BOOKS OCTOBER 24, 1922
I do not know, cannot know, when the thing happened to Alfred Stieglitz that made him a man beloved of many men. It may have been when he was a young fellow but, as he is an American, it perhaps did not happen with him, within him, until he had come into middle life. At any rate any man going into the presence of Alfred Stieglitz knows that, on a day long ago, something did happen that has sweetened the man’s nature, made him a lover of life and a lover of men. It has come about that many men go gladly and freely in and out of this man’s presence. Knowing the man you may not agree with his judgments on this or that piece of work, you may say to yourself that he talks too much, is too much and sometimes too consciously the prophet of the new age, but in a moment, and after you have gone out of his physical presence, something happened within you too.
You are walking in a city street and suddenly you walk more gladly and lightly. Weariness goes out of you. You are in a street lined with buildings, for the most part ugly and meaningless, but something within is now telling you that a breath can blow even this colossal stone and brick ugliness away. Again, and now quite definitely and permanently you know that, although men have blundered terribly in building up the physical world about themselves and although most men have been incurably poisoned by the ugliness created by men, there is at the very heart of humanity a something sweet and sound that has always found and always will find among men, here and there an individual to strive all his life to give voice to man’s inner sweetness and health.
As for myself, I have quite definitely come to the conclusion that there is in the world a thing one thinks of as maleness that is represented by such men as Alfred Stieglitz. It has something to do with the craftsman’s love of his tools and his materials. In an age when practically all men have turned from that old male love of good work well done and have vainly hoped that beauty might be brought into the world wholesale, as Mr. Ford manufactures automobiles, there has always been, here in America, this one man who believed in no such nonsense, who perhaps often stood utterly alone, without fellows, fighting an old man’s fight for man’s old inheritance—the right to his tools, his materials, and the right to make what is sound and sweet in himself articulate through his handling of tools and materials.
There is something definite to be said in this matter, something very important to be said. Whether or not I am clear-headed enough to say it I can’t be sure. What I do know is that, in some way, the figure of Alfred Stieglitz stands at the heart of the matter. What I think I believe is that we Americans, in the age that has just passed, have been a very sick people. Let me speak of that for a moment. To me it seems that the outward signs of that impotence that is the natural result of long illness are all about us in America. It is to be seen in the city skyscrapers, in the cowboy plays in our moving picture theatres and in our childish liking of the type of statesman who boasts of walking softly and carrying a big stick. True maleness does not boast of its maleness. Only truly strong men can be gentle, tender, patient, and kindly; and sentimental male strutting is perhaps always but an outpouring of poison from the bodies of impotent men. Might it not be that with the coming into general use of machinery men did lose the grip of what is perhaps the most truly important of man’s functions in life—the right every man has always before held dearest of all his human possessions, the right in short to stand alone in the presence of his tools and his materials and with those tools and materials to attempt to twist, to bend, to form something that will be the expression of his inner hunger for the truth that is his own and that is beauty. A year ago Mr. Gilbert Cannan made this dark and threatening comment on our modern life. “Befoul the workman’s tools and materials long enough,” said Mr. Cannan, “and in the end the workman will turn on you and kill you.”
I myself think we have gone rather far on the road of befouling. To me it seems that the Ford automobile is about the final and absolute expression of our mechanical age—and is not the Ford car an ugly and ill-smelling thing? And against the Ford car and the vast Ford factories out in Detroit I would like to put for a moment the figure of Alfred Stieglitz as the craftsman of genius, in short the artist. Born into a mechanical age and having lived in an age when practically all American men followed the false gods of cheapness and expediency, he has kept the faith. To me his life is a promise that the craftsmen, who are surely to be reborn into the world, will not have to kill in order to come back into their old inheritance. Against the day of their coming again Alfred Stieglitz has held to the old faith with an iron grip. Through perhaps almost the single strength of this man, something has been kept alive here in America that we had all come near to forgetting.
I have been walking in the streets of New York and thinking of my friend Alfred Stieglitz and suddenly he no longer stands alone. Certain other figures appear and in them I understand in him certain impulses I have not always understood,have myself come into the years of manhood in an age of Ford factories, and often enough I have run with the pack. Too often in my own work I have not been patient enough. I have stopped half way, have not gone all the way. Shame comes to me and suddenly memories appear. I remember that when I was a lad in Ohio there were in my town certain fine old workmen come down into our new age out of an older time. In fancy now I see again two such men, and hear them speaking of their work as they stand idling in the evening before one of the stores of my town. The lad, who was myself, is fascinated by their talk and stands behind them, listening. And now suddenly one of the workmen has remembered something he wants to explain to his fellow. They are both wagon-makers and each, in his young manhood, has served his long years of apprenticeship and has gone on his workman’s journey. The workman who is tailing is trying to explain to his fellow how, in a certain shop where he once worked in the state of Vermont, they made a wagon felloe.
“You come on,” he says, and the two old men go away together along the street in the dusk of a summer evening with a boy tagging at their heels. How sharply their figures remain in my mind, two old lovers filled with a man’s love, we moderns have almost forgotten. And now they have gone to one of the two wagon shops in the town, and one of them has lighted a lamp and has opened his chest of tools. How affectionately he handles them, and how bright and clean and sharp the tools are. He begins fitting two pieces of wood together. “At that place I was telling you about we did it like this. Afterward I found out a quicker way but I believe the harder way is the best. It makes a better joint, stands up better in all kinds of weather; that’s what I mean,” the old workman says—and how sharply his figure comes me now as I think of Alfred Stieglitz, the prophet of the old workmen—who by the intensity of love of tools and materials has made himself such an outstanding American artist.
There is another man in my mind, of the Steiglitz sort. He lives now at Cleveland, Ohio, where he runs a book store, but some twenty years ago he came to America from Germany as a workman, as a church organ builder. On an evening summer he walked and talked with me, and as he walked and talked his mind went back to his boy hood in a German town. He spoke of the workmen in his father’s shop and their treatment of him when he was a lad, learning his trade. When he had grown careless the workman whose assistant he was, did not report the matter to the superintendent but took the blame on himself. Then the old workman and the boy looked into each others’ eyes. “I didn’t cut up any more monkeyshines after that,” said the bookseller of Cleveland.
On Sundays, when he was a lad, my friend at Cleveland walked in the state forest with his father. Other workmen also came with their sons, one of them went to touch one of the trees with his fingers. Soon now that particular tree would be offered for sale and already the workman had put his hand on his materials. He intended to be on hand and to be a bidder when that particular tree was offered for sale. “After my father died,” my friend at Cleveland said, “I went to a sale in the forest and bought a tree just because I had once seen my father look long and hungrily at it, and because I knew he would want me to get my hands on it and to work it up.”
And this man of Cleveland came to America to be a foreman in one of our church organ factories. He didn’t last long. He quit because they used nails instead of wooden pegs in the factory where he was employed. The owner of the factory tried to reason with him but he quit. “Here you have to do things in a hurry, in the American way. What’s the difference? No one knows. They can’t tell the difference.”
But my friend quit. The fact that nails were used instead of wooden pegs seemed to him a quite sufficient explanation of his inability to stay. He thought the nails affected, in a quite poisonous way, the tone of the instruments. He seemed to care about that. “Every time I drove one of the nails it hurt my arm,” he said, and there was something that hurt him too when he heard the other workmen driving the nails. The sound hurt him. He winced when he spoke of it, and quite suddenly one saw that the sound of the nails being driven into the materials he loved was to him what the sound of the nails being driven into the cross of Christ might have meant in the ears of a Christian.
It is just the spirit of these men that has always been alive and has always been kept alive in the person of Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer. In a peculiar way he has made himself an outstanding figure in the lives of innumerable American artists. In the beginning of this article I said that something must have happened to him long ago. He saw something we others haven’t often seen. To me and to many other men I know his figure has been sharply defined, and as the years pass is becoming more and more sharply defined as the type of the old workman whose love of his tools and his materials has been so passionate that he has emerged out of the workman to become the artist.
And perhaps that he is a photographer is significant too. It may well be the most significant thing of all. For has he not fought all of his life to make machinery the tool and not the master of man? Surely Alfred Stieglitz has seen a vision we may all some day see more and more clearly because of the fight he has made for it.