Mark Twain in “Life on the Mississippi,” 1883. Take that Barthes! Mr. Clemens did it first.
Also a fine oil-painting representing Stonewall Jackson’s last interview with General Lee. Both men are on horseback. Jackson has just ridden up, and is accosting Lee. The picture is very valuable, on account of the portraits, which are authentic. But, like many another historical picture, it means nothing without its label. And one label will fit it as well as another—
First Interview between Lee and Jackson.
Last Interview between Lee and Jackson.
Jackson Introducing Himself to Lee.
Jackson Accepting Lee’s Invitation to Dinner.
Jackson Declining Lee’s Invitation to Dinner—with Thanks.
Jackson Apologizing for a Heavy Defeat.
Jackson Reporting a Great Victory.
Jackson Asking Lee for a Match.
It tells ONE story, and a sufficient one; for it says quite plainly and satisfactorily, ‘Here are Lee and Jackson together.’ The artist would have made it tell that this is Lee and Jackson’s last interview if he could have done it. But he couldn’t, for there wasn’t any way to do it. A good legible label is usually worth, for information, a ton of significant attitude and expression in a historical picture. In Rome, people with fine sympathetic natures stand up and weep in front of the celebrated ‘Beatrice Cenci the Day before her Execution.’ It shows what a label can do. If they did not know the picture, they would inspect it unmoved, and say, ‘Young girl with hay fever; young girl with her head in a bag.’
Life on the Mississippi is free all over the Internet, and on iTunes Store. You should read it.