I spend a lot of time looking at old photographs, often when I’m having trouble writing, when I’m tired or don’t know what else to do.
Historians struggle with the relative invisibility of the topics they write about; that’s why it’s so nice when there are visual vestiges. They feed and correct the imagination, and if you’re clever you can take what you see and use it to write more vividly.
Photographs also prompt discovery. I love this picture of James Beauchamp Clark, a Speaker of the House I’d never heard of before. Not just because it’s a well-composed photograph, with the vantage conveying its subject’s power; I love its realism, the way it’s slightly tattered, used-up, off-kilter. Politics back then lacked the cosmetics of today.
Clark (1850-1921) was a Democrat, a contemporary and sometime rival of Woodrow Wilson, with whom he is pictured below. According to a sketch by Lewis Gould in the American National Biography, Clark was born in Kentucky, the son of a traveling dentist and buggy-maker. He received scant education but nonetheless became a schoolteacher at age 15. Later matriculating to Transylvania University (in KY) he got expelled for shooting a gun at another student. Back in school (law school, by this time), he shortened his name to Champ Clark because it would better fit in a newspaper headline. These were just his beginnings.
He moved to Missouri and gradually became a power in the Democratic party as it struggled to regain supremacy after the glory years of Republican reign under McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, and Taft. Clark was more peaceful and anti-imperial than Wilson. I love this “casual” photograph of the two men together, don’t you?