American Meteor (due from Bellevue Literary Press in May, 2015)
In this panoramic tale of Manifest Destiny, Stephen Moran comes of age with the young country that he crosses on the Union Pacific, just as the railroad unites the continent. He is propelled westward from the killing fields of the Civil War to the Little Bighorn, where he stalks General George Custer. When he comes face-to-face with Crazy Horse, his life will be spared but his dreams will be haunted for the rest of his days. Elegiac and comic, American Meteor is more than an “Old West” adventure; it is a novel of ideas and of mourning for the dark ecology of the American present, as prophesied by its past: a unique vision of our nation’s fabulous and murderous history.
Omaha, Nebraska, October-December 1868
I was sweeping out the private car when a black boy knocked at the door. He took off his hat, handed me a folded piece of paper, and ran off without a word. Lincoln and war had freed the slaves, but the habits of abjection were too ingrained to be broken in a generation. They waited, excitable as Fleischmann’s yeast, to rise and show themselves. A scowl or an angry word could make a Negro doff his cap to a white woman or step aside to let a white man pass. Black folk might have been disenthralled, but their fear remained – with good reason. For no sooner had the war ended than six disgruntled rebs cut eye holes in their missuses’ sheets. Rope became a thing with which to hang a man and crosses, such as the lynched Jesus had sanctified, a torch to burn in a black sharecropper’s yard. Traffickers in human sweetness – the poets, preachers, and printers of Valentine’s Day cards – declare love to be our kind’s supreme emotion. Young as I was, I suspected enmity held sway.
The note asked if I would come to the Jackson Brothers’ photographic studio at three o’clock that afternoon, “if convenient.”
You can call William Henry Jackson’s arrival in Omaha “triumphal” insofar as a cowboy whooping and waving his dusty Stetson to goad a herd of exasperated cattle into the stockyard, at the end of a thousand-mile trail through hostile territory, has completed a journey as harrowing and as worthy of commemoration as Ulysses’ or Hannibal’s. Heroic moments like Jackson’s belong to the mythology of the West – the Old West now, in 1901.
William came West in ’66, with Gettysburg and jobs as a photographer’s assistant behind him. Before he and his brother Edward opened their Omaha studio, William had tried his hand not only at cowpoking but also at silver mining and bull whacking on a mule train bound for Montana. He left it in Wyoming and made his way to Salt Lake City, where the Mormons were building their temple near the River Jordan to honor the angel Moroni. Burton, the Victorian explorer and adventurer, must have considered the city as fantastic as Lake Tanganyika or Mecca and the Mormons as exotic as The Arabian Nights to have traveled there six years before. By the time William reached California, his infatuation with picture making had been revived by the alien grandeur of the scenery. The West made his home state of Vermont look like a picnic grove.
The afternoon when I walked into the Jackson Brothers’ studio, William was up on the Missouri River, making stereopticon views of the Pawnee. Sated with photographs of the Civil War, eastern voyeurs clamored for novelty; and photographers who had been fixing images of fratricide on glass-plate negatives could no longer sell them, except as panes for greenhouses, where – bleached by an indifferent sun – they proved less than indelible. Thus, in time, are the most horrifying events forgotten as history fades and disappears. Having lumbered by mule or wagon from one corpse-strewn battlefield to another, Gardner, O’Sullivan, Pywell, and others of the wet-plate sodality were now out shooting the Western Territories – their native peoples and natural splendors, along with an itinerant population of miners, drovers, teamsters, hunters, trappers, hucksters, gamblers, whores, soldiers, renegades, bad men, and “characters.” W. H. Jackson, as he styled himself, became famous for recording the authentic life and likenesses of Pawnee, Osage, Otoe, Winnebago, and Omaha Indians before they were erased (“chalked over” would be more apt) by the strong arm of history. History is what gets written by the conquerors, but in the end, it’s just so much dust. Paper molders, ink dries in the bottle, and conquerors lime the dirt with their indistinguishable bones.
You’ll accuse me, no doubt, of simplifying history, Jay. Most of us do just that, knowing no more of it than our own time – and not knowing even that much well and truly.
Edward Jackson stayed behind in the Omaha studio, taking pictures of whoever walked through the door in hopes of cheating time. When I walked through it at three o’clock, with wet leaves pasted to my soles, he was immortalizing the wife of one of the Sheely brothers, who looked like one of their own sausages. I guess she had as much right to immortality as Jenny Lind, though I doubted posterity or the heirs to the Omaha packinghouse fortune would care to dwell on her portrait. Edward emerged from the camera’s black drape, counted to twenty, and capped the lens. I wondered if an exposure’s duration was commensurate with gross weight. If so, the “Swedish Nightingale” would need no more than a blink of light against the plate’s silver-halide grains to capture her winsome figure. Edward must have been thinking along similar lines.
“There was so much of her, I needed the stereo camera,” he remarked drily after the fat woman had unfurled an umbrella and, grasping an elegantly carved handle made from the horn of a steer felled in the family’s own slaughterhouse, stepped outside into the puddled street.
I introduced myself while he developed the negative. The walls of the studio were hung with democratic portraits of American types that might have stepped from the pages of Whitman’s book: carpenters, masons, boatmen, mechanics, lumbermen, butchers, trappers, agents, cowboys, scouts, saloon keepers – occupations either glorious or inglorious, depending on your side of the divide between the haves and the have-nots. Edward was grimly egalitarian, like anybody who fled to the frontier after his roots had failed to take hold in his native soil.
Westering was a kind of sickness that swept over the body, a fever of the brain, a craze, a seizure, an unmooring, a tide in which people got caught up like corks in a flood. They were beside themselves with the irresistible desire to leave – to put a continent between their old lives and what they imagined would become of them if they could only emigrate. They’d become famous or infamous, according to their predisposition – or to the dictates of Predestination, if you believe in it. Regardless, they’d – we’d – be judged deserving of honor or the noose, as if there were no hand at our backs, pushing us. And rightly so.
“Durant had your new camera shipped here so I could teach you how to use it.”
Believing Durant had forgotten or dismissed the proposition I’d made him months earlier up in the Black Hills, I was staggered into speechlessness.
“Perhaps you consider instruction in such an uncomplicated instrument unnecessary,” said Edward, rankled by my silence, which he misconstrued as a lofty disdain for his profession.
“No, sir; I’m just surprised is all.”
I doubt Uriah Heep could have made a more convincing show of humility. But Edward was slow to dismount from his high horse. He sat it like a man with a grievance.
“Didn’t you ask him to purchase you a camera?” he went on, hoping to spur me into an admission he could fault. He seemed to have taken a dislike to me – for what reason, I couldn’t guess, unless he was suspicious of Durant’s magnanimity. My white suit and sissified vocation might have made him wonder what sort of creature I was. And whose.
“I did ask him, but as my mother – of blessed memory! – used to say, ‘If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.’”
Whether by invoking a dead mother or by siding with beggars, I managed to quell his hostility. He went inside the darkroom and poured warm varnish over the glass plate and set it to dry. He returned to the studio, where the rainy afternoon cast a submarine light through the high windows.
“He must be a generous man,” he declared: an appraisal, which was, in Durant’s case, as wide of the mark as pyrite is of gold. But I thought it best to agree with him.
“He is that, sir.”
“Generous men are rare in my experience,” he said grudgingly.
“In mine, too,” I said, to let him know that the contents of chamber pots were more likely than manna to fall on my head; sleet, than a gentle rain from heaven.
“Do you know anything at all about photography?” he asked in the voice of a man who had been won over.
I’d never have survived my youth without a disarming, slightly fraudulent manner. I was not a con man, but I borrowed his plausible face and shrewd ways to escape thrashing. Being the universal fate of everything that would seek to rise above the common dirt, thrashing, however, is mostly inescapable.
Edward showed himself to be generous of his time and knowledge, unlike many another master of an esoteric art, who keeps its secrets close in order to lord it over the uninitiated. He disclosed with no-nonsense frankness the alchemy of light and silver that could coax the likeness of a man or mountain onto a piece of glass wet with collodion and silver nitrate and from it – through a straightforward process of developing, rinsing, fixing, washing, varnishing – onto a sheet of albumen-coated paper. In two months’ time, I could make a passable portrait of a water jug or of a hunter just arrived in town after massacring bison on the Nebraska plain, capturing every individual hair of his coonskin cap, every wrinkle of his deerskin shirt and sunburned face, every particular of what made him unique among men, except for his smell, which was as strong and disagreeable as a musk ox’s. In time, I came to grasp the action of light on the silver halides; but what I never understood was how the image of a man made its way across the studio’s rough floor or how the facsimile of a mountain crossed leagues of prairie to light, silently as a moth, on the lens of the camera or of the eyes, for that matter. I doubted Edward knew the science of the thing – or his brother, either, off among the Indians, making portraits that would explain the red man to the white, if anything so quiet and mysterious could reconcile them when the latter was clamoring, by and large, for the former’s extinction.
I’d meet William the following year at the summit. He would further my education by showing me how to make a picture under the big sky, how to vary an exposure according to the light surrounding the subject and its relative motion, and – most important – how to appraise a subject’s value as a testament to human dignity or natural glory. What was not possessed of the “fat light” – an immanence that shed radiance over the world of gross matter – should be left to the portraitists of sausage-shaped ladies and their rich consorts. This final lesson, the hardest, would take some time to learn; but before my instruction could begin, our two lives – wildly divergent until now – would have to converge.
Promontory Summit, Utah Territory, May 10, 1869
I’ve sworn to speak the truth and not gusset it with gossip and conjecture. My visions were neither, and you should take them as Gospel. Except for them – a peep through the transom window, so to speak – I’ve been bound, like anyone, by the ambit of my life, although in the days of which I speak, lives tended to be packed with more occupations and places than in settled times. By the end of the Civil War, half a million people had picked up and moved across the continent and reshaped their identities while they were at it. A single life is too confining for some. The West was a theater in which they might enact the promptings of desire and so enrich themselves.
Land might have been theirs for the taking, but the cost of having forded the Missouri and toiled westward into the unknown was high. I could’ve said “stepped off a precipice and trusted to the air” and told the truth. For every mile of the two-thousand-mile Oregon Trail – blazed in dust and salt, snow and sorrow – from Independence to the Humboldt or up into the Columbia Basin, ten graves marked the way, dug by cholera, dysentery, tuberculosis, mountain fever, snakebite, brain congestion, insanity, murder, tetanus, laudanum overdose, suicide, the high desert’s entombing snows, or other misadventure. Death dealt by enraged Indians routed from tribal lands by wagon trains and cavalry was considerably less than anyone supposed. But I’ll leave facts and figures to the writers of history. It’s enough for a man to keep his own books. My purpose is to account for my time aboveground, whose parentheses enclose the year of my birth in 1848 and that of my death in 1901. I can see by your face you don’t expect me to live out the year. Don’t look so stricken, Jay! There’s no need; I’ve lived a crowded life.
I told you how the rails of the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific met finally in the spring of ’69, in Utah, near Ogden. What I recall of it (a historic moment that inaugurated the settlement and the ruination of the West), I’ve already said – except for my first encounter with William Jackson. I’ll tell you about that meeting, which would set my life going on a new track.
Able photographers were recording the “bond of iron, which is to hold our glorious country in one eternal union,” on their glass-plate negatives. Theirs would be the steel-engraved views printed in newspapers, on stereopticon cards, and, in years to come, in the history books that would revere the tenth of May, 1869, as an American holy day, when Manifest Destiny was sanctified by money and technology. The Indians of the Great Plains and the bedraggled bison that grazed there would have cause to execrate it. But who was there at Promontory Summit to care for the well-being of either? Not Durant and not the Central Pacific’s president, Leland Stanford, who had gone to California in ’52 and, unlike the Chinese, discovered Gum Sham in the miners’ misery from which he profited. And who is there to care when time – friend of those chosen by natural selection – will have disposed of species judged unfit to survive? What the weak and the meek inherit is Oblivion.
William Henry Jackson had little interest in the ceremony of industry and progress enacted at Promontory Summit – frankincense and myrrh replaced by the profane stink of whiskey and sweat. Had he been there, Whitman would have been driven mad by his rough camerados. Jackson had already made enough icons of light and shadow to satisfy Durant, who’d hired him instead of me as the Union Pacific photographer. I held no resentment for either man, knowing Jackson to be the master of the art I now wished to practice, if only in a small way. Months in the studio with his brother had showed me how far I’d have to travel to be anything more than an apprentice. When I first laid eye on William, he had turned his camera toward a pyramid of rock, reminiscent of Giza’s, rising from the horizon, well beyond the giddy jamboree. At twenty-seven minutes past two, when Stanford and Durant let fall their hammers to drive home the ceremonial spikes, the two locomotives that, until that instant, had existed as the potential of an idea for the transformation of America became the embodiment of an energy as ferocious as the atom’s, unleashed in 1945 in the Jornado del Muerte.
Patience, Jay! All will be revealed in time, as it was for me by Crazy Horse. I’ve been as likely to misunderstand what I saw and heard as the next human. But I believe in Crazy Horse’s dreams. Stanford and Durant, by the way, both missed their gold spikes, in a moment of low comedy not conveyed to San Francisco or Washington by the laconic message telegraphed from the wedding of the rails: “Done.”
Lincoln had pushed the completion of the transcontinental railroad. He thought it would strengthen the Union by speeding the incorporation of territories west of the Mississippi and help heal the nation after war. On the map, the nineteen hundred miles of track from California to Council Bluffs look like an ugly scar cut across the belly of the West, as if whatever was waiting to be born of all that money and travail had to be wrested from the Great Mother’s womb. Indians believed she died of it, and all that was nourished by her generous belly and tits – the plenitude of milk and honey that had made the aboriginal land a paradise – died afterward. From what I’ve seen with my own eye and in the dreams sent me, the Indians were right.
That night, I went to Jackson’s tent to introduce myself. He was absorbed in a negative he’d made that afternoon of the jagged peaks in the distance. I watched him pore over the eight-by-ten-inch plate, one eye squinting through a jeweler’s loupe.
“There’s an advantage to having just the one eye,” he said, making no other overture to the stranger who’d entered his tent without invitation. He hadn’t looked up. He appeared to take no notice of me in the uncertain light of the kerosene lamp, yet he’d seen enough to know I wore an eye patch. My face must have showed my amazement, like that of someone who’s witnessed a parlor trick he can’t explain. “One eye makes it easy to look through the camera or glass,” he said, putting down his loupe on the trestle table. “And you’ll never have to squint to consider some small detail of the picture.”
“How did you know I want to take pictures?” I asked, under the influence of his uncanny performance.
“I saw you watching me during the high jinks this afternoon. You were too intense for someone with only a casual interest in the ‘mysteries’ of the profession. Although the mystery has been debunked by familiarity, and a photographer isn’t the curiosity he used to be in the days of the daguerreotypist, when a crowd would gather just to see his head vanish behind the black drape. We were considered magicians then. But after a million views, the novelty’s worn off.”
His glance swept the negatives laid on the table and then lifted to take me in. I found his eyes hard to meet. But I did meet them, impudently, as if he were himself a photographic subject about to be pierced by the camera’s all-seeing lens.
“I know who you are.”
“Who?” I said sharply and much annoyed.
Jackson liked to be mystifying, the same as anyone who conjures. But my admiration was enough to satisfy him. I didn’t need to truckle – he’d have hated me for it. From the first, I sensed that his pride was not in himself but in his gifts, which he willingly shared with those who treated them seriously. If he’d tried to lord it over me, I’d have turned on my heel and left – never mind that I needed him. His brother had nothing more to teach me. Already, I knew I wanted to make pictures of real things and real people – not prettifying portraits of flowers or “stiffs,” which was how Edward referred to customers whose rigid poses were as lifelike as the dead men’s he was sometimes asked to photograph.
“Stephen Moran,” he said with a becoming smile. He laughed, and then he admitted that Edward had wired him to expect a visit from me at the summit, if I had the nerve. “My brother’s been writing to me about you. He says you’ve the makings of a first-class photographer.”
Those words gave me more pleasure than anyone else’s had up to that time, not forgetting General Grant’s when he gave me my medal. Just so you know, I only wore it twice after he sent it back to me. And when I outgrew my Union sack coat, I gave it to an Indian, who used to slink around Omaha buttoned up in it, begging for liquor.
“So tell me, Moran: Why do you want to be a photographer?”
He would ask that question several times during the nearly two years we traveled together. I don’t think my answers ever satisfied him completely.
“You can tell a lot about your subject by studying the negative,” he said, holding it to the light again.
I kept silent, knowing I was about to receive my first master lesson in the photographic – some say “art,” others, “science.” I began by thinking it the former; in time, I came to think of it as a science; lately, I’ve come to consider it a faith. Jackson handed me the glass plate. I held it to the light and studied it with my one good eye.
“Tell me what you see.”
“A mountain range in the distance. In the foreground, a group of white tents. Emptiness in between.”
“Good. But you must learn to look deeper.”
He spoke almost gently. If he’d been sharp, the shell where my raw self resided like an oyster would have broken. You’d have thought the tender organ of someone without a childhood would quickly become hardened. But I possessed the child’s eager and easily wounded heart. In my lifetime, I’d been shown little enough kindness, except by my mother, who died too soon to fortify me against the meanness of the world. It weakened me, but it did not undo me. I could be as cruel as the world is. To use a figure from a later time, I was resistant, like a virus that fire and ice ought to annihilate but can’t in spite of its insignificance.
“What do I see?” I asked in a tone of voice that bespoke not servility, but the disciple’s acceptance of criticism. I was twenty – the age when boys feel themselves licensed to rebel against authority. But I was ready to be chastened. I wanted to follow him into the wilderness.
“You see the invisible made visible,” he uttered with the solemnity of a Hindu swami. “Moran, you see the bones of the world.”
I had no idea what he meant – and wouldn’t until I saw Hand mit Ringen, the first X-ray picture, taken by Wilhelm Röntgen of his wife’s hand, in an 1897 issue of Scientific American.
“If you’re interested only in recording the scenery, I don’t have time to waste on you.”
I felt as though I were picking my way through a field of Confederate “torpedoes.” A misstep would nip my prospects in the bud. Already I sensed that photography could be about something more important than stiffs or scenery, but I couldn’t have put it into words – not then or this morning, so many years later. Once in a great while and mostly by accident, I’d glimpse the quicksilver thing that Jackson sought with his camera; but I never caught on, you see, never really understood the spiritual thing he was after. My instincts were good; my technique was sound. I could capture a subject down to its broken shirt button and the mole in the shadow of the jaw, but for all my virtuosity, the life was no more than a facsimile. The picture wasn’t dead; neither was it alive. It lacked . . . vitality. No, I was never more than a second-rate cameraman. I had sense to know, however, that my future depended on the success of my catechism. I had not the slightest idea why this should be, but I was right. Jackson was waiting for an answer (it was a question he’d left hanging in the air, even if he hadn’t framed it as one), but I had none to give.
“Some pictures make me restless,” I said after having temporized as long as I dared by fingering an earlobe and snuffling. The air inside the tent was pungent with chemicals.
“Restless?” His voice seemed to light up.
“The pictures I like do.”
“I can’t say. I feel a sort of anticipation. An eagerness comes over me that isn’t always pleasant. It’s hard to put into words.”
“Where do you feel it?”
“In my heart,” I replied, lying.
He spat contemptuously.
“I feel it here,” I said, touching myself.
Evidently, my answer pleased him. “I’ll be getting off the Omaha-bound train in Wyoming. Durant wants pictures of a miners’ camp for a railroad prospectus. At least, I persuaded him he does. It’s all right with him if you go along as my assistant. What do you think of the idea?”
I thought it glorious and told him as much.
“We’ll get off at Bear River City and pick up a string of mules for our equipment.”
I did not know how to thank him – what words to use without their sounding like a hurried grace said over a growling belly. Gratitude, sincerely meant, was foreign to my nature and experience. So I said nothing. I nodded and left him to the “stark forms of existence” that we’d hunt down one hard winter in Ute country. I stepped outside into night’s negative: The rails and the limestone hills and the tents shone silver with moonlight; the sky and the desert nothingness that spread around me were black. A meteor hissed across the darkness, an auspice of the American Empire and also a portent of its end. The meteor was only in my own mind; nonetheless, it made me shiver.
- Excerpts from American Meteor - May 1, 2015
- Why Write #4:Norman Lock - January 14, 2012