Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher:
The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan
I picked this one up at City Lights in San Francisco during my last visit to the states. I bought three dozen books on that trip, but this was the only one I bought new.
Edward Sherriff Curtis created the most definitive archive of the American Indian. With no more than a sixth grade education, he amassed more than 40,000 photos and 10,000 audio recordings over a period of thirty years. What he lacked in credentials he made up for in confidence. He tried to be “a stenographer of the Great Mystery” by simultaneously performing the roles of ethnographer, anthropologist and historian, as well as photographer. Curtis went as deep as a white man could possibly go into the cultures of people that white Americans had never tried to understand.
Edward S. Curtis
At thirty-two years of age, in 1900, he became obsessed with the idea, which he referred to as “the Big Idea,” of dedicating himself completely to recording for posterity the ways of the continent’s original inhabitants before they disappeared.
He witnessed government agents banning religious ceremonies, forced assimilation, and children being hauled off to boarding schools where they were to be “cleansed” with western Christianity. The boys were taught how to read and farm; the girls were taught to serve tea and be homemakers.
Curtis knew the clock was ticking. In a single decade, the 1880s, more than 75,000 miles of railroad track was laid, and nearly three million people headed west. He wrote to his friend Bird Grinnell, “There won’t be anything left of them in a few generations and it’s a tragedy. A national tragedy.” He needed to find a patron to finance his project.
Enter J.P. Morgan, an unlikely patron who, on his first trip west in 1869, shortly after the completion of the transcontinental railroad, ran into a group of Pawnee Indians in Nebraska. When one of the natives, which Morgan described later as “horrid-looking wild creatures” approached him “he beat a hasty retreat to his private rail car.”
Fortunately, J.P. Morgan was a bibliophile. He owned a first edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost, a vellum Gutenberg Bible, original copies of the Declaration of Independence, and the manuscript to Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. He also owned the famed “Indian Bible,” printed in 1663, the first time Scripture was published in a Native American language, Algonquin.
Morgan agreed to pay Curtis $75,000 over five years to do fieldwork for his project. None of this money would go into Curtis’s pocket. And the money for the printing and binding of the finished product – a twenty-volume set of text and images entitled The North American Indian – would have to come from those willing to pay a subscription. Curtis wanted to ask $5,000 for the complete set, three times the annual wage of the average American at the time.
“Mandan girls gathering berries” by Edward Curtis (c. 1908)
During the fieldwork Curtis was allowed to participate in a Hopi Snake Dance; he was the first white man ever to participate in the ritual. He also uncovered information showing that George Armstrong Custer had unnecessarily sacrificed the lives of his soldiers for his own personal gain at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Curtis’s findings created enemies in high places, enemies who were capable of making or breaking his great project. “I am beginning to believe that nothing is quite so uncertain as facts,” he wrote.
And while we’re on the subject of facts, Curtis wasn’t a completely faithful or honest documentarian. He manipulated photos to fit the narrative he wanted to show the world, that of a people inseparable from the unspoiled, natural world. While working in the studio, he noticed in one photo an alarm clock on the earthen floor of a buffalo-skin tipi between two subjects. He had an assistant retouch the photo, removing the clock, an object of white modernity.
“Cheer up, the worst is yet to come.” -Edward Curtis in a letter to his friend, Hodge
Curtis also became interested in the possibilities of the latest moving picture technology. He had big plans to make a film about native people in the days before European contact. He was sure the project, titled In the Land of the Head-Hunters, would be a big money maker that would give him the economic freedom to finish his book project. But during a dispute with a distributor the film was pulled, pending litigation. The film’s investors raised hell. The courts held the film hostage. In 1924, ten years after the film’s brief premiere, Curtis sold the rights to the film to the American Museum of Natural History for $1,500. The film, which had cost over $75,000 to make, ended up in one of the museum’s vaults.
In 1923, for one of the few times in his life, Curtis took up a political cause. He helped to found the Indian Welfare League. The group found work and legal services for the tribes and became involved in the issue of Indian citizenship. Native Americans had fought in the Great War and before that made up a unit of Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, yet they were still not legally considered citizens. And tribal holdings were also continuing to shrink, from 138 million acres in 1890 to 50 million in the 1920s.
“Geronimo – Apache” by Edward S. Curtis (c. 1905)
Curtis was 61 years old when he finished the final book, Volume XX, of The North American Indian. As if his luck couldn’t get any worse, the book appeared in 1930, shortly after the stock market crash of 1929. And in the words of Egan, “Curtis faced the only thing worse than a bad review: silence.”
Curtis never made a dime producing his masterpiece. He died without receiving the recognition he deserved (and desperately wanted). And all those years out in the field, away from his wife and children for months at a time, had cost him a marriage and many friends along the way.
A couple weeks after finishing Egan’s book we were in Valladolid for a weekend. Right next to our hotel there was a bookstore, Castilla Comics. Besides the typical superhero and manga stuff, the place also had lots of art and photography books. I picked up a Spanish language version of Curtis’s The North American Indian (Los Indios de Norteamérica: Las Carpetas Completas) published by Taschen for 15€. It contains all 721 images from the 20 volumes, but without the original text.
Talk about serendipity…
Sing Out!: The Folk Song Magazine
(Vol. 20/No. 3, Jan/Feb 1971)
I picked this up for $10 at a secondhand bookstore which was basically just a rowhouse filled with books on a quiet residential street in Doylestown, PA. The original 1971 cover price was $1.00. It contains tons of lyrics and sheet music, a section on women’s liberation songs, an article by Hedy West (of “500 Miles” fame), a review of a Malvina Reynolds’ record (of “Little Boxes” fame) by Pete Seeger, and lots of ads for banjos, acoustic guitars, mountain dulcimers, bowed psalteries, etc.
What really grabbed my attention and sent me hurdling down memory lane was a book review of The Blues Line: A Collection of Blues Lyrics from Leadbelly to Muddy Waters compiled by Eric Sackheim with drawings and sketches by Jonathan Shahn, son of social realist painter Ben Shahn.
I have a copy of The Blues Line. It was given to me by a girl I had a tumultuous off-and-on (mostly off) relationship with for a couple of years at university. It’s signed by the author, Eric Sackheim, and is dedicated to my ex-girlfriend. Sackheim had been one of her professors at a university she attended before she switched schools, before we met. The book contains the lyrics to 270 songs by blues artists of the 1920s and ´30s. That doesn’t sound like anything special, but it’s the way the words are presented on the page, like poetry, with every grunt, wail and repetition included, that makes this such an interesting book.
Leadbelly by Jonathan Shahn
There is a large section of quotes at the end of The Blues Line taken from conversations and interviews with blues musicians (“I hate to think about another man snoring in my baby’s face.” –Roosevelt Sykes) mixed in with fragments of poetry (“…I heard a murmur, something gone wrong with the silence….” –Samuel Beckett) and philosophy (“He took the scroll of the Torah in his hand and danced with it. Then he laid the scroll aside and danced without it.” –Martin Buber). The effect is fascinating in a Beat Generation experimental cut-up sort of way. Sackheim, like Walter Benjamin, believed that the right combination of carefully chosen and arranged quotations could open up the mind to new ideas and insights.
Speaking of the Beats, there’s even a blurb on the back cover from Allen Ginsberg: “Paperback Sackheim blues astounding grace. How all that great poetry got shunted aside in America is a tale of imperial idiocy and redemption by the meek and despised, just like the Bible.”
But I’m writing about all of this because one day back in college, when the girl and I were living together, Eric Sackheim invited us to his place for dinner. That day I had to go downtown to do some things. The girl told me to make sure I got back home early.
“Don’t forget, we have dinner with Eric tonight.”
She had talked a lot about what an interesting guy he was and, honestly, I was a little nervous about meeting him. A doctorate from Harvard… Japan on a Fulbright scholarship… translator of Japanese and Chinese literature… founder of his own small publishing house (Mushinsha)… I tried not to think about the evening ahead.
I drove into the city (Philadelphia), did what I had to do, then ran into an old friend I hadn’t seen in ages. We ducked into a bar and had a couple of drinks, started reminiscing about old times. Then we ducked into another bar and had a couple more drinks. Then I glanced up at the clock. Oh shit! I’m gonna be late for dinner!
I jumped into my beat-up old car and hauled ass back out to the burbs. When I pulled up to the apartment the girl was sitting on the stoop looking sad and dejected. She got in the car without saying a word.
“So where is this place?” I tried to act normal. I actually wasn’t that late.
She had the directions written down on a scrap of paper. (This was the ´90s.)
“Hang a left at the next light,” she sighed.
There would be plenty of time to argue later, after we played the happy couple in public for a few hours.
We drove around for over an hour. The directions should have gotten us there in about twenty minutes. It started raining. We ended up in some heavily wooded area outside of the city that I had never been to before or since. The sun went down. We were completely lost, driving around in circles trying to read street signs in the rain, in the dark. We found a gas station and pulled over. She called Sackheim from a pay phone. (Again, this was the ´90s.) She walked back to the car slowly. It was really pouring down.
This is not good, I thought.
She was soaked through when she got back in the car.
“What did he say?”
“We’ll do it another time,” she sighed.
“Really? But didn’t you…”
“Home! I wanna go home.”
We eventually found our way home, somehow. The dinner was never rescheduled.
Fast forward a couple of years. I was back in town for a few months. The girl and I were sort of half-heartedly attempting to give things another go. (We humans never learn, do we?) I was standing in her living room one day checking out her bookshelves when I spotted another Eric Sackheim book, Out Of A Grey Notebook: Words I Found for My Children. I pulled it off the shelf and began leafing through the collection of quotes from poets, novelists, composers, painters, philosophers and scientists.
The phone rang. She answered it. After an initially warm, friendly greeting, it became obvious that something was wrong.
“That’s terrible. I’m so sorry. Well, thanks for calling. OK. Take care.”
She hung up and put her head in her hands.
“That was Eric Sackheim’s wife. Eric passed away.” A chill ran down my spine. I gently placed the book back on the shelf.
A couple of weeks later she walked with me to Market East Station. As I waited for my train we hugged and said we’d keep in touch. That was more than 15 years ago. I haven’t seen her since.
I still take The Blues Line off the shelf from time to time and flip through the pages in search of inspiration. It takes me back to those carefree, chaotic days of my early twenties. I picked it up this afternoon and came across this:
“And I say to you: when someone goes someone remains.” –César Vallejo
Wayfaring Strangers: The Musical Voyage from Scotland and Ulster to Appalachia
by Fiona Ritchie & Doug Orr
This is the story of the Scots-Irish immigrants who made their way across the Atlantic during the 18th and 19th centuries and settled in the southern Appalachians. As they came into contact with other cultures –African American, French, German, Cherokee – the traditional songs and ballads they had brought with them began to evolve. The book begins with the discovery of ancient musical artifacts in a cave on the Isle of Skye (which have been carbon dated back to 3,000 years B.C.), takes us through the minstrels and troubadours of the Middle Ages, and continues all the way up to the present day Appalachian musicians and song collectors.
Bonus: this comes with a 20 track CD of traditional songs which deal with the migration saga chronicled in the book. Check it out.