Thursday, August 09, 2012

`These Gifts with Which the Summer Morning Rewards Me'

A longtime reader of Anecdotal Evidence, an attorney in Dallas, periodically mails vintage postcards to my home and office. Part of the pleasure for both of us, I suspect, is indulging in an old-fashioned pastime nearing extinction. Postcards were once a way to document family events, vacations in particular. Often the message was inconsequential (“Wish you were here,” with an arrow drawn on the front pointing to an unoccupied spot on the beach). As with today’s “social media,” what counted was the gesture, the reaching out. Now we send emails. Vast stratum of human experience will no longer be lastingly documented, and the present digital age may appear as an enigmatic lacuna to future archeologists. 

My reader’s most recent postcard shows the garishly colored, unpeopled lobby of the Menger Hotel in San Antonio, “A Texas Tradition Since 1859.” The card probably dates from the nineteen-seventies. Jay’s son is a drummer in a band, and he informs me of their upcoming club appearance in Houston, and concludes: 

“I have begun A Dance to the Music of Time for the 6th (or 7th) time. The cover has come off the book but I have repaired it with electrical tape.” 

That’s it, almost Twitter-worthy. And I like the idea of a book falling apart from repeated non-readings, and envy his venture into Anthony Powell’s twelve-volume comedy, an old favorite of mine. 

From childhood, the American photographer Walker Evans (1903-1975) collected postcards. More than nine thousand of them, most dating from 1900 to 1930, are preserved in the Walker Evans Archive in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 2009, Jeff L. Rosenheim, a curator in the Met’s photography department, published Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard, reproducing hundreds of cards from the collection, some of the postcard-format photographs taken by Evans, and three of his essays and a lecture on the subject. Noting that Evans started his collection at the age of twelve, Rosenheim writes: 

“What appealed to the nascent photographer were the cards’ vernacular subjects, the simple, unvarnished, `artless’ quality of the pictures and the generic, uninflected, mostly frontal style that he would later borrow for his own work with the camera.” 

Valuing “artlessness” readily turns into a trivial taste for “camp” and other sorts of kitsch, but I don’t sense that in Evans. His documentary sense is too refined for aesthetic slumming. In an article he published in the January 1962 issue of Fortune, Evans writes: “The very essence of quotidian U.S. city life got itself recorded, quite inadvertently, on the picture postcards of fifty years ago.” He refers to postcards as “honest, direct little pictures.” In “Lyric Documentary,” a lecture Evans gave at Yale in 1964, he fashions a fanciful tradition under that heading that includes Leonardo da Vinci, Andreas Vesalius, William Blake, Audubon, Honoré Daumier, Eugène Atget, Mathew Brady, James Joyce, Edward Hopper, picture postcards and his own photographs. Best of all, Evans cites a passage from Nabokov’s final novel in Russian, The Gift (1938), translated into English by the author, his son Dmitri and Michael Scammell, and published in 1963. Evans reads three paragraphs, including a passage in which the protagonist, Fyodor Godunov-Cherdyntsev, is “gladdened by the wonderful poetry of the railroad bank,” the grass, the bees, the butterflies. Fyodor muses: 

“Where shall I put all these gifts with which the summer morning rewards me, and only me? Save them up for future books?  Use them immediately for a practical handbook called `How to be Happy?’ Or, getting deeper, to the bottom of things, understand what is concealed behind all this: behind the play, the sparkle, the thick green greasepaint of the foliage? 

“For there really is something—there is something! And one wants to offer thanks, but there is no one to thank.” 

Evans comments: “That I call lyric documentary writing. That is the frame of mind, and that is the psychology of it, and Nabokov is full of it, as you probably know.”


zmkc said...

I wonder if blogging is a response to that impulse of Fyodor's

Anonymous said...

“For there really is something—there is something! And one wants to offer thanks, but there is no one to thank.”

For G.K. Chesterton, that genius
of gratitude, there is no muddle about someone to thank.


mike zim said...

Edward Gorey often embellished his cards & letters with whimsical art. There's a new exhibit of these.