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Victoria Olsen Posts


I’m reading Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, slowly, and I want to pay some homage to Walker Evans’s photographs.  This room was photographed by Evans in Alabama in 1936 during the summer that he and James Agee spent there living with tenant farmers.  The idea was to profile one “typical” southern family for Fortune magazine, but it didn’t work out.  Agee and Evans did their own thing, and published a book about it several years later.

You get a hint already of an insistent, rebellious eye right here in this image.  Evans seems more interested in the horizontal lines of the plank walls that don’t quite meet in the corner than in the objects on display.  And they are, weirdly, on display here — as Evans’s photographs are now on museum walls.  It’s as if Evans knows, already, that his art and their art is somehow the same.  And what do we see? A humble chair with a rush seat.  A broom leaning upside down against the wall (why upside down?).  A piece of white fabric hung up on a string like a flag of surrender.  And two unidentifiable objects mounted on the right-hand wall: a round cup-like thing and a strange pole with a crossed base.  What are these things?  What do they mean and why is Evans preserving them for posterity?

The careful balancing of objects seems to refer to other conventions of composition from still life paintings.  If so, this is an ironic, almost outrageous, commentary on the artistic depiction of things, or material reality.  While many still life artists delighted in the sensuous rendering of surfaces–velvets, silks, fur–and the sunlight that played on them, this photograph deprives us (and the things) of all sensory pleasures.  These things are purely functional, and while the image has a beauty to it, it would be hard to argue that this kitchen corner is beautiful.  Evans is too close to it and this reality is unavoidably grim.  He seems to be showing us that this particular corner, where line meets line and wall meets wall, has no exit.

Lincoln Re-written

It seems appropriate as an inauguration and Martin Luther King’s birthday approach to write a little bit about rhetoric.  Besides, I just read a very interesting piece about inaugural addresses by Jill Lepore in The New Yorker (January 12, 2009, but unfortunately not available online).  She surveys inaugural speeches and briefly compares Lincoln’s first inaugural address, given in March 1861 as Civil War was breaking out, to his second, when the Civil War had already raged for four years.  Poignantly, Lincoln would be dead within a month of his second speech.  But, for now, let’s look (as Lepore does) at the ending of the first speech. (Can you see how the cadences of delay and interruption, so common in the nineteenth century, are affecting me?)  Lincoln ends without ending:

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

It hardly needs saying that a great speaker needs a great ear and that the most effective sounds and rhythms come from a body, in this case long dead but breathing through every period and comma.  Listen to the l’s in “loath” and “close,” the m’s in “mystic” and “memory.”  Hear the repetition of “We are not…we must not…,” just slightly different enough to catch your attention.  Feel the literally “swelling” rhythm as the first short sentence lengthens, then lengthens again, becoming a broader and broader “chorus” and enacting that shift from “I” to “We” that Lincoln urges on us at that moment.

Yet the sentence that interests me most, and which sounds oddest, is the transitional one in the middle: “Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”  The syntax is forced: it seems to imply “it” as both object of “strained” and subject of “break” simultaneously.  I can see a student today instead writing: “Though passion may have strained it, it must not break our bonds of affection.”  But consider what you lose there: the sense that “it” is both strained and unbreakable.

Lepore points out in her article that Lincoln’s ending was drafted by his Secretary of State William Seward, but Lincoln revised it to good effect.  Seward wrote

I close.  We are not, we must not be, aliens or enemies, but fellow-countrymen and brethren.  Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly, they must not, I am sure they will not, be broken.  The mystic chords which, proceeding from so many battlefields and so many patriot graves, pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours, will yet harmonize in their ancient music, when breathed upon by the guardian angels of the nation.

One can easily see what Lincoln improved by cutting all those clauses and creating the lengthening rhythm, and by cutting redundancies like “fellow-countrymen” and “brethren.”  He replaced the too-alliterative “heart,” “hearth” and “harmonize” with the less emphatic “heart,” “hearthstone,” and “chorus.”  As Lepore concludes sardonically, “Revision usually helps.”  But what about the change in the last line from “guardian angels of the nation” to “better angels of our nature”?  Any ideas about what that change signifies?


I was saved from sin when I was going on thirteen. But not really saved. It happened like this….

These are some of my favorite opening lines in all literature. They were written by Langston Hughes for a story/essay called “Salvation.” (You can see that I’m jumping around a lot on this blog: countries, periods, genres…). Hughes goes on to describe his experience at a religious revival, where all the other young “lambs” see Jesus and are saved. He waits and waits, and then eventually he gets up too. The end of the piece follows: since I recently wrote about an opening it seems only fair to focus on an ending now.

That night, for the first time in my life but one for I was a big boy twelve years old – I cried. I cried, in bed alone, and couldn’t stop. I buried my head under the quilts, but my aunt heard me. She woke up and told my uncle I was crying because the Holy Ghost had come into my life, and because I had seen Jesus. But I was really crying because I couldn’t bear to tell her that I had lied, that I had deceived everybody in the church, that I hadn’t seen Jesus, and that now I didn’t believe there was a Jesus anymore, since he didn’t come to help me.

Hughes has organized a deceptively simple essay around the term “saved.”  What does it mean here?  What does it mean to any boy “going on thirteen”?  Starting with the first two sentences Hughes makes simple declarations and then complicates them with a “but.”  The first one is explicitly a contradiction: saved, but not really saved.  In the last paragraph, however, after the (non) revelation has (not) occurred things are more nuanced.  The “but” sentences get longer and longer until we “see” what Hughes in fact *didn’t* see.  That salvation is complicated and contradictory.  It means different things to different people.  This revelation was an induction into an adult world where truths are no longer concrete, where they do not necessarily appear before our eyes.  This revelation is such a loss that he evokes crying four times in one paragraph and hides under the covers.  But the paragraph, like the essay as a whole, is perfectly balanced: Jesus, who does not appear to Hughes, appears to us several times in these last lines.  I use this essay with my NYU composition students and they can easily see how Hughes is not saved.  But it’s hard for them to see that Hughes has been telling the truth all along: he, and we, are saved too.

Cowboy Curtis

I recently wrote another close reading of an image for Smithsonian Magazine (published in the spring, when I’ll post it).  I looked at a Western landscape and compared it to this famous image by Edward Curtis.  This 1904 photograph of Canyon de Chelly, one of the oldest inhabited sites in North America, reveals Curtis’s technical prowess in composing sharply detailed landscapes from a great distance.  The horizontal lines evoke the long timelines of Western landscapes, where time is marked by ancient rock formations and people riding through vast deserted country.  But the scale is human too: the mountain face echoes the craggy, monumental portraits Curtis made of Red Cloud and other famous Native American chiefs.  Man and mountain are aligned here, both represented in the photograph as vertical lines reaching toward the heavens.  Positioning his camera between flat ground and open sky, Curtis “shoots” the Navajo riders to remind us of timeless struggles between man and nature as well as the “Cowboys and Indians” in our national history.

Girl, Turning

This famous image by Johannes Vermeer has been the subject of almost equally famous texts, including Tracy Chevalier’s novel that fictionalizes the girl’s story.  Lawrence Wechsler did an extended close reading of this portrait in the title essay of  his book Vermeer in Bosnia.  In it he cited an even more extended 20-page close reading by art historian Edward Snow of the portrait.  Snow posed  an arresting visual question: is this girl turning toward us or away from us?  He cited evidence (the fall of the turban, the angle of her face) and then speculated about its meaning: what story does  each visual interpretation imply?  Wechsler used the image to illuminate the essence of individuality itself: the girl’s gaze defines her uniqueness.  Ironically this has not been reflected in the image’s title: it has alternately been known as “Girl with Turban,” “Head of a Young Girl,” and “Girl with a Pearl Earring” (especially since the popular novel and film).  Despite her apparent individuality, Vermeer did not name this girl and neither can we.

Is this image somehow essentially double or ambiguous?  What oppositions are at work and where do you see them?

Click here to watch a YouTube video of an artist copying this painting with a Bic pen.