography of American Urbanization, 1839-1915 by Peter B. Hales that Holgrave, the daguerreotypist in Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables might have been based on Albert Sands Southworth. This of course splits me on two separate paths. I wasn’t that familiar with Southworth, so I poked around and found:

That was the first branch. Since of course I’m a literature guy too, and I like Hawthorne, I had to start reading The House of the Seven Gables (1851). Some preliminary observations: the novel is certainly indebted to both the Gothic genre and Thomas Carlyle. Holgrave the daguerreotypist’s rhetoric is straight out of Sartor Resartus, and the prominence of the house as a character of the story is the fruition of a trend that is traceable directly to Ann Radcliffe’s Castles of Athlin and Dunbayne (I knew all that gothic reading would come in handy sometime). But two interesting things happen in the first part of the novel: the allegorical presence of the spectre of slavery, and the tension between the old aristocracy and commerce.

I’ll probably write about that at greater length later, but for now I wanted to note my research on the beginnings of Jim Crow in the 1830s. is a great source. In the early chapters that take place inside a shop in the Pyncheon house, a vicious little boy just loves to bite the heads off Jim Crow gingerbread men. Since the novel is from 1851, it seems that Jim Crow was pretty damn popular before Jim Crow laws. I stumbled on a nice article on Minstrel shows as a result, and also want to note that Princeton seems to have a nice collection of material. I’m just trying to trace my footsteps here, in case I need to come back. Leave some breadcrumbs on the blog, so to speak.

All this makes me certain that the sort of deep context I’ve been lost in is important to the story of American photographic rhetoric. Funny, but I really didn’t want to spend more than a chapter on it. It’s a fascinating story though, and I can’t ever seem to get past the nineteenth century!


Edward S. Curtis— Hamatsa Emerging from the Woods - Koskimo, 1914




I wanted to write this down for some reason. John Ridge, a leader of the Cherokee nation knew that there was no way to stop Indian removal. Though he knew it would mean his death, he signed an agreement with the Jackson administration, providing for 13,800,000 acres of land and $4,500,000 to fund schools for his people. He relocated his family from a location near Chattanooga, Tennessee, to a location near Van Buren, Arkansas (25 miles from where my parents now live). He was murdered in his home by members of his own tribe, in full view of his wife and sons, in 1839, the year photography was invented.

John Ridge senior was politically active and well off— he owned 18 slaves. John Rollin Ridge, his son, had been educated by a missionary woman, Sophia Sawyer, hired by his father. After his father was murdered, John Rollin Ridge decided that he’d had enough of tribal politics and immigrated to Sacramento, California (where my eldest brother died last year). He later became a writer for the California American, a leading newspaper for the “Know-Nothing” Party, a secret nativist organization of the 1850s.

While all this is totally unconnected with my current project, a couple of years ago I did an online edition of the Poems of John Rollin Ridge. I was thinking, as I reviewed my mentor Dr. James Parin’s biography of Ridge, that the rising tide of female school teachers in the early nineteenth century was largely responsible for the tide of activism in the following decades. Without these women educating the future crop of “muckracking” journalists, the nations history would have been far different.

More tangential bits: it was against the law in Georgia to educate slaves. The Cherokees didn’t see any harm in it, so they freely educated their slaves. Oh, and for those who have only seen Native Americans in old Western movies, the delegation responsible for the fat settlement (which was not honored) all wore suits, not loincloths and feathers. It seems interesting to me that these “savages” valued education so highly.

I’m currently knee deep in The House of the Seven Gables by Hawthorne. I’m beginning to think that it should be required reading for all historians— and photographers too. The way that Hawthorne describes the buildings is like an Evans photograph.

Open 7 Days

Jeff Ward— Rosedale, California, 1995

It just keeps coming around

“Shall we never, never get rid of this Past?” cried he, keeping up the earnest tone of the previous conversation. “It lies upon the Present like a giant’s dead body! In fact, the case is just as if a young giant were compelled to waste all his strength in carrying about the corpse of an old giant, his grandfather, who died a long while ago, and only needs to be decently buried. Just think a moment, and it will startle you to see what slaves we are to bygone times.— to Death, if we give the matter the right word!”

Holgrave, “The Daguerreotypist” from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables

It just keeps coming around . . .

Sometimes I wish I could unlearn a bunch of stuff, to make the world seem more interesting. I can’t get excited by Laurie McNeill’s review of Suspended Conversations: The Afterlife of Memory in Photographic Albums. pointed at by Wood s Lot. Michael Lesy did something too similar in 1973 with Wisconsin Death Trip. The enterprise of reconstructing narratives from photos reminds me of a show I saw in the 1980s called Proof. I think it was a piece by Alan Ruppersberg, but I’m not sure. There were several snapshots blown up to a huge size, with a big book on the table with a pencil. Gallery visitors were expected to write down a story to go along with the photographs. Any story we write about the past ultimately turns into just another fiction. It’s hard to accept that and move on. Sometimes it hardly seems a game worth playing. Hawthorne was onto that, but he played just the same.

I’m even less excited by the Conscientious pointer to the photographs of Nikki S. Lee. It seems like only the slightest twist on Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills from 1977. So, the subject for dress-up has been moved from the past to the present. It’s entertaining, yes, but profound? I don’t think so. Sometimes, I wish we could stop dragging around some elements of the past. Strange words from a guy engaged in writing a history, no? But I never claimed to be consistent, now did I?


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The Mythic One

The currency of images, and the images of currency represent important clues to a nation’s identity. The images of two American presidents recurs on both paper and metal currency: George Washington’s likeness occurs on the most common piece of paper money, the dollar bill and the quarter. Abraham Lincoln is present on the most common coin, the penny, and again on the five-dollar bill. One motif constant across American currency is the presence of a face on the front, and a building on the back. The history of image-making in the United States is marked by this duality, by changing captions placed near these images, and by shifting attitudes towards the image-makers.

The didactic function of images was embraced by the founders of America. As John Adams noted in his diary after visiting an art exhibition in London in 1786, “The pleasure which arises from imitation we have in looking at a picture of a landscape, a port, a street, a temple, or a portrait. But there must be action, passion, sentiment, and moral, to engage my attention very much.” Control of the moral attached to the image was of great importance to the founders, and Thomas Jefferson, whose visage now appears on the five-cent coin, engaged in debate with James Madison over the caption which was to appear under a statue of George Washington suggesting that it say “Behold, Reader, the form of George Washington. For his worth, ask History; that will tell it, when this stone shall have yielded to the decays of time. His country erects this monument: Houdon makes it.” The inscription proposed by the legislature included Washington’s achievements, and it seems clear from Jefferson’s suggested alteration that the explicit revelation of a moral sentiment was deemed unnecessary, if the image was crafted accurately enough. The artist who crafts the image is given credit, and his praise is bound to the result. (Williams).

However, the makers of the images on American currency are uncredited. The identity of artists who forge the heritage of the nineteenth century America, like medieval scribes, is also difficult to discern. They are subsumed into the murky depths of cultural heritage. Only iconic heroes survive the ravage of simplification through history, known only by their employer’s stamp. In archives across the country, landscape photos remain unidentified and tintype portraits of people long dead lack captions, with no surviving family to identify the sitter or the photographer who captured them.

Currently, coins of the United States bear the inscription “E Pluribus Unum”— out of many, one. But there is a strange lapse of this motto in the history of coinage. From 1795, the legend began to appear on gold coins. It appeared on most gold and silver coins until 1834, when it was dropped from the gold coins. E Pluribus Unum disappeared from silver coins in 1837. These were the years of Andrew Jackson, the man whose face appears on the twenty-dollar bill. It did not become law that all coins must bear this motto again until 1873. The faces that are on our current paper currency were not fixed until 1928, just over a year before the Great Depression, and a great shift in the nation’s perception of heroes.

Andrew Jackson was a tremendous popular hero of his day. Twenty-dollar bills are dispensed as the most popular denomination by electronic cash machines across the United States, and yet he is not celebrated by all members of our nation. A Choctaw writer I knew snarled with disgust each time this man’s portrait crossed his hands. Andrew Jackson was the man behind the removal of Native Americans from their lands. The years from 1838-1873 were marked by turmoil and a struggle for human rights that carried over long into the twentieth century. In 1839, a new image making technology was introduced that helped galvanize the struggle. From the beginning, photography has both aided and fought against the domination of economic forces. The Jacksonian era was marked by rising forces of technology, and the oppressive physical and economic manipulation of the indigenous populations and imported African slaves. It seems strangely poetic that the cruel frontiersman’s image should be spit out in great frequency by cash machines.

The dream of creating one from many enlisted the support of technology, and new rhetorics were forged along the way. The romantic notion of the heroic frontiersman and the pragmatic practicality which marks American rhetoric is perhaps best embodied in Ralph Waldo Emerson— a staunch critic of Jackson’s Native American policies. Both Emerson and Jackson sat for portraits in the early years of photography in America. The history of photography in nineteenth century America is fractured along economic lines, traveling a parallel path with the struggle for the rights of women, the abolition of slavery, and the growth of science and technology to fuel the ascendancy of a nation, a nation built upon a mythic one.

Edwin Rosskam

Edwin Rosskam— from 12 Million Black Voices, 1941


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While thinking about a piece of the puzzle I need to write out, I surfed into an amazing discovery: George W. Bush and Andrew Jackson are related. At least the Whitehouse website thinks so. Lets see, pushing people off their land and onto the trail of tears... check. Sporadic education... not too bright... check. Delusions of being king, opposed to personal liberties... check. I’d never quite thought of it that way before. The Internet can be quite educational.

However, unlike Jackson I don’t think Bush would want to eliminate the Electoral College. It seemed to work out quite nicely for him. Elected by popular vote? I don't think so!

*Unrelated postscript*

Now I feel really intimidated. I managed to contact perhaps the foremost expert on Edwin Rosskam out there. He told me that if I made it to New Jersey, he could introduce me to his widow. He’s done an oral history of her, and is also in contact with Ben Shahn’s widow (now 99 years old). He told me that Michael Lesy is currently writing a book on the FSA. I’m glad that I picked a particularly obtuse tangent on the material. There’s no way I’m in the same league.

Introduction Attempt #1


Introduction Attempt #1

There is a constant impulse through human history which manufactures heroes. Fallible and complex human beings are compressed into icons, and the compression generates light without heat. Histories are written with people at the center, as well they should be— because humans do not want their history to be a dry as dust recitation of facts, but passionate lives lived by passionate people. But there is an irresolvable antimony in this. When the stars are placed distantly in the sky, we lose the matrix of events which created them, and guided their relations with society. Though the light of individuals guides society, it is society which create individuals. Individuals ascend to heroic status solely through socially accepted rhetoric. Heroism cannot be objectively verified, and is subject to change as standards of evidence shift over time. Tropes establishing heroism subtly change.

Appearances matter. From the Middle Ages through the Renaissance, sumptuary laws were enacted to control how people dressed to preserve the class structure. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, portrait painting descended from the airy lands of Kings and kingdoms down to the middle classes, where the preservation of an image acted to elevate the sitter into a higher social realm. The transition from monarchy to democracy brought with it new image making strategies to fit the new social order, and the core assumption that the fixing of an image made the subject heroic and luminary is an intrinsic part of the imaging process. “Image is everything,” the modern advertising slogan says, and this is hardly news. The preference for image over messy substance seems constant over history. As history as moved toward more socialized democratic practice, the rhetoric of image has changed. However, the many still gravitate towards images of the few.

There is a pattern to history that is lost when single threads are examined too closely, or sewn into garments that fit poorly. However, some consolidation is necessary to create a narrative yarn. The threads which feed into the fabric of American imaging practice are not tidy, and some generalities must be assumed. Landscape is a peculiarly modern concern. The rise of landscape imaging is also coincident with new modes of imaging people. New types of heroes emerged against the backdrop of the American landscape. Sociality was a necessity for survival of immigrants entering in the new world, so the tenuous balance between self interest and the greater good was, and is, always under negotiation. The confluence of print, image, and rhetorical practice as a force for sociality reached a peak in the mid-twentieth century America. Any theory which seeks to contain this golden age of documentary practice must account not only for one yarn— or one hero— but for many in the American social landscape.

One yarn is economic. A nation must find a way to pay its debts and survive. Another is social— to forge a national identity, to some degree the people must cohere to a value system. Of course, there is also the yarn of shifting aesthetic values. Questions of beauty and pleasure always surround imaging practice, whether in words or visual form. People long for entertainment. And then there is always the technical yarn of progress. Without the means to achieve an idea, the impulse remains unsatisfied. Drawing from a fractured set of genres slowly under development through the nineteenth century, the photographic books of 1937-41 draw all these yarns together in a crochet patchwork of knots, full of holes that have been amply explored by modern historians. It is the fabric, not the holes, which interests me. I feel this confluence of genres has not been studied in its full glory, nor has the rhetorical impact on the creation of a national identity been examined adequately.

I do not seek to exhaustively explore the individual heroes involved, but rather the two conflicting models of heroes which emerged from the dark hours of a nation. In some ways, the rhetoric both inside and outside the Farm Security Administration’s depiction of the Great Depression was a comforter meant to warm the heart of a nation. It was tied together by artists and writers that had little in common, except the rhetorical device of works combining images and text in ways beyond the sum of the parts that fed them. Modern American rhetoric and our concept of heroes rests on a base built from conflicting tropes which deny convenient resolution. A comforter need not fit everyone to generate warmth. I feel the fabric is more important than the holes.

Japan by Horace Bristol

Horace Bristol— from “Honeymoon” — Japan, 1948

Rewriting History

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Rewriting History

I watched a couple of movies today that really pissed me off. First, Lady Sings the Blues with Diana Ross smoothing out the rough edges of Billie Holiday. Every time Ross diva-fied a classic Holiday tune, I kept wanting to pull out the a CD and listen to the original again. It dawned on me that what troubles me the most about writing about the history of photography is that the beauty is in the phrasing. The nuances of an individual can’t easily be captured by trends or movements, or generalities of any kind. I was thinking about the “American quilt” metaphor, and thinking that the parts of that quilt are not held together by delicate embroidery, but by harsh sutures of raw bits of flesh. From a distance, it looks well put together, but up close there are rough spots that have never, and will never heal. It’s such a sham to try and plaster them up with cosmetics, and turn ugly or tragic people into beautiful stars.

But the worst re-write of all was Rock Star. A fictitious plastic 80s metal star is transformed into a Kurt Cobain prototype. Wahlberg is great as a 70s or 80s hairy loser, and Jennifer Aniston is perfect as his plastic Barbie girlfriend. But the script! I can forgive Cameron Crowe’s wistful sentimental view of rock stardom, but the arc of this thing was totally irritating. Horatio Alger updated for the new millennium. Some tropes just refuse to die. Truly, truly, bad. Don’t get me wrong. I love crappy movies, I really do. But this abused even my surreal sense of cinematic rhetoric.

Pondering who would win a battle between the toilet duck and the scrubbing bubbles is more intellectually challenging than either of these movies.



Meet the new narrative, same as the old narrative

Maren Stange’s book opens with the po-mo rallying cry of “Death to the metanarratives!” Her chapter on Riis’ rhetorical strategies focuses on the employment of metanarratives to reinforce the need for reform. Each biography I examine of the early figures of American literature and photography uses the Alger metanarrative of “self-made man” to promote their heroism. But must I accept the conclusion of Stange and others that from Robert Frank onward, documentary photography was dead? It seems to me that it’s just a restatement of the same crisis of personal versus social which Sherwood Anderson deals with in Home Town. It’s the replacement of the self-made man with the man-made society. Anderson’s book opens with a letter:

The young man who has written to me says that he’s going off to New York City. He feels that he must get among the other intellectuals, bigger people than he finds in his home town, people who have bigger thoughts, vaster dreams. He declares that the day of the individual has passed, that now we must think of people only in the mass. A man must learn to love and work for the masses.

The proletariat, the middle class, the capitalist class! A man is no longer just a man going along, trying to cultivate his own senses, trying to see more, hear more. That day has passed now. The young man feels that Oak Hill is not big enough for the big life he says he feels in himself. (4)

Stange’s rhetoric seems just as hollow to me as the rhetoric of the self-made man. It’s just a replacement, the same sort dialectic interaction that has been at the core of the conflict from the beginning. Life is by its very nature narrative. The only way we will ever lose our impulse to document life, or generate narratives, is by dying. Anderson wonders: “What’s the matter with Oak Hill?” I wonder: what’s the matter with wanting to document life? If we accept that it’s all narrative, that it is all evaluative, and that it can never represent an objective view must we cease to write our story? I don’t think so. Life is marked by struggle, death is marked by surrender. To surrender to being “constructed” by social forces is still surrendering to a metanarrative, like it or not.

New Arrivals


Latest arrivals

The fruits of the book buying frenzy are starting to arrive

  • Bristol, Horace. Japan. Second edition, 1951— originally published in Japan in 1948

    Innovative folio of 14-16 page pamphlets bound together in a wrap-around case with bone closures. Booklets are photo stories on different topics. A great score! Reproduction quality is poor, but it exemplifies the “collector” stance of photography.

  • Anderson, Sherwood. Home Town. 1940, first edition.

    Second in the “Faces of America” series edited by Edwin Rosskelly, this book uses FSA photographs to explore the tensions between rural and urban America, promoting community spirit against individualism. Incredibly easy to read, almost of children's book level. Rosskelly's afterward could easily be used as a capsule statement of the American romantic / pragmatic view. The majority of the photos are from Marion Post Wolcott, and the rhetoric of image positioning, captioning, and tie-in to the primary text is masterful.

  • Asch, Berta and A. R. Mangus. Farmers on Relief and Rehabilitation. WPA 1971 reprint of 1937 publication.

  • Holley, William C., Ellen Winston, and T. J. Wooft. The Plantation South 1934-1937. WPA 1971 reprint of 1940 publication.

  • Melvin, Bruce L. and Elna N. Smith. Youth in Agricultural Villages. WPA 1971 reprint of 1940 publication.

    All three of these books are from the 26 volume series from the WPA Division of Social Research, all are illustrated by FSA photographs. Massive use of charts, tables, and diagrams. The “scientific” approach to the problem, deeply contrasted with the persuasive approach. Most photos lack credits or captions.

  • Stange, Maren. Symbols of Ideal Life: Social Documentary Photography in America 1890-1950. Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    Studies of the use of photography by social reform movements. Thin, but well annotated. From Riis to Robert Frank, lionizing Frank of course. Notable section on an economics textbook designed by Stryker and Tugwell in the 20s— a hollow spot in my research thus far.

Horace Bristol's Korea

Horace Bristol— Korea, 1951

Book timeline


A Revised Timeline of the Photographic Book

  • Henry Fox Talbot— The Pencil of Nature 1844-6 (salted paper Prints)

  • Matthew Brady— Gallery of Illustrious Americans 1850 (lithographs)

  • Alexander Hesler— Harper’s Travelers Guide 1854 (prospectus only— not completed)

  • Victor Prevost— Architectural Catalogue of New York 1854 (not completed)

  • G.R. Fardon— San Francisco Album 1856 (wet colloidon)

  • Alexander Gardner— Sketchbook of the Civil War 1866 (albumen)

Deeper and Deeper


Deeper and deeper

After my lame attempt yesterday to cover from 1839-1866 quickly, I realize I’ve just got to do this in small chunks. For example, I’d never studied Matthew Brady in depth before, and he fits into things quite well. And there’s a big chunk of US economic history to contend with as well. Evidently, there was a depression in 1837 and a depression in 1870. It’s interesting to me that explosions of creative activity are often spurred by these things. Nice to know, since it looks like we’re headed that way again.

Exploring a bit of learning software on Jacob Riis, the author makes the point that Riis’s autobiography published in 1901 was deeply permeated with the “self-made man” trope. I’m noticing the same thing in a biographical sketch of Brady from 1946. It’s like finding another smoking gun. It ties back to Carlyle’s lectures on heroes in 1840. Charting the rise of that rhetorical trope seems important too. And then there’s the Carlyle-Emerson connection, the publication of Nat Turner’s diary in 1831. . . . I should have known better than to dip into the 19th century. I know the British side of things quite well, but now I really have to increase my reading in American lit. It just gets deeper and deeper.

That’s the problem with starting something “In the Beginning . . .” It always turns out to be formless and void.

*New Link for the sidebar— Douglass Archives of American Public Address— a great archive of speeches.

A good article on portraiture and the construction of the national identity:
From Gentility to Republicanism: Creating an American Form of Portraiture in the Early Republic.

Fabricating Heritage:

Heritage should not be confused with history. History seeks to convince by truth, and succumbs to falsehood. Heritage exaggerates and omits, candidly invents and frankly forgets, and thrives on ignorance and error. Time and hindsight alter history, too. But historians' revisions must conform with accepted tenets of evidence. Heritage is more flexibly emended. Historians ignore at professional peril the whole corpus of past knowledge that heritage can airily transgress.

History Begins at Home: Photography and Memory in the Writings of Siegfried Kracauer and Roland Barthes

In the closing pages of his "Photography" essay Kracauer makes an unexpected turn in his argument. Photography is given a role in the study of history. Suddenly, the mute surface appearance of the photograph that was impenetrable to probing the essence of the subject becomes an advantage. The photograph can only signify meaning in hindsight once the personal value of the image has been diminished after the grandmother and her grandchildren have died and the garments merely look peculiar.

The original “self-made man”— Horatio Alger, Jr. Resources.

A great find


A great find.

More working notes. Silver Cities: The Photography of American Urbanization, 1839-1915 by Peter B. Hales published in 1984 is a great find. Hales did extensive research resulting in a sort of genre theory of early American photography. His argument for the importance of photography in cultural history mirrors much of what drives me regarding the period I want to focus most intensely on, 1937-41. Hale observes:

Surprisingly enough, little research has been done on the iconography of the American city, or on 19th century urban photographs in general. Most attention has been given to narrow studies of genres or to individual photographers like Arnold Genthe or Lewis Hine. In both cases, limitations of methodology and information, as well as aesthetic bias, have prevented the resulting works from suggesting models or wider concepts of study. (5)

I’m sort of taking my cues from Michael McKeon’s The Origins of the English Novel 1600-1740. McKeon argues in his summation:

The argument of this study has been that the origins of the English novel, whose climax is signaled by the Richardson-Fielding rivalry of the 1740s, consist in the establishment of a form sufficient for the joint enquiry into analogous epistemological and social problems which themselves had a long prehistory of intense and diversified public debate. Rivalry does not preclude agreement: the real fact of conflict only facilitated the recognition that the two writers were engaged in what was also a common enterprise. (410)

I believe that the same could be said of the dynamic duos of Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell vs. Walker Evans and James Agee. Several competing modes of photography were wrapped around the creation of a new form of expression, the photographic book. Obviously, aesthetically Evans and Agee won... at least sort of. I’d like to suggest a wider study of the rhetorical relationship which constructed two disparate heroic images: the artist raging against society, and the heroic American public facing adversity together. The form of the documentary photographic book, in the examples I'm considering, addresses the same epistemological and social problems, with completely different means and ends. In the end, two distinctly different modes of visual rhetorical practice evolved.

Strictly Commercial

Street Types of Chicago—Rushing the Growler and Oh Golly But I’se Happy— by Sigmund Krausz, 1891

Strictly Commercial: The Medium and the Media

The relationship between advertising, public relations, and photography is so deep that in order to adequately cover it I think I need to go back to the beginning. What follows is a tentative sketch of the connections. It's rough and it's big. About 1800 words for those who are interested, covering from 1839-1866.

Time to rush the growler. Oh golly but I’se happy.


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Just some tentative notes on where I’m going: exploration of Riis and Hine leads me to think that there were many genre threads involved in the weaving of the social documentary books of 1930s America. Though I thought it easiest to start with Riis, it becomes clear that I’ve got to go even further back, at least in glancing reference. Many genres came together in the 1930s: travel photography, ethnography, advertising, photography as “art” and urban planning. There are precedents for all these from the 1840s forward, but I don’t want to get too bogged down in it. But the rhetoric involved is unique in each genre.

Aside to Jonathon: Evans and Agee’s book was a reaction against much of this. But Let Us Now Praise Famous Men— its impact, its honest virtues and its delusional qualities can only be discussed adequately in light of all the competing aesthetics present at the time. Understanding the differing impulses which drove each book makes forgiving their excesses easier. None of the books I’m considering were simply exploitive; each one had a unique place as a frozen moment in American rhetoric. Each book from the 30s offers a different interpretation of what a “hero” is. It is easy from a high cultural vantage point to lionize Evans, and in some ways demonize those who were perhaps closer to the suffering of America in the depression. There’s been a lot of revisionist history going on. That’s almost a subject for it’s own book. I am becoming fascinated with the changes after the fact to many of these books. Evans, for example, doubled the number of photographs in the 1960 edition of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, adding photographs of blacks and locales outside the context of the book. In 1960, it was safer and easier to do that. The dynamics of the rhetoric involved is just fascinating. The division between rhetoric and poetics is an Aristotelian fantasy.

All of the pieces of the puzzle are interconnected in strange ways. That’s why I think that blogging is the easiest way to find a suitable arrangement. Hyperlinking is wonderful that way, in terms of discovering what flow patterns work and what patterns don’t. The first attempt at making sense of the connections between Jacob Riis and Erskine Caldwell is in the previous entry. Of course, along the way I thought of other connections. I'm going to try to create self-contained fragments here, and organize them more coherently later. Each theme connects with all the others. Soon, a new blog category to tie things together will be created, but here’s 1600 words to start.

“The Bend” by Jacob Riis, 1890.

From The Bend to Tobacco Road

The energetic rhetoric of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal has its roots in what Theodore Roosevelt labeled as “muckracking.” Publicizing social issues was the primary tool of the progressive reform movements of the early twentieth century, and the camera was drafted into service quickly. Though he cursed journalism, Theodore Roosevelt embraced some of these efforts, particularly the work of Jacob A. Riis. The partnership is significant, because the relationship was reversed in the 1930s, as photographers and writers moved to support the policies of Franklin Roosevelt. By this time, the confluence of technology and social agenda reached new heights. But the use of text and image combined in books promoting social change was pioneered by Riis’s 1890 publication How the Other Half Lives: Studies Among the Tenements of New York.

Hillbilly Highway


It was a fruitful trip to Oklahoma. I stopped off in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, to pick up a rare book of Horace Bristol’s Korea photographs, published in Japan as a sort of guidebook/souvenir for American soldiers on their way to Korea. It was the abridged third printing from 1951, originally published in 1948. I’ll do a more complete entry on it later. Right now, I’m still on the hillbilly highway.

The photograph on the right is Bristol’s photograph of Grandpa Joad, the original one. I’m waiting for the Chronicle books monograph which should have the complete series of Grapes of Wrath photos. I saw them in a gallery in 1992, and haven’t seen them since. My excitement for the book project is growing.

I found out that my grandfather, the alcoholic miscreant that my father never had a kind word for, went to California in 1938. And I found that his first name was Jestus. From what I’ve heard, he wasn’t really a funny guy.

My father and mother, along with two of my father’s brothers, went to California for the first time in 1944. They didn’t find work, so they went back to Oklahoma.

Dad then went to Detroit with one of his brothers, and mom followed him on the train. He got a job in a cement factory for a while, but his brother wrecked his car, his brother’s girlfriend lost her mind and had to be institutionalized, and they headed back to California in 1945 or 46. The details are hazy.

What was amazingly clear though was my dad’s memory of Caldwell’s Tobacco Road. Though he read the book fifty years ago, he still remembered the major plot points. It blew me away. My older brother has read it too, and contributed his reason for reading it: the song of the same name by The Nashville Teens from 1962, and the fact that it has dirty parts. It was the subject of a big obscenity case which is used as a teaching example in first amendment law.

After I got back, I uncovered another book with a liberal social agenda illustrated with FSA photographs, Home Town by Sherwood Anderson from 1940, which used the same photo editor as 12 Million Black Voices by Richard Wright. I also discovered a series of books published by the FSA at the same time under the rubric of “social research.” The context deepens, and my bank account is getting much shallower. It seems that most of these books were subtly modified when they were reprinted, shifting them in a more “politically correct” direction. It seems important to locate as many first editions as I can.

The more I compare my family’s history with the Dorothea Lange / Paul Taylor book, the more I respect it. I’m beginning to think that it was the fairest and most impartial book to come from this crucial time. The book has had minimal critical response, as a book that is— Lange’s photographs have received all the attention. But as a book, it is quite impressive. I can’t wait until the rest of the material I’ve ordered starts rolling in!




I’ve been radically unsuccessful at anything resembling normal sleep for a couple of days now. I was supposed to be on the road to visit my parents, but I’ve ended up researching an idea. You see, in a few weeks I have to start writing a a book. I hadn’t figured out exactly what I was going to do. The course is “extended topics in nonfiction” and the quantity of writing involved will be massive. I feel much better dealing with something I’m comfortable with. Photography was my first choice, but specifically, what?

I’ll use the blog to string it together first. I like the idea of doing it in public; it will be like having advance reviewers. The working title thus far is Imaginary Heroes: The Rhetoric of Representation in 1930s America. Rolls right off the tongue, eh? I began to think of this while reviewing significant documentary photography books published between 1937-1941. The list was small at first, but it’s been expanded a bit with a few books that I wasn’t aware of until now.

The first on my list was the last published, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by Walker Evans and James Agee. Big surprise, I’m sure. There are already tons studies of that book out there already. However, the context of those studies is mostly shallow and laudatory, in my opinion. It is one book among many. The first was You Have Seen Their Faces by Margaret Bourke-White and Erskine Caldwell. It was a best seller. Evans and Agee’s book sold 600 copies of its first printing. Fortunes change. Currently, Evans books in print probably outnumber Bourke-White books by five to one, though she published at least ten times as many books in her lifetime. Curious, no? The rise and fall of critical reception is fascinating. Bourke-White and Evans exhibited together in 1932, and they certainly were an odd couple, aesthetically. Then there’s the wildcard from the West Coast, Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor’s An American Exodus, a distinctive book in its own right. And there’s another little known collaboration that had a huge impact. Horace Bristol and John Steinbeck originally planned to do a documentary book, but instead their trips into the San Joaquin Valley interviewing and photographing migrants became The Grapes of Wrath.

Additional research turned up Land of the Free by Archibald MacLeish (whose poetry was recently considered by Loren) and 12 Million Black Voices by Richard Wright. I haven’t seen those two yet, but I’m sure they’ll fit my plan. I’ve read about a three-inch stack of critical articles from proquest, and half of Caldwell’s Tobacco Road in the last few days, along with parts of a thick book on post-colonial theory. This will be fun. The objectification of the poor as the “other” living in the middle of the American dream during the depression speaks volumes to the construction of the national identity. It’s all rhetoric, Evans and Agee included.

Ultimately, each of these collaborations approached the problem of individual identity vs. the creation of “the public” in unique ways. Right now, I think most of the other works have been unfairly eclipsed by Evans and Agee. Popularity=bad seems to have done the most damage to Caldwell and Bourke-White, and I’ve discovered that Bristol went on to do some innovative experimental photo books while living in Japan that deserve at least a footnote in the story. Bristol was cheated most of all in the aftermath.

Obviously, there will be much more to come on these topics. But I had to spit something out before I lost the core ideas. What happened in the 30s is also deeply wrapped around romantic/pragmatic rhetoric, and I hope I can do sufficient research to bring the conflict to life.

Hung out to dry

Jeff Ward— Hung out to dry in Bakersfield, Ca —1994




I was looking for something I didn’t find . . . I remember something about Thomas Carlyle having acutely sensitive hearing, which was one of the things that made him cranky. I didn’t find that, but I did find reference to Carlyle as emblematic of “the Man of Letters as bad Husband”— another intense person gone wrong.

At the risk of being cliché, the phrase “If it’s too loud you’re too old” might apply. I found an old paper written before I discovered that bit and added it to the papers collection. The Cranky Clothier is primarily a biographical sketch, the only time I was asked to write this sort of paper as an undergrad. Looking at it again, it’s not bad. I was reading On Heroes and Hero Worship last night, with a side trip into the prose Edda. There are some interesting things going on in Carlyle’s twisted portrayal of the hero. Writers often want to be heroes. I was driven back to heroes and hero worship after reading Aphra Behn’s Preface to The Lucky Chance:

All I ask is the Priviledge for my Masculine Part the Poet in me, (if any such you allow me) to tread in those successful Paths my Predecessors have so long thriv’d in, to take those Measures that both the Ancient and Modern Writers have set me, and by which they have pleas’d the World so well: If I must not, because of my Sex, have this Freedom, but that you will usurp all to your selves; I lay down my Quill, and you shall hear no more of me, no not so much as to make Comparisons, because I will be kinder to my Brothers of the Pen, than they have been to a Defenceless Woman; for I am not content to write for a Third day only.

I value Fame as much as if I had been born a Hero and if you rob me of that, I can retire from the ungrateful world, and scorn its fickle Favors.

Carlyle argued that the world needed heroes. Behn, even with her decidedly antifeminist idea that her poetic part was masculine, demanded equal rights to be a hero. I suspect that these notions are important, not for the reasons that Carlyle argues, but because of the right to be equally involved in eros. Humans share both the desire to be loved, and the desire to love. I think that’s what heroism is ultimately all about— not valor. There are some interesting bits in the Edda about valor. Maybe I'll get that focused enough to write about later.

Little Triggers


Little Triggers

When Loren gestured at William Carlos Williams’ famous line from Paterson “No ideas but in things” I tore up my apartment looking for my copy. I never finished it. I prefer long poems to short ones, and narrative poems to abstract ones. But I easily get lost in passages, projecting them onto myself. Like trying on clothes, often one aspect will fit nicely and other’s don’t. But I couldn’t find it— I had to order another copy. I think I walked off and left it somewhere, stunned encountering lines like this:

                        We sit and talk,
quietly, with long lapses of silence
and I am aware of the stream
which has no language, coursing
beneath the quiet heaven of
your eyes

That’s one of the passages I blogged from my encounter with it. I remember talking to the poet Ralph Burns about Paterson. Ralph said: “Williams takes it back later in the poem you know— the bit about ‘no ideas but in things.’” I didn’t get far enough into the book to find out. I keep thinking that there are no ideas, except in people.

It is both disorienting and invigorating to see others expand bits of my reflections. and turn them into more fully developed ideas. Scott’s thoughts on studying for comprehensive exams reminded me of a comment a professor made to me near the end of my first year in the MA program: “You sound like you’re studying for comps!” I suppose I’ve been like that for a long time. I’m rather intense. Dorothea’s reflections on intense people and graduate school hit close. So did Jonathon’s admission that he’s very intense. Like Jonathon said, “It’s easy to recognize the voice of experience.”

Anyone who plays with language long enough knows that it easily becomes a facade to hide behind. In flamewars past, on listserves, I’ve been accused of hiding behind other people’s words. I cite poets and writers frequently because the more clearly express ideas I’m feeling. And I seek them out because I want to deal with myself and the struggle I can only face through language, having no one beside me to get lost in the stream with. Lately I’ve been sucked into a passage from Browning’s Sordello, and been thinking of making a list like Scott’s.

Friedlander's Self Portrait

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Lee Friedlander— Self-portrait — Haverstraw, New York — 1966

A Natural Asshole

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I can be really annoying. . .

I used to get so fixated on things that I would miss the feelings closest to me. I’ve been trying to address that failing, though I’m not sure I’ll get another chance to prove myself. I suppose the thing that I hate most about solitude is confronting multiple versions of memories. The Thin White Rope show I keep fixating on is a good example. I took the girl I was living with to the show with me. We sat at the table before the show, and were having a good time talking about the freaks in the crowd and eavesdropping on conversations. When Thin White Rope came on (they were the second band before the headlining duo of Danny and Dusty) I went forward to the stage, standing right on the edge. The feedback made my jaw drop.

My girlfriend sat at the table, alone. A friend that had come with us was up there with me, with his jaw in a similarly disjointed position. I kept looking back at the table, and motioning for her to come up and join us. She didn’t. She told me that she wanted to make sure she kept our table in the crowded bar. Not long after that, she became my wife. Karen kept a lot of tables for me over the years, guarding cameras, changing lenses, and generally taking care of me. I think about it now and realize that Karen had barely turned twenty-one. She hadn’t been in bars much before, especially crowded Hollywood bars. Her best friend wasn’t old enough to get in, but had come with us and had gone someplace else to stay occupied. I couldn’t figure out why she bothered. Now I think she was there to look after Karen in the big city. When we got divorced, Karen told me how she really felt that night: abandoned. She felt like I had abruptly left her, and she was scared to death. I remember we didn’t stay until the end of the headliner, because it was really crowded and she seemed uncomfortable. Besides, I was well satisfied by my experience at that point, and it seemed only right to track down her friend and grab something to eat.

There are always two sides to every memory, and they aren’t always good. As long as life rushes by fast enough, you don’t notice. But in the quiet time, you can reflect on what an insensitive twit you once were. And face the fear that maybe you’ll never be able to change that part of you enough to really matter.

They tell me at school that my ability to focus on things so intensely is part of what makes me “a natural scholar”— but the more I think about it, the more I realize that this quality also makes me “a natural asshole.”

Dark Green Car

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Jeff Ward— Looking over the top of my dark green car at mom— Bakersfield, Ca, 1977

Disney Girl


Eviscerated dreams

Exploring the Axis

I was thinking of the first song I heard Thin White Rope play live. It was from their first record— a record that I bought in anticipation of the gig. The pressing was faulty, and the entire second side was filled with a whooshing sound. As I waited for them to come on, I could hear other people talking about the record at the next table. Their copy was faulty too.

In the 80’s indie scene, records were largely promotional material to get you to go to a show— shows were not done to sell records, instead, the business model went the other way around. I think that’s where the music industry got off track— but I digress. Exploring the Axis was a promising rough start for a band that helped shape my consciousness.

Disney Girl starts with a strange shaped feedback. For an aficionado of feedback, old cartoons, B movies, and photography the lyrics made sense:

We both know the moonlight’s just blue filters on the daylight
But we don’t go south anymore cause backroads echo phantom saws

You are my disney girl, too many fingers for your world

We should go in white, top down, see quiet streets in tiny towns
Love in swamp-cooled Bates motels, your tailfin glasses, scarves as well

You are my disney girl, too many fingers for your world


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the yellow starthistle

Still Prickly

When the CD started with “Dark Green Car” I remembered standing against the monitors at the Music Machine in Hollywood entranced by Thin White Rope. I once owned a dark green car. The melody was similar to “The Ruby Sea” but the illusion faded. Though Guy Kyser’s distinctive growl kicked in quickly against the driving backdrop of his distorted tone, moments later a female voice chimed in.

Mummydogs isn’t Thin White Rope. It’s thinner and sleeker with some unusual twists. But it’s still prickly and I like that. The headphones came out quickly; I needed to hear it loud.

After listening to it twice, I decided to see if any new information had popped up on the web and found the links I placed above. “Guy Kyser was reported to be involved in botanics”?— This called for closer study. Kyser was only a coffee addict when I saw him.

The interview from 1997 mentioned that he had gone back to school. Further research on the UC Davis site showed that Kyser became deeply involved with weed. Yellow Starthistle that is, with a huge number of publications listing him as coauthor. How many musicians can claim credit for publication in Weed Science?

A stubborn prickly weed. It seems fitting.

Finding Fury


‘Above all else: in God’s name don’t think of it as Art.

Every fury on earth has been absorbed in time, as art, or religion, or as authority in one form or another. The deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor. Swift, Blake, Beethoven, Christ, Joyce, Kafka, name me a one who has not been thus castrated. Official acceptance is the one unmistakable symptom that salvation has been beaten again, and is the one surest sign of fatal misunderstanding, and is the kiss of Judas.

Really it should be possible to hope that this be recognized as so, and as a mortal and inevitably recurrent danger. It is scientific fact. It is disease. It is avoidable. Let a start be made. And then exercise your perception of it on work that has more to tell you than mine has. See how respectable Beethoven is; and by what right any wall in museum, gallery, or home presumes to wear a Cézanne; and by what idiocy Blake or work even of such intention as mine is ever published and sold. I will tell you a test. It is unfair. It is untrue. It stacks all the cards. It is out of line with what the composer intended. All so much the better.

Get a radio or a phonograph capable of the most extreme loudness possible, and sit down to a performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony or Schubert’s C-Major Symphony. But I don’t mean just sit down and listen. I mean this: Turn it on as loud as you can get it. Then get down on the floor and jam your ear as close into the loudspeaker as you can get it and stay there, breathing as lightly as possible, and not moving, and neither eating nor smoking nor drinking. Concentrate everything you can into your hearing and into your body. You won’t hear it nicely. If it hurts you, be glad of it. As near as you will ever get you are inside the music; not only inside it, you are it; your body no longer has shape and substance, it is the shape and substance of the music.

Is what you hear pretty? or beautiful? or legal? or acceptable in polite or any other society? It is beyond any calculation savage and dangerous and murderous to all equilibrium in human life as human life is; and nothing can equal the rape it does on all that death; nothing except anything, anything in existence or dream, perceived anywhere remotely toward its true dimension.’

James Agee, Preamble, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Blame Delacour. I dreamed I was Walker Evans, but I woke up James Agee listening to Mummydogs through headphones most of the night raging loudly against the death of ideas. Wordsworth lived his prophesized death; Blake and Shelley didn’t. They went out singing, deep inside the music rather than gazing back at it with longing.


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(since none puts by / The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)

I remember the fateful year I crossed the threshold into becoming the dread being known as the “English Major.”— scare quotes are needed because it is a scary thing for a resolute populist like me. My parents never went to college. Their education came from experience and the public library. Until recently, so did mine. Going back to college after twenty years was a gesture of defeat, or so I thought at the time. That’s okay— I felt pretty defeated by life in general.

There’s a time I recall sitting in my gateway course into the English department that summons deep feelings; it was a time filled with terror and love. I was coerced into taking a William Blake seminar at the same time as the intro class. I’d played with trying to read him for years with limited success and it was scary to step into a senior level class as a rookie. But I loved Blake, and chances were the course would not be repeated before I graduated. Dr. Yoder taught both classes, and he was only slightly older than me and of similarly checkered past. When he stepped out of the class for a week to trade with another instructor, I was forced to deal with a man who wore a suit instead of jeans. Dr. Ramsey always wore a suit even though it was a hundred degrees outside. He taught from the pulpit of high church literature. Ramsey began shoving The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church down our throats. He was relentless in exploring Browning’s obscure imagery and coaxing unsupported opinions which he proceeded to shred, not by offering his opinion, but by asking questions which caused students to conflict themselves with every word they added.

Robert Browning exemplified everything I hated about literature. There was little trace of an authorial presence, and because I based most of my judgments on an intuitive grasp of personalities, I was lost. There was an ostentatious manner in the words spoken by Browning’s despicable protagonists. If this was literature I didn’t want to get it. Dr. Ramsey reeked of intelligence and refinement, of dispassionate enquiry into the “text” — once again, the scare quotes are important to the concept. I was afraid to take a class with Dr. Ramsey until my senior year. I stared blankly at the class curtain hesitant to peek behind it.

Times change.

Andy Warhol

Duane Michaels, 1958

Eat that question


Eat that Question

I was glancing at one of those books that I’ve wanted to read, but keep grazing instead: The Questioning Presence: Wordsworth, Keats, and the Interrogative Mode in Romantic Poetry by Susan J. Wolfson. A song from Frank Zappa popped in my head: “Eat that Question.” It’s a catchy little instrumental, with a Roman flavor. “Eat that Christian,” the original title, makes more sense, while the final title is more of a problem.

I like problems, particularly in poetry. While I prefer straightforward prose, I like my music and my poetry a bit on the twisted side. Wolfson’s observations brought out many of the reasons why I prefer the Romantics to the Victorians. Romantics asked and seldom answered questions. Of course the industrious Victorians wanted answers, so poetry quit asking its questions quite as overtly, and moved deeper into dramatism and role-playing. Questions became increasingly tangential to the poetic enterprise, as did answers. Reading later poems by Browning requires more penetration into character roles and less infusion of an authorial presence. A boundary is drawn between author and text more carefully, a boundary that drops like an iron curtain over the modernists. The author becomes a property you are discouraged from possessing.

I find this to be a problem. Grazing on Aporias by Jacques Derrida, he begins with Diderot’s consideration of the Roman Seneca. Diderot is frightened that he has found the story of his life in De brevitate vitae:

I did not read the third chapter without blushing: it is the story of my life. Happy is he who does not depart convinced that he has lived only a very small part of his life!
Readers always gravitate towards works they see themselves in. Browning’s obsession with Shelley when he was young was not driven by “schemes and systems” but by Shelley as the person he sensed behind the words. Browning knew nothing of Shelley’s misanthropic biography. In later years, Browning constructed a theory of subjective and objective poetry, with a third class of poetry where the two interpenetrate in order to forgive Shelley his personal failures. Browning saw the dangers of identifying too closely with heroes without the comfortable distanciation of theory. Unlike theory — which can be penetrated, mastered, or overthrown— people don’t work that way. People are a problem.

Derrida takes possession. If we own anything, surely we own ourselves. Is this “property” of self precious, to be guarded and secured as private? When we give ourselves are we wasting time? Doctrines of privacy protect the precious self by establishing a clear border between what is “us” and what is “them,” attaching martial metaphors. The rhetoric of boundaries explored by Seneca seems crucial and something else to add to my reading list. Rhetoric in the classical model is a campaign to penetrate the minds of others to bring them to your way of thinking, positively phallic in most respects. Burke’s consubstantiality seems more feminine, taking ideas in rather than overthrowing external ones. But there is more to the problem than these sexual metaphors; it makes me think of Salvador Dali and his irrational orality.

I’d rather eat that question. Sexual metaphors don’t explain the hunger we have to consume people. Derrida’s exploration of problem in the original sense results in key a distinction. Problema in Greek can signify both projection and protection. It’s both a synonym for shield, and the act of projecting a task forward between you and the other.

Is swinging to the pole of objective expression a protection of the precious qualities of self to avoid being devoured by the crowd? Is self a quality that can be exhausted which must be bounded for its own protection? Some selves, like Shelley, are difficult to swallow whole. A sane person can only process them in pieces; we choke on the projection, but must we replace it with a shield? I’m not sure.

More Browning

I turned to those old times and scenes where all
That’s beautiful had birth for me, and made
Rude verses on them all; and then I paused—
I had done nothing, so I sought to know
What other minds achieved. No fear outbroke
As on the works of mighty bards I gazed,
In the first joy at finding my own thoughts
Recorded, my own fancies justified,
And their aspiring but my very own.
With them I first explored passion and mind,—
All to begin afresh! I rather sought
To rival what I wondered at than form
Creations of my own; if much was light
Lent by others, much was yet my own.

I paused again: a change was coming— came:
I was no more a boy, the past was breaking
Before the future and like fever worked.
I thought on my new self, and all my powers
Burst out. I dreamed not of restraint, but gazed
On all things: schemes and systems went and came,
And I was proud (being vainest of the weak)
In wandering o’er thought’s world to seek some one
To be my prize, as if you wandered o’er
The White Way for a star.

Robert Browning, Pauline 380-403

Order Now

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Jeff Ward — “Order Now” Bakersfield, California, 1990

Life goes by

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Totally committed to the fifty-bucks

I didn’t want to write this entry— the “Stop Police” photograph started it. Then I got the notice to renew my hosting and realized I was totally committed to the fifty bucks. That phrase means something more to a Frank Zappa fan.

Turn it down! . . . I’m calling the Police! . . . I did it. . . . They’ll be here shortly!

Sometimes I think of this web site as my garage, where I tinker with building things, and perhaps manage to stumble my way through some tunes. In Zappa’s tour de force concept album Joe’s Garage, Mary— Joe’s girlfriend turned crew slut— enters a wet t-shirt contest to earn fifty-bucks for a bus ticket home. Following in Ray Davis’s footsteps, I’ll offer a limited time sample which also explains my other favorite phrase— “an ice-pick in the forehead.” Both phrases ran through my brain today. I’ve got privacy issues. No, there isn’t anything I want to hide. I get nervous when other people hide things. Nothing good comes from secrets— from my experience, at least. I don’t like silence either— I’ll often start talking just to break it. I can tolerate and sometimes enjoy silence in the wilderness, but if there’s someone else in the room I’ll start jabbering just to keep from feeling insecure. And I’ll discuss just about anything. There are no taboo subjects for me. I can make people uncomfortable easily with my willingness to reveal myself. Remember that Kristofferson/Joplin lyric about nothing left to lose?

If you don’t like confessional blogging, or personal disclosures, please don’t click the more link. Just listen to the funny sound byte and move on. I moved a lot of bytes around today and it made me want to write down some history now that I can remember the dates more clearly. Life slips by.

It’s wet t-shirt time again!

One of the hazards of writing in public is that when your eyes get wet— people can see right through.