AMERICA, America. Believing still in the magic words, in the resonant mystery, the muscle and native shrewdness, I am bound to believe still that anything is possible. Even this is possible: that Americans are ready at last to listen to the weird poetry of their own experience. Some Americans, anyway.
We are not all brass and bugles, not flags and marching battalions, not even eagles, much as I love eagles.For poetry, we all grew up on Walt Whitman's patriotic songs of carpenters hammering and marble vistas gleaming with democratic possibilities. That romantic memory always prevails in this season, when we are installing a new president in Lincoln's chair and hoping sincerely that the drums and bugles which follow him down the avenue will also echo through his future.
I am talking of another America, not the realm of proud public sentiment but the great national collective of private longings. This dark mortal river runs through our minds, part fact and part fiction, sweet gestures and fragile memories intended to conquer the limits of time. In this corner of our minds, wierd space that crass politics fails to grasp, America is about love and the deals we make for love.
What is love to American history? Silly question, the historian would say, impossible to address. The political scientist might ask for data, a longitudinal study, a regression analysis. Even the poet would object to the question, claiming that love is eternal and, therefore, none of history's business.
Nevertheless, I know an historian who is absorbed, maybe obsessed, by the strange question. His name is Michael Lesy -- who is fairly strange himself, as historians go -- and he pays a price for his lovely obsession. Fellow historians turn away in disdain; Lesy is not offered important positions on the best faculties.
Nevertheless, Michael Lesy, I believe, has found a way into that dark river, the America that lives somewhere between poetry and history. His entry is through pictures, from studio portraiture to family snapshots, hundreds of thousands of photographs, which he studies and massages for human messages.
He selects a representative handful and lays them out carefully in strangely compelling albums, accompanied by his own spare essays to provoke our thoughts and by the real words of the people in the pictures. Those who are ready to listen can hear in Lesy's books a little of the strange American music which plays beneath the brassy facts.
Lesy's new book, "Time Frames, The Meaning of Family Pictures" (Pantheon, New York, 1980), is constructed from the snapshot albums of living Americans, people from his parents' generation, mainly the children of immigrants who grew up very poor in a northern industrial city, went to war, and tried very hard as adults to find loving families and to be Americans. In an interlude of spiritual confusion, Lesy approached these people and asked to see their photo albums and also to hear their explanations of life. Some failed, many prospered; most of them sought more than they achieved. Their stories are astonishing narratives, yet also commonplace and familiar. The snapshots, like the stories, are mainly about the search for love.
I like Manny's story best of all. He described a wretched childhood in which poverty was the least of his afflictions. His mother gave custody of her children to a wrathful father who alternately oppressed them and deserted them. Manny grew up without a father or a mother, really. He left home to work for a grocer and was living in the rat-infested basement of this grocery when, one day, he saw Marilyn.
"I met Marilyn by accident. I was on this double date. We stopped to get some ice cream. They had 'rainbow' cones. Ice cream with different colors. They used to slap them on, build them up with these long flat spoons. cSo, I walk in, and (his voice grows soft) I see this little fat girl behind the counter. About as tall as she is wide. And (breathlessly) I said, 'God, this is . . .' Heaven opened up! Honestly! I didn't know her! She was busy. I ordered four cones. I got so excited that as I was carrying these things out to the car (he giggles, shrilly), I dropped the whole thing! I said to my boyfriend, I says (breathlessly), 'I just saw the girl in there. I don't know who she is, but I'm going to marry that girl!' This is the honest-to-God truth! I didn't know her from Adam."
A miracle? An illumination? In any case, a lovely story which is clearly the whole truth for Manny, who married Marilyn and had the loving family (and the perfect loving mother) he desperately wanted. In a strange and symbolic manner, the snapshots confirm and deepen the meaning of his story -- photos of Manny and Marilyn embracing by the fecund sea, of Manny the tourist standing by erotic shapes of Marilyn posing like the queen of love on a hotel room bed, of Marilyn in the seventh month of pregnancy. The last snapshot has a lens flare, a great ball of light hovering over Marilyn's pregnant belly, like an unconscious expression via film of what the event meant to Manny.
Ultimately, Lesy sees something deeper than facts in the snapshots -- the repetition of Freudian images of frecundity and power and eros which are repeated too consistently in the accidental family poses to be truly accidental. They are, like dreams themselves, expressions of wished-fo realities, the unconscious visual imagination recorded on film. These snapshots are, as he explains in his introductory essay, "Pictures that are both cliches and archetypes, vulgar and miraculous, fact and fiction."
Other narratives are not so heart-warming. The snapshots reveal families held together by illusions, by comforting lies told to the self, by sickness and neurosis and hard deals made between success and love, in which one serves the other and also diminishes it.
Herb's life is a familiar American drama -- the absent father who pays a price for success and tries in his own way, to compensate for the loss. He travel, Sunday to Friday, and misses his children's childhood. With succes, he buys larger and more splendid homes for them, a house in the colonial American style, and he records all this on film -- hundreds and hundreds of snapshots of his life. "I don't like contemporary-looking things," Herb explained about his house and antiques. "I think [Lin and I are] more proud of our American heritage than anything else. Should we have Polish or Italian furniture? I think we're Americans. I know we are."
When Herb was home, he posed his growing children in the idyllic rituals of family life, at birthdays and Christmas, doing the things which children do growing up. Herb wanted, as Lesy explains, "to create a visual documents of his children so that he could console himself with appearances . . . he photographed his children on weekends and holidays -- certainly with great love -- but in somewhat the same spirit he photographed Williamsburg on vacation: he was a tourist, appropriating appearances. If he could not remain at home, he could at least register his presence as an observer by telling his children to stand still and look at Daddy."
Do you believe that? I am sure that many will not, even if they earnestly study Lesy's book, several times, as one must to grasp its message. Nevertheless, I think Lesy has created a true book and a brave one which, in its own peculiar way, speaks eloquently to the brassy patriotic passions. Brave because Lesy is reaching for the wholeness of the American soul, exposing our vulnerable nature and our nobility, our enduring innocence really, as he makes connections between past and present, between Freud and Walt Whitman, between ancient archetypes of dreams and the modern paraphernalia of American life, between love and money.
Surely, this weird music is relevant to presidents, for they are moved by it too in their own lives. More important, if they have greatness in them, they will speak to the collective unconscious, for it is these small personal transactions, the deals we make for love, as Lesy would say, that are the great motive force of American life. Not equality and freedom, not liberty and justice, but the private longing which history never records.
When I look at Michael Lesy's picture albums, I know that the message is true. Anyone may try the same test. Browsing through these snapshots and reading the personal narratives, do you recognize a father or a sister, an uncle or an aunt from your own family? Do these people seem familiar, like true Americans? Do you, perhaps, glimpse something of yourself?