Skip to main content

Reading Faces/Reading Culture, Or How I Brooded About Three Writerly Photographs

ISSUE:  Summer 1997

That we are awash in visual images hardly constitutes cultural news. Ours has been a sight-and-sound society for much longer than print-heads like myself care to admit. It’s not just that television and tabloids, film, computer graphics, and virtual reality highjinks “speak” to millions while a first-rate writer reckons his or her readers in the modest thousands, but also that visual images pack real power. They surround us, often threatening to so overload our sensory circuits that it’s hard to tell the significant from the merely trivial, the quick from the just plain dead. Madonna may be the phenomenon writ large, but she is hardly the only instance of cultural advertising’s triumph over sound sense.

Semioticians have not helped, at least they haven’t helped me, for I am never quite sure if all the razzle dazzle and stupifyingly dense prose these theoreticians can bring to deconstructing a street sign or a cereal box is worth the trouble. The texts I’m interested in are those that used to travel under less ratified names: novels, stories, poems, and plays. At the time time, I confess that some images bring on the broods, and none more so than the haunting photographs of Emily Dickinson, Anne Frank, and Joyce Carol Oates. Why these three and not a half dozen others? Perhaps because I see the culture itself somehow subsumed in each pair of haunted eyes, indeed, in everything that frames their faces and makes them unforgettable.

Dickinson is the logical place to start such a reverie because she continues to represent a curious brand of genius that is simultaneously American and decidedly extra-national. Small wonder that Whitman, arguably the American Bard of the 19th century, seems, by contrast, so inextricably “one of us”: he is, after all, a populist among populists, a poet willing—yea, eager—to advertise himself as “one of the roughs.” and to appear before readers of the 1855 Leaves of Grass in an open-collared workshirt, with arm akimbo and hat at a rakish angle. Touch these poems, he insists, and you’ve touched a man. Or so a much milder, more circumspect Walter Whitman pronounced. If this be the stuff of which a strutting, thoroughly American persona is made, so be it—for didn’t Benjamin Franklin do much the same thing when he created an essentially American archetype (the rags-to-riches scenario) in the pages of his Autobioigraphy?

No doubt my feminist friends will point out that such willful self-creations are a masculine enterprise, and that they speak more loudly about overcompensation than they do to leaps of the imagination. Perhaps, but none of these speculations will get us very far when we get to Dickinson—for the only image we have takes us back to her student days at Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary, and that 1848 daguerreotype, however gussied up in subsequent versions with skin toning, added curls, and cheek blush, cannot explain Dickinson’s extraordinary poetic power any more than speculations about Mona Lisa can capture her haunting smile.

Biography can tell us some things (after all, the raw facts of Dickinson’s life are far more extensive than our miniscule knowledge about, say, Shakespeare’s), but nothing in the details of her family circle and seemingly restricted personal life quite explains an opening line such as “My Life Stood—a Loaded Gun.”

Small wonder, then, that so many general readers have sought explanation in the comforting folds of myth, whether it be the crackpot “Belle of Amherst” they hold at a safe arm’s length or the fey, emotionally impoverished poetess they are quick to pity. Such patronizing notions will, of course, not do, if only because Dickinson was arguably the toughest-minded, clearest-seeing poet our national literature has yet produced. A generation of our more ingenious critics strike me as equally deluded. They gaze into the visage of a plain-Jane schoolgirl adorned in her no-nonsense dress (set off by the simplest of scarves) and conclude that they have seen themselves: Emily-as-lesbian, Emily-as-madwoman-in-the-attic, and of course, Emily-as-crypto-feminist. In short, Dickinson has been so contextualized that what we know about her life and, more important, what we read on the page, no longer matters. Instead, critics speculate about her “politics” by overstressing the poems that seem to be responding to the Civil War or they ruminate about the abortion (s?) she may have undergone. Meanwhile, the sheer intensity of her lyrics remains the same puzzling reality it always was.

At this point, let me simply confess that I, too, am haunted by the Dickinson daguerreotype, partly because she seems, at 18, to embody everything that constitutes the essential pattern of rebellion and accommodation in American letters, and partly because I wonder if I would have come to this unshakeable conclusion in the Amherst of 1848. I raise the latter question not only because I have some sympathy for Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the editor-critic who did not quite know what to make of Dickinson’s extraordinary poems, but also because hindsight always has a clear-eyed, essentially unfair advantage. Had I been in the same situation as poor Higginson, would I have known the Genuine Goods at a glance, or would I have also tried to turn her slant rhymes into something more felicitous, more “regular”? Even more to the point perhaps, which contemporary editor-critic of which contemporary journal could answer my time machine test with a confident, unambiguous “Yes”: Harold Bloom? Helen Vendler? the editor of these very pages? My hunch is that they’re probably in the same pickle, for Dickinson—at least my Dickinson—is a quintessentially modern poet, so given to seeing things “slant” and to reporting what she observes with an uncompromising honesty that her 19th-century context plays a very small part in the arithmetic of her verse.

All of which returns me to her daguerroeotype. Granted, time and place have everything to do with how she dressed and posed. Decorum dictated the externals, for Dickinson was, after all, the young daughter of a socially prominent Amherst family. At 18, she sat and allowed her photograph to be taken—once. That Dickinson is never confused with Margaret Fuller (to say nothing of such latter-day free spirits such as Amy Lowell, Isadora Duncan, or Gertrude Stein) is true enough, but it might be even truer to note that even this image was not entirely coopted by conventionality. For we cannot altogether avoid the temptation to fill in what her culture tried mightily to erase: the insipient rebelliousness coupled, as it always was, with dutifulness; an abiding sense of the ordinary as the anchoring point of “amazing meanings”; and perhaps most of all, her quiet confidence that genius can always adapt to circumstance and triumph over condition.

Dickinson would no doubt have been a very different poet had she been born in our century, but I’m not at all sure about the precise shape that this “difference” might take. My hunch is that her feminist champions would find themselves sorely disappointed because it’s hard to imagine Emily at NOW meetings or pro-choice rallys. Nor can I imagine her barnstorming across the poetry circuit during the academic year and then spending her summers conducting workshops at cushy spots like Bread Loaf. One possibility, of course, is that she’d remain in Amherst, conducting her reclusive life in pretty much the same way that she, in fact, did; but it’s just as possible that a giddier, more expansive century would have so altered the cultural baggage just beyond the frame of her daguerreotype that, after graduation, she might have decided to set up shop in a place like Boston or New York. My point, however, is that none of this would probably matter nearly as much as a scheduled, orderly life and a commitment to write in its cracks.

One could argue that Dickinson’s imagination was surely shaped by her culture (death, for example, was far more commonplace, and intimate, than it is now), but the fact remains that Dickinson gives the cultural studies crowd fits. They are out for “explanation” while Emily’s poetry is wedded to mystery. So, when I think of the 20th-century writer she most resembles, it is hardly surprising that Kafka comes to mind, for, like Kafka, she retained enough awe to equate a powerful God with an earthly father, and enough rebelliousness, enough unswerving honesty, to pit her imagination against both.


Anne Frank is quite another case. The night and fog of the Holocaust did not allow her to become the writer she might have been. We have only the amazing diary of an extraordinary teenager, one caught in the juggernaut of history. No 1700+ poems, no extensive letters, no “life.” What we have, instead, is a 1941 photograph of a girl with an unself-consciously girlish smile and deep-set dark eyes. She looks for all the world as if she has been interrupted, called away from her lessons. That this photograph not only adorns her diary, the book we brood about rather than read, but that it also has become emblematic of how successive generations “read” the Holocaust is a cultural fact of no small importance, or controversy. For it is one thing if Anne Frank represents the systematic slaughter of the innocent, and quite another if she comes to stand, in Lawrence L. Langer’s words, for “mercurial optimism at the expense of the encroaching doom.”

Dramatic versions of The Diary are particularly vulnerable to Langer’s accusations because they tend either to so “universalize” her plight that all Jewish particularity is lost or they sacrifice her dark forebodings in favor of the lines that drip with moral uplift. Thus, audiences hear Anne Frank’s final words—”in spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart”—but not the following ones from the Diary itself:

There’s in people simply an urge to destroy, an urge to kill, to murder and rage, and until all mankind, without exception, undergoes a great change, wars will be waged, everything that has been built up, cultivated, and grown will be destroyed and disfigured, after which mankind will have to begin again.

The photograph of a smiling, 14-year-old Anne Frank is consistent with the first quotation, but not the second. More important, the consoling words about humanity’s essential goodness—the sort of thing that allows audiences to return to their snug, comfortable homes without confronting the Diary’s searing truth—is yet another instance of misreading of a massive scale. For as Ernst Schnabel, an eyewitness to Anne Frank’s death at Bergen-Belsen reports, “She was in rags. I saw her emaciated, sunken face in the darkness. Her eyes were very large.”

Indeed, it is the eyes one fixes on in her photograph. One soon forgets the dainty dress with its double rows of decorative stitching around the neck and down the front of her shirtwaist. Just as one forgets the hand posed demurely across her lower trunk. In many respects, Anne Frank is perfectly ordinary, and it was her very ordinariness that make the horrors visited upon her so chilling. Small wonder we resist what Dickinson called “zero at the bone”; this is not the way the scenario of a perky, strong-willed adolescent is supposed to end. Besides, ashes are what phoenixes rise out of. But whatever the Holocaust may be, it is decidedly not such a story; and those who would magnify small gestures of futile rebellion into sagas of nobility or turn Anne Frank into an emblem of forgiveness do so at the expense of history.

No doubt such considerations must have occured to Philip Roth as he rescued Anne Frank from the sentimentality into which her Diary had been plunged, and then went on to imagine a radically different Anne Frank—one who survives the Holocaust only to become the ghostly writer who makes Broadway audiences weep. The novel, Roth’s most dazzling experimentation to date, was The Ghost Writer (1979). Arriving a decade after he had skewered the Jewish-American family in Portnoy’s Complaint, Roth’s tale is of how a young, precociously talented Nathan Zuckerman (his combination mouth-piece and alter ego) sought the approval of an older, more established Jewish writer after a particularly upsetting family rift.

Granted, Roth had flirted with the subject of the Holocaust before—in stories such as “Defender of the Faith” and in scenes played out in the screaming-and-shouting of the Portnoy family kitchen:

“Do you know, she asks me, where you would be now if you had been born in Europe instead of America?”

That isn’t the issue, Hannah.

Dead, she says. . . . Gassed or shot, or incinerated, or butchered, or buried alive. Do you know that? And you could have screamed all you wanted that you were not a Jew, that you were a human being and had nothing whatever to do with their stupid suffering heritage, and still you would have been taken away to be disposed of. You would be dead, and I would be dead, and. . . .

But that isn’t what I’m talking about!

And your mother and father would be dead.

But why are you taking their side!

I’m not taking anybody’s side, she says. I’m only telling you he’s not such an ignorant person as you think.

And she’s not either, I suppose! I suppose the Nazis make everything she says and does smart and brilliant too! I suppose the Nazis are an excuse for everything that happens in this house!

Oh, I don’t know, says my sister, maybe, maybe they are, and now she begins to cry too, and how monstrous I feel, for she sheds her tears for six million, or so I think, while I shed mine only for myself. Or so I think.

Portnoy’s Complaint does not fully explore the ramifications of Alex’s “Or so I think”; that exercise must wait for the shivery confrontations Roth arranges in The Ghost Writer. If it is a truism that modernist writers raided their lives for literary material (one thinks of Joyce, of Lawrence, of Kafka), it is worth noting that no contemporary writer has been as obsessive, or as exasperating, about the interpenetration of Art and Life as has Philip Roth. In his case, an itch for independence is inextricably yoked with a need for approval, each gesture of rebellion just a baby step away from guilt.

Initially, the tale (one Roth once described as filled with “the surprises that art brings”) hinges on a story entitled “Higher Education.” The fictionalized account of a family squabble surprises Zuckerman’s father, just as the hostile response surprises his son. Nor do the troubles his story created end at the Zuckerman family doorstep. With a pen in his hand, the brilliantly talented Nathan Zuckerman has become a dangerous person, a potential threat to Jewish Americans everywhere. If the young author was unsettled by his father’s uncharacteristic displeasure, imagine his “surprise: when Judge Wapter, acting on behalf of the Newark Jewish community, sends him a patronizing letter, along with a questionaire that begins with “If you had been living in Nazi Germany in the thirties, would you have written such a story?” and ends with “Can you honestly say that there is anything in your story that would not warm the heart of a Julium Streicher or a Joseph Goebbels?”

It is hardly a coincidence that Wapter’s questions, like the Hebrew God’s Commandments, add up to the magic number ten. To answer such questions requires that Nathan write nicer, more Jewishly correct fictions or that he finally confront the Holocaust itself. Not surprisingly, Roth-Zuckerman prefers the latter because that requires honesty and sterner, imaginative stuff. The solution offered up in The Ghost Writer is at once a bold and foolhardy stroke, ironically enough, one launched by the postscript to Wapter’s bullying letter:

. . .if you have not yet seen the Broadway production of The Diary of Anne Frank, I strongly advise that you do so. Mrs. Wapter and I were in the audience on opening night; we wish that Nathan Zuckerman could have been with us to benefit from that unforgettable experience.

At the Berkshire retreat of the distinguished writer, E. L Lonoff (where Nathan has gone “to petition for his moral sponsorship and to win, if I could, the magical protection of his advocacy and his love”), Zuckerman meets none other than Anne Frank herself!—at least as Zuckerman dreams, transmogrifies, deconstructs and reimagines her into his secret sharer and potential bride. Granted, Roth had done much the same imaginative rescuing on behalf of Franz Kafka, in a savvy, wildly funny essay-story entitled “Looking at Kafka”; but the risks of turning Kafka into a longsuffering Newark Hebrew school teacher were small potatoes compared with those of turning Anne Frank into soulmate and “avenging ghost”:

“It wasn’t the play—I could have watched that easily enough if I had been alone. It was the people watching with me. Carloads of women kept pulling up to the theater, women wearing fur coats, with expensive shoes and handbags. I thought, this isn’t me. The billboards, the photographs, the marquee, I could take all that. But it was the women who frightened me—and their families and their children and their homes. Go to a movie, I told myself, go instead to a museum. But I showed my ticket. I went in with them, and of course it happened. It had to happen. It always happens there. The women cried. Everyone around me was in tears. Then at the end, in the row behind me, a woman screamed, ‘Oh, no. ’ That’s why I came running here. I wanted a room with a telephone in it where I could stay until I found my father. But all I did once I was here was sit in the bathroom thinking that if he knew, if I told him, then they would have to come out on the stage after every performance and announce, “But she is really alive. You needn’t worry, she survived, she is twenty-six now, and doing very well.”

No doubt part of the energy behind Zuckerman’s elaborate construction of a ghostly Anne Frank as well as his elaborate fantasy of becoming her bridegroom is that that act alone will make him forever invulnerable to criticism—from his father, his extended family, Judge Wapter, or, indeed, anyone:

This is my Aunt Tessie, this is Frieda and Dave, this is Birdie, this is Murray. . .as you see, we are an amorous family. This is my wife, everyone. She is all I have ever wanted. If you doubt me, just look at her smile, listen to her laugh. Remember the shadowed eyes innocently uplifted in the clever little face? Remember the dark hair clipped back with a barrette? Well, this is she … Anne, says my father—the Anne? Oh, how I have misunderstood my son. How mistaken we have been!

Roth’s daring act of the imagination (some would call it chutzpah) brings animation to the famous Anne Frank photograph as well as forgiveness to its author. Those who have followed his long trail of tears and apology will know that the beat went on; in The Anatomy Lesson (1983), Zuckerman presumably chucks writing altogether to become (every Jewish mother’s dream) a doctor, and most recently, in Operation Shylock (1992), Roth himself (or so he claims) joins Mossad, the Israeli Secret Service, to foil a plot aimed at destroying Israel itself.

That much said, however, The Ghost Writer has more—much more—at its center than cheap victories, however much Roth cannot resist savoring the sound of apology on his attackers’ tongues. As the Judge Wapters would have it, Anne Frank is the Jewish writer of our century, and her Diary is the trump card no contemporary Jewish novelist can possibly beat. After all, hasn’t the world beaten a pathway to the warehouse along the Amsterdam canal where her family hid during the Nazi occupation; haven’t countless thousands “looked at the open pages of her secret diary. . . whispered, those are her words”; isn’t it true that the Franks’ super-practical achterhuis “was now a holy shrine, a Wailing Wall”; and perhaps most of all, isn’t Anne Frank’s photograph the emblematic image that pops up whenever we think about the Holocaust? This is, in short, the Anne Frank that the world can shed its tears over: Martyr, Sacrificial Lamb, Jewish Saint.

Indeed, this Anne is everything but the complicated writer Zuckerman invents and then falls in love with:

So I took the sweet name [Amy Bellete]—to impersonate everything that I wasn’t. And a very good pretender I was, too. After a while I could imagine that I wasn’t pretending at all, that I had become what I would have been anyway. Until the book. The package came from Amsterdam, I opened it, and there it was: my past, myself, my name, my face intact—and all I wanted was revenge. It wasn’t for the dead—it had nothing to do with bringing back the dead or scouring the living. It wasn’t corpses I was avenging—it was the motherless, fatherless, sisterless, venge-fuled, hate-filled, shame-filled, half-flaying, seething thing. It was myself. I wanted tears. I wanted their Christian tears to run like Jewish blood for me. I wanted their pity—and in a most pitiless way. And I wanted love, to be loved mercilessly and endlessly, just the way I’d been debased. I wanted my fresh life and my fresh body, cleansed and unpolluted. And it needed twenty million people for that. Twenty million ten times over.

In effect, what Roth-Zuckerman wants to accomplish is nothing less than to return Anne Frank to her 1941 photograph, thus cheating history of its systematic dehumanization and ultimate death. But to do that, neither martyrdom nor moral uplift will suffice. Hence, the Anne Frank-Amy Bellete Roth fashions out of whole cloth and his protagonist’s feverish imagination. This is an Anne of a radically differing complexion, one who bears more than a few resemblances to Zuckerman himself. Consider, for example, those lines selected from Anne’s diary entry of 5 May, 1944:

I have now reached the stage that I can live entirely on my own, without Mummy’s support or anyone else’s for that matter… . I don’t feel in the least bit responsible to any of you … I don’t have to give an account of my deeds to anyone but myself. . . .

And these lines from an interchange between Nathan and his mother:

“Please, if you will not do anything else I ask, at least phone your father. . . . Phone him now. For me.” “No.” “I beg you.” “No.” “Oh, I can’t believe this is you.” “It is me!” “But—what about your father’s love.” “I am on my own!”

Both “Anne Frank” and Nathan Zuckerman search for a surrogate father and both expect to find him in the personage of E. I. Lonoff. Each story in effect mirrors the other, as if Anne Frank’s portrait of the artist as the “one who got away” were carved half out of Lonoff’s past and half from Zuckerman’s future. The result is a dazzling successive of frame-tales, each moving reflexively toward versions of the madness, and surprises, of Art: as trap (the lonely country house where Lonoff “turns sentences around”); as tomb (the book “Anne Frank” lives, but can never acknowledge); as burrow (where, 20 years late, Zuckerman/Roth narratives his retrospective yarn).

And yet for all The Ghost Writer’s technical bravura, the question still nags: how does one, can one, read Anne Frank’s haunting photograph? Is it enough to say, as Zuckerman does, that what gave her book the “power to make the nightmare real” was precisely its assimilated, comfortably “European” tone—the very thing that beams back at us from her photograph?

How could even the most obtuse of the ordinary ignore what had been done to the Jews just for being Jews, how could even the most benighted of the gentiles fail to get the idea when they read in Het Achterhuis that once a year the Franks sang a harmless Chanukah song, said some Hebrew words, lighted some candles, exchanged some presents—a ceremony lasting about ten minutes—and that was all it took to make them the enemy. It did not even take that much. It took nothing—that was the horror. And that was the truth.

And if this is true, what, then, can we say of Judge Wapter’s third query: “Do you understand Judaism? If so, how? If not, what credentials qualify you for writing about Jewish life for national magazines?” How would, how could, Anne Frank answer the same question?

At one point Zuckerman likens Anne Frank to “some impassioned little sister of Kafka’s, his lost daughter—a kinship is even there in the face. . . . Everything he dreamed in Prague was, to her, real Amsterdam life. What he invented, she suffered.” These are shrewd observations, for if the Holocaust can be said to have its imaginative chronicler, someone who understood the horrors of our century in his very bones, that person would be Franz Kafka. What is The Trial if not the story of Anne Frank and millions of others, before the vision turned into brutal fact? And what is “The Metamorphosis” if not the story of a family trying desperately to preserve some measure of decency in the face of monstrosity? Is Kafka’s chilling, darkly comic story finally so different from The Diary of Anne Frank? And finally, don’t the photographs of Kafka and Anne Frank haunt us for many of the same cultural reasons?

By arguing the connections between Kafka and Anne Frank, I am pointing toward a version of modernism that takes the Holocaust into full account. Granted, this is not the modernism usually associated with Pound and Eliot, Faulkner and Hemingway, but it is modernism all the same. I belabor this point because brooding has largely gone out of fashion in the postmodern world. Armed with increasingly sophisticated tools of analysis, the with-it boast about being able to reconfigure any photograph at the snap of a shutter. There is, after all, no need to brood when one can theorize.


Meanwhile, the larger world—that is, the one west of the Hudson and unacquainted with Foucault—has leveled steadily downward until only the images found between the covers of People Magazine have wide reach and cultural clout. These folks don’t brood about photographs so much as drool over them. In this regard, Joyce Carol Oates will probably strike both constituencies as an unlikely subject. She is far too under-theorized for the former and far too “weird-looking” for the latter.

Although Oates is hardly a stranger to dust jacket photos (she is, after all, the prolific writer of novels, short story collections, poetry, plays, and essays), one could argue that the occasional efforts to spruce up her image have largely failed. Her oversized, horn-rimmed glasses accentuate the feature I most brood about—her deer-caught-in-the-headlights eyes. Moreover, her gaze is usually slightly offcenter, as if being photographed were as painful for her as the writing itself is apparently easy. Add a voice that cobbles authority with the soft lilts of amazement and the package is complete. Neither the hair style nor the dress (both have altered considerably over the years) really matter, for what remains constant is the sheer intensity of her gaze.

Given the galley of authorial mug shots I’ve assembled, which contemporary American writer fits the larger frame of Dickinson and Anne Frank better than Joyce Carol Oates? Granted, I might have dubbed her “our American Joyce” and then gone on to demonstrate that she renders male and female streams-of-consciousness in ways that invite comparison with James Joyce. This is especially true if one has a recent novel such as What I Lived For in mind. Or I could talk about the landscape of the Gothic, clearly her most congenial fictional turf. Or what about the psychic rhythms she detects in an American landscape of commingled dream and nightmare? But what these disparate roads finally lead to is an abiding faith in the imagination, and a capacity to translate dream-like trances into print paragraphs. Indeed, Oates writes hypnotic page-turners as no other serious contemporary writer quite does, and I find myself wondering if the combination of intensity and utter, unself-conscious openness I see in her face is part of the reason. No doubt my supposition is preposterous (it is certainly the sort of brooding that would get me booted out of a respectable graduate program), but when I line up the images of Dickinson, Anne Frank, and Joyce Carol Oates across the cork board above my writing desk, the hypothesis somehow makes sense. And when I hear Oates talking about Dickinson’s peculiar genius, it does not take much for me to imagine that she is speaking, at bottom, about herself.

Writers are always in an odd relationship to the culture that surrounds them. This is certainly true for the Dickinson who headed the ranks of “those without hope of Christian conversion” when she was a student at Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary, as it was equally true for the Anne Frank who plunged from an assimilated, upper-middle class circumstance into the attic passageways of her hiding. Is this less true of the Joyce Carol Oates who lives in the rarified atmosphere of Princeton University even as she ruminates about serial killers, random acts of violence, and sexual outlawhood? She sees our national condition with a depth that the more flamboyant of our male authors (one thinks of Norman Mailer, of Tom Wolfe) never quite plumb.

No doubt I’ll one day replace my current gallery of writerly photographs with other faces (once it included Hemingway in his bulky, turtle-neck sweater, Faulker decked out in riding jodhpurs, and Joyce with eye patch and ash plant); but for the moment, the pin-ups I just wrote about are there to stay.


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Recommended Reading