Peter Toohey Ph.D.

Annals of the Emotions

What Do You Read When You Don’t Read?

Illiteracy and emotional intelligence—do they go together?

Posted Jul 26, 2019

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
Rosie, aged 7
Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

This is 7-year-old Rosie Berdich. She works at Varn & Platt Canning Co, Bluffton, South Carolina, as an oyster shucker. 

In this photo, she’s shyly showing her friend Lewis Wickes Hine how it’s done. Shucking looks hard on the hands to me, though Rosie doesn’t show much pain. If anything, she seems just a little bit proud of what she does all day.

Lewis Wickes Hine (1874-1940), her friend, was a photographer and would-be reformer who worked for the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC) from 1908. He shot the image as part of his remit, and this picture was published in 1913, just short of the first world war.  

It was Rosie’s second year of work. She was able to fill a few pots per day with oysters. She’d get faster as she grew older. Another shot by Hine shows Jimmie, a 10-year-old veteran of three years, who can manage six pots of oysters per day. He worked all day with his family.  

The photographs are kept in the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington in the National Child Labor Committee collection. The notes on the photograph point out that Rosie was illiterate. Did she stay that way? She got to school.

What do you read when you don’t read? The photographer of 7-year-old Rosie Berdich appears to have spent a lot of his life reading faces and reading bodies—I can’t speak of his enthusiasm for books. 

Lewis Wickes Hine looks to have been very interested in child welfare and in adult welfare. He took photos relating to both, especially later on during the 1930s Depression. That’s what I’ve read. I don’t know lot about Hine. Not yet anyhow.  

L.W. Hine didn’t receive much of a reward for his labors. Towards the end of his life, when he was 66 years old, he’s said to have lived and died in unreasonable poverty. If he was the man he seems to have been, he deserved a lot better. But, from our vantage, his was a valuable life, and he left behind a pretty solid legacy of photos of children such as Rosie and Jimmie. Adults too. 

I hope he felt proud, even if he was poor. His was an unselfish existence that records glimpses of the lives of people who were doing things they shouldn’t have had to do, and who didn’t have what they ought to have had.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
Josie, aged 13
Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

What do you read when you don’t read? If it’s Lewis Wickes Hine, it’s faces. Let’s look at another one. This is Josie, who’s 13 in this photo, and she could shuck 10 or more pots per day at the Varn & Platt Canning Co.  

Josie looks a lot older than 13 to me. Closer to 18. She looks strong too. I guess this is how Rosie would have looked in 6 years. 

When Lewis Wickes met Rosie three years after the 1913 photo, he took another shot. This was of a 10-year-old, and he added this note: 

       "Little Rosie (Berdich)," one of our former friends that I found in Bluffton 3 years ago. She has given up shucking, because her mother is afraid of the law, and is attending school regularly as long as they are in the south.] Location: [Bluffton, South Carolina] / L.W. Hine.

The note on Josie’s 1913 photograph wasn’t as buoyant, and it doesn’t state whether she was illiterate. This is what it says instead:

       Josie, 13-year-old shucker, Shucks 10 pots a day or more. Been working six years. Varn and Platt Canning Co. Location: Bluffton, South Carolina.   

Josie can’t have made it to school much at all, not if she’d started work shucking oysters at Varn & Platt Canning Co, Bluffton, South Carolina, at 8 or 9 years old. It might have been different for Rosie if she stayed in the South, and if her mother had stayed frightened of the law. Rosie’s ability to read, you’d hope, might be enough to offer her a chance to get out of a place like the Bluffton Canning Co. But it’s probably too late for Josie, 13-years-old and going on 18. 

What do you read when you don’t read? It’s easy now to answer that question for L.W. Hine. He read faces. And he really does get very good at reading faces. Take a look again Rosie and at Josie. There’s more to his pictures than just staged shots of young people peering frozen and passive or scared stiff at the camera.  

Lewis Wickes Hine empathizes with the people in his photos. He makes them live in his pictures if he can get their faces into the screen. Hine is better at drawing out his subjects and their personalities than most photographers. And when he tries to read these faces, he ends up sharing their personalities with us, 100 years on. He reminds me of the 20th-century U.S. portrait painter, Alice Neel. She has the same face-reading skill. Perhaps this is a tradition in America.

Here’s that question again. What do you read when you don’t read? This time, what about Josie? What did Josie read? She couldn’t read books, but maybe she could read faces too, just like L.W. Hine. It’s my hunch that her illiteracy made her better at this sort of reading. Maybe it made her better at understanding people as well.  

Josie looks just like that sort of a person in her portrait, doesn’t she? Could it be that illiterate people like Josie are better at reading faces and even moods in other people? Could they even be better at reading atmospheres than people like me who have the luxury of being distracted by books? Are people who have literacy troubles emotionally smarter than those with high-level literacy skills? They just might be.

The few illiterate folks I’ve known were certainly empathetic individuals—though don’t go confusing empathetic with sympathetic. They weren’t necessarily sympathetic at all. Maybe there are some benefits in illiteracy, or maybe what we should say is that there could be some compensations for being illiterate.  

I realize that this claim sounds counterfactual. Why? You read quite often that one of the benefits of literacy and of reading is that it encourages the capacity of empathy in people. “Reading is the key to empathy,” one pundit suggested. I’ve also read of an admirable Newbery Medal-winning author’s claim that reading can create “hearts that are capable of containing much joy and much sorrow, hearts capacious enough to contain the complexities and mysteries and contradictions of ourselves and each other.”’  

Josie and Jimmie and even Rosie must have been pretty devoid of empathy and uncapacious in that case. They must have had the empathetic capacity of a large, black basalt rock if those claims about reading are true. Of course, they can’t be true. Look at L.W. Hine’s photos again.

It’s not to defend illiteracy that I’m saying all this. I’m not trying to make illiteracy an unsung hero of human experience. All I’m urging is that we should give Josie and Jimmie and Rosie a sympathetic break. They were probably just as empathetic and capacious as you or me.  

Maybe, like that great watcher Lewis Wickes Hine, they were even more empathetic than we are. I am sure they were. But their position in society, their chances of escaping that painful oyster shucking business at Varn & Platt Canning Co, Bluffton, South Carolina, were slim. That’s illiteracy for you.