Letters from a Conservative Farmer —
Photos on My Wall
I have photographs and printed cuttings and a couple of reproductions of paintings by Eakins and Sheeler on the wall beside my desk. The photos are of Jo Ann, our children, old friends, nothing surprising there. Nor, if you know my literary and historical interests, do the photos of Whitman, Cummings, Thoreau, William Carlos Williams, or the many photos of Lincoln surprise. A verse by Richard Burton which begins “Do what thy manhood bids thee do, from none but self expect applause,” and Paul Horgan’s “Credo,” which ends “Work to the limit/Submit with courage” — these present no mysteries. There are, however, four photos whose presence is inexplicable. I have had them on the wall beside my desk wherever I have lived for the last 50 years. I know nothing of the people or the scenes beyond what I can deduce from their appearance. My guess is that they date from the 1880s to the 1920s. I do not know how I acquired them, but I can guess. I have been a haunter of second-hand bookstores and old curiosity shops since I was a boy, and I imagine I found them in used books or in trays of miscellaneous papers and trinkets.
One is a postcard. It has a title—“The Mill”—written in small white letters down in the left foreground, and in the opposite corner it says “J M Perry Madison Wis.” I must have picked this up as long ago as the mid ’50s when I was a graduate student at the University. In the left background there is a dam, 20 or 25 feet high, and next to it, filling the center background, is a large dark building, obviously the mill. Besides a loading dock on the right side of the mill stands a white horse hitched to what looks like the sort of closed wagon once used to deliver bottled milk. All this is at a distance of at least 50 yards. The foreground is the dirt road to the mill, intervening ground, and the millstream. It is the horse that makes the picture live, that gives it a reality it would not have without it, that makes the scene seem poignant to me, well over a century since the picture was taken.
That was a postcard, but the rest are simply photographs. The next one is the jolly one, as I always think of it. On top of a wide pile of dirt, characters are arranged from left to right: a teenaged boy holding a spaniel on his lap, a man ditto, two little boys, another man with a spaniel sitting up so he partly hides the man’s face. Standing some 15 feet behind them are two men. Everyone except one little boy is smiling. All are dressed in work clothes (one of the men in the rear wears a tie), the rough working class garb of the late 19th century. The little boys wear shorts and long, disheveled socks. Behind everything there are buildings indicating a street, and in the left background there is an open building such as one would see in a park as a bandstand.
The good humor of the characters in this photo is manifest; even the posing of the dogs is part of it. The whole thing seems impromptu, and I shall never know more about it than I can deduce from its appearance. But I like it — I like its spirit.
The third picture is of a man in his late 30s or early 40s and a boy in his mid- to late teens, both unsmiling, standing on top of a grave: a stone structure several feet long, two feet high and three broad. From the near end there is a raised stone five feet high with an unreadable inscription. The man is standing on its base, holding on to it, while the boy stands on the stone base behind it. Father and son, it seems, and from the clothing I would guess the time to be the early ’20s. There is a slight air of shabbiness about the man with his badly scuffed unpolished shoes, but with their ties and jackets and the boy’s high collar they have middle class pretensions. The boy makes a good impression, standing straight and tall, but the man — ah, I wouldn’t trust him for a moment.
The last picture is of a woman and a man sitting together a few feet from a wall with tall flowers in front of it. The woman, with an elaborate coiffure, wears a long dress and is sitting in a chair with a slight smile on her face. The man, wearing a suit, must be sitting on a high stool because the top of her head is only level with his bow tie. He sits relaxed, hands loosely clasped on his knee, and he gazes at the camera without expression. With his neatly combed dark hair, he seems younger than the woman.
So that is my little gallery. “The Mill” is no mystery, and perhaps because of its composition with the horse, it is my favorite. But the others are a mystery: Who took the pictures and why? What are their stories? They were caught on film in long ago moments, and all that remains now are their images and my inadequate impressions.
I guess that most of us, if we think about our lives, imagine them as narratives, continuous stories with some ups and downs, generally gathering coherence as we mature. Some of the story, we think, is vivid and dramatic, some is humdrum, but if we concentrate we are sure we can make a coherent narrative, a sort of memoir. I do not think so. I rather think that our lives in retrospect are a series of snapshots like those on my wall, each containing moments of our lives that are, in those instants, fully lived.
It is a mistake to think of the pictures on my wall as insignificant byblows, as chance occurrences beside the real flow of those lives — no, there is as much of their lives in these pictures as in any other record. We know that they live, that the scenes were real, that the horse stood patiently beside the mill, that the dogs struggled in the grip of the boys, that the flowers against the wall behind the couple would bloom. Those lives are caught for a moment, but life flows on around them, and they, too, will join the flow as soon as the picture is taken. Meanwhile, I honor those moments by their presence on my wall. *