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southern literature

Photo illustration by Madeline Rombes.

Graphic Novels and Other Illuminated Writing

The book has been sitting on my shelves for a long time. It is the census for 1860, published in 1864, titled Population of The United States in 1860; Compiled from the Original Returns of the Eighth Census, Under the Direction of the Secretary of the Interior, by Joseph C. G. Kennedy, Superintendent of Census. Printed by the U.S. Government Printing Office—which had been established recently, in 1861—traces of the book’s hand-labored manufacturing are evident in so many ways, such as the thin cotton binding cords sewn into the signatures to hold the pages together, which are perhaps the most personal touch. Of the over 350 men and women who worked there, dozens were employed as sewers, as depicted here in an image from the Government Printing Office.

u.s. census southern art

I had found it at a used bookstore several years back but hadn’t looked at it carefully until a few weeks ago when, paging through it, I came upon the dried flowers and other small remnants of human presence. It’s always a small wonder—no matter how many times it’s happened before—to discover traces of some earlier reader, whether it be in the form of a signature, or doodles, or pressed flowers or tree leaves, or just underlinings or notations.



I. The Flowers

I held them in my hands. They are fragile but, having been protected by the dark for so many years, retain their texture and even some color—as embalmed as the one who put them there. I wonder whose hands those were, and why, and if there’s any significance to the pages I found them between.

u.s. census southern art 

Are the flowers as old as the book itself, reaching back 148 years? In his slim, magnificent volume The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes wrote:

Everyone can testify that the pleasure of the text is not certain: nothing says that this same text will please us a second time; it is a friable pleasure, split by mood, habit, circumstance, a precarious pleasure…. The bliss of the text is not precarious, it is worse: precocious; it does not come in its own good time, it does not depend on any ripening.

A pleasure “split by mood, habit, circumstance”—the very moment and circumstance we find ourselves in when encountering a text makes all the difference. Today, the sun coming through the window just right, touching the dried flower for the first time in over 100 years, I am somehow moved enough to write these words. But yesterday or tomorrow everything is changed: The flowers are just flowers, and I resent my own sentimentality, my nostalgia. For perhaps the hands that placed the flowers in the census book belonged to a terrible person, someone whose moral failings scaled great heights. I fall asleep with this thought and dream that, in fact, the hands belonged to a villain and that he or she placed the flowers as a serial-killer token, and that they would be smuggled through history pressed between the pages of a massive book that would be protected and preserved because of its historical import.

II. The Signature

When I first discovered it, I had the strange feeling that the book had been waiting for me to turn to this page and to lay my fingers across the wide, looping signature.

G. W. vandike

 And then beneath it, a word I first read as 


There was something about it that unsettled me. The downward sloping-ness of the cursive; the confidence of the handwriting at G. W. as opposed to the shakier, smaller vandike; the eight squiggly lines, increasing in length, as if marking something off or testing the ink.

u.s. census southern art

I came to suspect that the word wasn’t deserter at all. And yet I wanted it to be deserter, and I wanted G. W. vandike to be the one secretly accused in the pages of this book published by The Government Printing Office in Washington in 1864, the year of Sherman’s March to the Sea. I wondered about the light tone of the ink, and recalled how Henry Louis Gates, Jr. had authenticated that the only known novel by a female American slave, The Bondwoman’s Narrative, was written in the 1850s. After purchasing the manuscript at auction, Gates worked for years to verify its authenticity and date of composition, not least because many antebellum whites, capitalizing on the interest in slave narratives, wrote fake ones. A key part of the authentication process involved examining and dating the manuscript’s ink. Gates eventually took the manuscript to Kenneth W. Rendell, a dealer in historical documents. 

Rendell invited me to peer down the lens of his microscope before sharing his verdict with me. “What you are looking at, young man,” he intoned, “is iron-gall ink,” widely in use until 1860. Rendell thought it likely that the manuscript had been created as early as 1855.

I thought about this as I traced my fingers over the slightly raised cursive. What sort of ink? What sort of writing instrument? What sort of hand? As if the iron in the blood just beneath my fingertips could somehow detect the iron in the ink. As if by tracing the cursive letters I was somehow closer to the person who made them.



III. The Slaves

Between the 1860 census and its complete publication in 1864, the Civil War began, of course, and the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, so Kennedy’s long introduction and notes refer to slavery as both an ongoing practice and as something that has, in his words, “become extinct.” In 1860, the white population of Arkansas was recorded at 324,143. There were also 144 “free colored.” And slaves accounted for 111,115. In Pulaski County—home of The Oxford American—the 1860 census counted 3,505 slaves, 7 free colored, and 8,187 whites.

u.s. census pulaski county arkansas

In other words, approximately forty-two percent of the population was enslaved human beings. S. Charles Bolton, in Fugitives From Injustice: Freedom-Seeking Slaves in Arkansas, 1800-1860, notes that “Little Rock, which had barely 4,000 people in 1860, was a small city, but more than twenty percent of the population were enslaved African Americans. Some of them were agricultural workers on nearby farms, but most were either domestic workers or artisans or worked in the building trades.”

The census lists over 150 occupations in Arkansas for 1860, including: engravers, wood combers and carters (there were only two), button-makers, stave-makers, harness-makers, confectioners (there were twenty-two), showmen, occultists (there was only one), hatters, farmers, druggists, mantua-makers (dress-makers), bookbinders, die-sinkers, quarrymen, midwives, and spinners.

Slavery is not listed as an occupation.

IV. The Diagram

Because the Civil War delayed the publication of the full 1860 census until 1864, several smaller, partial, preliminary reports were published. Unlike the complete census (692 pages), whose illustrations consist entirely of charts, graphs, and tables, the smaller Preliminary Report on the Eighth Census (294 pages) published in 1862, contains an elegant, circuit-like flowchart depicting the increase in population by state from 1790-1860 with snaking solid and dotted lines that, almost as a secret symbol of hope, suggest the connectedness of the states in a time of brutal disunion.

u.s. census

In fact, although Kennedy’s prose—heroic in its sweeping detail in the 118-page introduction to the actual census data—is of necessity straightforward and unadorned, he does, in the very last paragraph of his report, write this:

That we have suffered and lost materially, and temporarily in national dignity, notwithstanding what we continue to enjoy, must be evident to all; but, as in the convulsions of nature and the physical sufferings of communities or desolations of cities, the evil is generally but transitory, often resulting in accelerated prosperity, by the sweeping off of the feebler elements and bringing new energies and resources into action, we may not unreasonably hope. 

Published in May 1862—four months before the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day of the War—Kennedy’s sad, hopeful words have that mixture of ground-level realism and higher purpose. He was not a general, or a politician, or a poet, and yet in the phrase evil is generally but transitory he becomes those things. 



V. The Insane

There is much about the insane—how to care for the insane, whether or not it is curable, what causes insanity—in Kennedy’s introduction.

u.s. census 1864

In one of the most remarkable passages, after having considered the various possible causes of insanity (physical, psychic, moral, predisposing), Kennedy suggests a larger, social cause: that, in the present era (mid-nineteenth-century America), civilization itself is a cause of mental alienation:

If we consider the subject of causation, in its broadest relations to the human race, we shall be forced to believe, how unwelcome soever may be the conviction, that civilization, as it now exists, is the greatest of all the radical or remote influences productive of mental alienation…. Steam, water-power, and machinery have taken from human muscles a very large proportion of the labor which they once performed. Railroads and telegraphs have imparted to us new ideas of time and space. 

Kennedy’s words are a haunted version of Karl Marx’s theories of estranged labor published in 1844 (“In estranging from man (1) nature, and (2) himself, his own active functions, his life activity, estranged labor estranges the species from man”) and Henry David Thoreau’s chapter “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For” in Walden, 1854: “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.” It’s as if American civilization itself is a cause for insanity; the machines we build for progress and advancement actually carry us deeper into the dark. 

There is a whole other world to be pondered in the simple fact that the chart includes slaves, and the mind leaps to what this suggests about power and labor and discipline and obedience, as if resistance to forced, unpaid labor, or perhaps sexual degradation, as in the case of a slave like Harriet Ann Jacobs, who resisted over and over the sexual advances of her owner, might be perceived as “insane.” The census is a book, primarily, of human beings whose names are numbers. There were, according to the historical record, 1,121 insane whites in Virginia and 58 insane slaves in 1860. It is not the charge of the census to go behind the numbers, for the census is a statistical enterprise, an elaborate form of counting and sorting, a way for a civilization to measure and mark its progress adorned with numbers, not words.



Note 1

In July 1887, Kennedy was stabbed to death in Washington, DC by a man named John Dailey, a former business acquaintance, who, according to an article in the New York Times from 15 July 1887, “manifested perfect indifference” at his trial. 

Note 2

I take one last look through the book before moving on to other projects and discover the lock of hair, inserted between two pages near the back.

u.s. census 1864

Curled delicately, its oil having spread out in a bloom across the pages, the hair is part of a human body in a book about numbered bodies, enslaved and free, the insane, the married and unmarried, the ones with terrible secrets, the somnambulists, the literate and the ones for whom printed words exist only as abstractions, the ones whose hands comfort a dying child, the ones who preach God’s word and those for whom the forest is God’s temple, the ones who manufactured Spencer carbine cartridges and the ones whose bodies they murdered, the nail manufacturers, the chair-makers, the adored and the despised, the ones who ferried the dead and the ones who lay dying in the field inhaling the terpenes drifting in from the far, far pine forest.

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