If you have been following along, you will recognize the crescendo of this Shead story has taken over my posts and summer research. It is hard to think of anything else I could add to what I’ve discovered so far save just adding to his already herculean numbers of completed pieces of art. Following the magazine covers that were part of his enormous portfolio and utilizing the interlibrary loan services at my library I secured a few copies of the Specialty Salesman Magazine.
They aren’t readily available and is one of those magazines whose volume numbers roll over in the middle of the calendar year. Luckily I was able to get a copy of November 1925 as it explained the change in editorial and layout (in great detail), and the new direction that the magazine was headed. This is fortunate because one of the pages featured a set of portraits of the magazine staff including their titles. Not only was Ralph Shead a contributing illustrator to the magazine he was the magazine’s art director. This explains the several covers that were part of the portfolio as well as the few pieces of art that weren’t his.
So far the earliest I have seen is the November 1925 edition, but one of the portfolio covers shows the change from 1924 to 1925. Perhaps he was working for the museum even earlier. I am still trying to track down as many copies of the magazines as I can to at least figure out when he started publishing illustrations there. This isn’t a particularly easy task as the magazines are large format (about 12×14 inches) and average 150 pages each. Some of the earliest ones I have seen swell to nearly 250. This means they take up a lot of space on library shelves and are likely not to be requested much. This is one of those instances where the physical copies of the magazines are essential to determining who produced the art. As great as microfilm is for text it is just as bad when it comes to images. We’ve preserved hard black and white letters for 500 years, but there was no apparent reason to care about that the images were. Simple pictures and visual aids are of no importance. (This is where we need a dedicated sarcasm font). For instance, in microfilm you would never be able to make out the works on the wall or on Shead’s easel in this image. Working with the physical copy you can clearly see one of the originals from the previous post hanging on the wall.
I am working on getting a clearer scan of that page to see if I can match any more of the extant pieces with the Art Department’s studio. I am hoping against hope that the one he is working on in this photo is one of the originals, but I fear I may have already used up my allotment of luck for this project.
Before I show the few matching pieces that I have found I want to share a little about the magazine itself. As its title suggests it is a magazine for men and women who sell. Sell what, exactly? And to whom? The mid twenties saw a rise in the traveling salesman and this magazine was a trade magazine of sorts to those enterprising enough to go door to door. Even if you’ve never been visited by a brush or vacuum cleaner salesman, you know there kind. This is exactly what Daffy Duck was doing representing the various head offices in Walla Walla, Washington. It wasn’t just a television trope.
Among the short stories illustrated by Shead and a handful of others there were scores of advertising pages providing dealer direct stock of men and women’s clothing, fountain pens, pocket watches, and even fire extinguishers. It is basically a magazine full of all the things that are relegated to the backs of most magazines today.
With nearly 9 more years to round out the 20s I do not know when or if I will be able to complete the decade an further to see when Shead’s final piece appeared, but there is more than enough here to attest to the profound productivity during his time in Indiana. In the 14 issues that I have catalogued Shead produced 84 illustrations and the all their covers.
For every one of the originals that are still in the portfolio there are several that exist as illustrations only. Some are part of the same stories, others are dispersed throughout countless other stories.
Shead’s illustration surrounding this poem “The Gallant Salesman” also shows that his animal scenes were just as good as any of those featuring people. It would be almost a decade before his subjects took him back to Norman to the campus museum and into prehistory.
As a final though on Shead’s work and to tie it all back around to his work at the Stovall museum and where I first encountered him, there is a marvelous collection of images that are all part of the same project. Throughout this project besides breaking through some of the obscurity of the man and his work, I have been able to see his watercolor study, the plaster Marquette (which it turns out are not his), and a beautiful black and white photo of the finished diorama as it ran in The Oklahoman in 1952.
To wrap this list up there are several books which were recalled that I read several weeks ago and am working from my notes on for this. That being said, there wasn’t anything new in any of these books that wasn’t in some of the earlier reads/posts. That doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting or useful, they just add more content to the footnotes when you defer you opinions to someone else work. I will look specifically at a few of them, but will include the rest in the list/images just for completion’s sake.
It would probably be best to track through the ones least used here, but likely to make an appearance in my dissertation, or at very least my prospectus which I will get to working on soon. Edward Wallace’s The Great Reconnaissance: Soldiers, Artists, and Scientists on the Frontier 1848-1861 looks at a sliver of time when there was much traveling and reporting back from the American West. Interestingly enough this sliver doesn’t cover much in the way of the miles covered before 48 and after 61. It is a great book, but like many on the same topics, it needs updated and contextualized. It does provide an excellent paper trail for journals and reports to follow.
Ann Shelby Blum’s Picturing Nature: America Nineteenth-Century Zoological Illustration is a gorgeous book. Filled with color images from some of the most important works in Natural History. Blum focuses on scientific representation outside of the main thoroughfare of historical enquiry and anyone wanting to know more about people who aren’t Audubon. She also puts Audubon in a natural history (and thus science) perspective. Considering the history of natural history as the history of science should not be that revolutionary, but here we are.
The collected Art and Science in America: Issues of Representation, edited by Ann Meyers, is a collection of papers from a Symposium that was focused on the Huntington’s collection and how two-dimensional images can provide primary source material for understanding the early decades of the 19th century. The book was published in 1998 and was reviewed as part of the “rebirth” of studies in historical natural history.
Wendy Bellion’s Citizen Spectator: Art, Illustration and Visual Perception in Early America is a great collection of early American art styles and art cultures. It would be an excellent book if it was more readable. It reads like a dissertation (and it very well could be) but it will likely fall flat on more readers than those who appreciate it. The book distills down to the fact that spectators (active lookers–“participants” in art) were making decisions about and utilizing their own positions within the republican value system that was the early American experience. Participating in these exhibits, art illusions and allusions were what shaped the citizenry, hence “Citizen Spectator.”
Mapping the Nation: History and Cartography in Nineteenth-Century America by Susan Shulten is a fascinating exploration into the history of cartography not from the technological side as much from the cultural side of how thinking with and about maps has changed. The changed was sculpted and molded through active history making. This is perhaps one of the best representations of how scientific visualization has changed and the power that such imagery possesses. Tying this back into Bellion’s theories on spectatorship as a means of reinforcing citizenry and you can start to see just how powerful images can be. Maps may fall under a different context than the wildlife imagery in Blum’s Picturing Nature but they are all politicized in their own ways and are important to consider as products of scholarship and not merely visual aids. Incidentally, you can look at all of Schulten’s maps (and visual aids) at MappingtheNation.com
That idea of visual aid as science comes into play well in Barbara Novak’s Nature and Culture: American Landscape Painting, 1825-1875. The idea of scientific representation within government reports might not seem revolutionary at first thought, but where Novak succeeds is providing the general context for the artists–specifically landscape artists– on the government expeditions. There is much more to this book, and it should be paired with Rebecca Bedell’s The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting , 1825-1875 for best results (including forgetting which one you read what in).
The landscape was the “New” World’s answer to the Old World’s man made monuments. As technological advances brought photography into the government reports artists were still needed to provide the colors to go with the matching black and white photographs. Both in this sense were visualizations to accompany official reports. They were science, not art. Just like the charts or graphs, photographs and landscapes were supposed to present hard facts and data. Artists even complained that realism was science and not art.
Kenneth Haltman’s Looking Close and Seeing Far: Samuel Seymour, Titian Ramsey Peale, and the Art of the Long Expedition follows the first American expedition with “trained civilians” that is artist on payroll. Lewis and Clark suffered from the lack of artists and the government was not going to repeat that mistake. Titian had watched his father sketch many of the Lewis and Clark specimens as they were deposited in Peale’s museum. While Seymour’s works are rare and Peale’s Long Expedition art is scattered to the four winds Haltman works to provide an account of the first American “artistic” enterprise. This also serves as a good introduction to my own work, with Lewis and Clark and Long setting the stage for the U.S. Exploring Expedition, on which Titian was artist and naturalist, just as with the long expedition, but was a naval expedition. Titian provides the best way to understand the differences in naval and army expeditions in the antebellum period. The one thing that Art historians like Haltman and Flores haven’t touched on, but provided an excellent template to work with is that natural history representations are science. Looking at this expeditions and representations as the history of American science in broad terms (more specifically geology and natural history) is sorely lacking from any of the books I have read on this mammoth list. The idea that Titian’s first sketch of the scissor-tail flycatcher is important for art is only half the story. The collections, sketches, and preserved specimens are history of science. You would think this would be low hanging fruit. Then again, maybe it means that my work will not be in vain, lost, or ignored. We will see. I will have to post my wrap up thoughts for this project and the whole year in a few days, exams will be scheduled in the spring and I have some ideas on formulaic academic writing, writing for the academy, and the cost of such works that I will post after I pass exams. Thank you for coming along on this mad road trip and I hope that if you are preparing for your own exams you find some of this madness comforting towards your own work, if you are here for morbid curiosity I hope it was satiated.
It’s Christmas Eve, so what better time to post my Road to Comps Eve post. One more set of readings and I will have completed the entire list AND 2016. I hope to make my final post next week too.
These last couple of sections are bits and pieces of larger works and many of the points have been made in previous posts (and previous books) but they serve as having another place to return to pull information in order to make the points in my dissertation (this isn’t entirely for tangential exams to prove I can stay on a task for an extended period of time).
William Truettner’s (editor) The West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920 was something I had seen in class before. It serves as a textbook for image use in promoting the west to settlers and to modern museum visitors. Interestingly enough the book was published in 1991 to accompany the contentious art exhibit.
The following year William Cronon edited a volume entitled Under an Open Sky: Rethinking America’s Western Past (see a trend here?). Martha Sandweiss’s contribution predated her book Print the Legend by a decade, but many of the points she made about photoraphy are relevant to art as well, as I argued in the previous post. In short, art should be considered as primary source material within its cultural context and it should not be taken at face value.
Robert Cushing Aiken’s “Painting of Manifest Destiny: Mapping the Nation” appeared in American Art Vol 14 (Autumn, 2000 pp 78-89). and collects several of the key art pieces used to represent the American tenet of full continental settlement.
Claire Perry’s essay “Cornucopia of the World,” (Pacific Arcadia: Images of California, 1600-1915) highlights the trouble western promoters faced when the gold ran out of them thar’ hills. The focus shifted from mineral to agricultural wealth. This was not an easy 1:1 substitution as the arid areas of California couldn’t be farmed in any way remotely resembling farming practices in the east (or even the midwest). Interestingly enough, this preambles the turn of the century tourist boosterism that came as Americans became more autonomously mobile.
Barbara Novak’s American Painting of the Nineteenth Century: Realism, Idealism, and the American Experience is in it’s third edition (1980, 1995, 2007) which shows that understanding American art in its own context isn’t a simple project. The strength of Novak’s work is intensified when you can look at it in tandem with the David Reynolds work on 19th century American Cultural History. Novak provides the in depth artistic analysis and Reynolds provides the larger background to help frame it.
Stephan Oetterman published an enormous treatise on the art of the panorama. The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium is a fascinating look at a (literally) huge pieces of American art. To understanding the draw and experience of the moving panorama you can see this previous post. Oetterman’s research indicates that far from the generally accepted idea the the panorama was based on ancient ideas (or ideals) is erroneous and it was in fact patented in the late 18th century. Part of the draw for this type of artwork, stage or no, was increased with the western landscapes and light plays that were highlighted in the few other gallery books included on this list. he even points out that movies in the mid 20th century were produced in cinescope which mean that it took three projectors and three screens to capture it grandeur of the west.
Beautiful books that provide extensive examples of their respected topics are
Linda S. Ferber The Hudson River School: Nature and the American West
John Wilmerding (ed) American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850-1875.
Andrew Wilton, American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States 1820-1880
This final piece repeated a lot of what I have already written about the expeditions west, but there was something extremely interesting in how this book had been used.
John Rennie Shorts’ “Mapping the National Territory” chapter in Representing the Republic: Mapping the United States 1600-1900 was heavily annotated by someone who used it before I did, but only in some interesting places. Actually what was most interesting was where there weren’t any annotations.
As long as the book was recapitulating the same stories on the expansion and expeditions by the government the previous patron filled the pages with notes. Once the book started talking about the geological surveys: nothing. Well, almost nothing, there were two sets of brackets. Even as the book stated that little attention was paid to scientific surveys–even though they made up 80% of all the surveys were scientific in nature (mostly geological).
All this leads me to believe that my dissertation topic is not only interesting but might actually end up being useful to a couple of fields. One more section and a few more books and I have completed this part of the journey, the next post will likely be short like this one since the remaining texts are larger works as well with only portions aimed at my topic and it is hard to review/synthesize a textbook outside of its content’s context which has most definitely been carried on in previous posts. I think these last dozen books or so are just the mopping up portions in order to hammer home some of the larger points and make sure I have been paying attention all this time. If any of this stuff was new and revolutionary at this stage I would most likely be extremely worried about my progress and exams.
I have found it odd that the case has to be made to study photography and art as source material and not merely “visual aids.” The only think that is even more odd is that this case is relatively recent.
The four books and one article in this little operating section tend to all say the same thing–photographs are important not because they are photographs, and not even because the subjects of the photographs, but because they represent a distinct moment in time of an ever-changing culture. The contextual culture of regional and temporal data are frozen in time just as the faces of early portraits. Each work provides its own examples of why this is an important shift in thinking about images. As Martha Sandweiss points out in Print the Legend sometimes what isn’t photographed or what was photographed and then lost can reveal as much (if not more) about a certain moment in the past. Sandweiss provides a solid foundation that scholars should use in reassessing their relationships with photographs. I believe this improved methodology will also easily cover other visual culture as well. Print the Legend could easily be a history of technology work as it follows the exponential developments of photography across two generations (her investigation ends in the 1890s) which happens to parallel the development of America’s mythos regarding their newly acquired and explored territories. For my purposes, she provides the best answer for why, after a MA in American History I have shifted over to work with the Art Historians for my dissertation:
“A lingering bias in historical training teaches would-be historians to value the literary over the visual or material, and teaches them how to query, challenge, and interpret literary documents, while leaving them few analytical skills for the interpretation of visual records”
While looking back through some of the little work I have done with photography (only really starting in 2014) I did find a C-SPAN video of this very book, and it is worth the time you can devote to it:
A funny aside is that you can purchase this as a DVD or an MP3. The latter of which you can listen to Sandweiss describe the photographs, which leads one to believe they missed the point.
Alan Trachtenberg’s Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Matthew Brady to Walker Evens is one of the earliest books (1990) to call for a shift in the understanding of photographs. It is one of those books that requires complete attention and an appropriate amount of pyschological working up to undertake. It is dense.
Not in a bad way, but at times the theoretical asides (which I am certain Trachtenberg does not see as asides) get in the way of the point he wishes to drive home. My first run in with Trachtenberg was his first book about the Brooklyn Bridge. While reading this I went back and thumbed through some things in it on a hunch. Photographs does continue Trachtenberg’s thread of America as imagination. In fact in 1965 he called it “An America of the imagination.” In addition to starting the stone rolling on photography reassessment in history, Trachtenberg offers a short sentence that I am certain will come up for expansion in my future work:
“Thus O’Sullivan placed the survey camera among the instruments of practical science, allowing the history and meaning of the Western surveys (the conjunction of “pure” science and imperial economic enterprise) to reveal their contradictions” (289)
The remaining books in this section could be considered “popular” books each focusing on a single photographer as they managed to work their way through the new continental nation and new technologies in order to make names for themselves as photographers.
In Meaningful Places: Landscape Photographers in the Nineteenth Century American West, Rachel McLean Sailer highlights that print making and mythmaking went hand in hand. Few of the landscapes are void of human life or activity, to the contrary many settlers used photographs of themselves in their new spaces as vindication for the success and progress of American culture. Photographs provided constant reassurance that people were indeed where they belonged. A sense of place for people who had left their cities or even countries in the case of foreign born immigrants was something that most settlers struggled to maintain, but photography, according to Sailer was instrumental in calming some of those unspoken fears.
Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis is another notch on Timothy Egan’s literary gun. I have personally read two other of his works: The Worst Hard Time and The Big Burn. Egan doesn’t write books you can glean which is one of the reasons I enjoy assigning them. The book itself follows the drama of Curtis’ life as he moved across the West capturing moments that were fading away. The story of forgotten photographs rediscovered are as much the legend as Curtis’ “quixotic” quest to capture native life. Which I think is captured better in this variant cover:
The renaissance of his work in the 1970s installed Curtis at the forefront of historical photography. Even as historians in the 80s attacked his work for being staged or “playing dress up.” Egan points out that Curtis heard these attacks during his life, and never denied it. His defense provides insight into his work and the importance of photography in the late 19th century: he wanted to represent the past, not document the present of the future. His time in Oklahoma in the 1920s saw many of the natives already fully remodeled into Euro-American culture and his pace in his “race against time” hastened. For Curtis himself, the 2001 documentary Coming to Lightis an excellent way to start. I apologize for the ads in the linked video but it was the only site that had the full program to share. Here is a snippet. You can see the whole thing here.
Curtis was involved in the Harriman Expedition in 1899 which, at this planning stage, will be the final expedition in my dissertation. Curtis also employed the new technology of moving pictures after the turn of the century, which ties back into the final book of Eadward Muybridge.
As with Sandweiss and others, the nature of photography in the American West also serves as a history of technology. Nowhere in these readings (maybe even more broadly) is that more evident than in Rebecca Solnit’s River of Shadows: Eadward Muybridge and teh the Technological Wild West. In fact, Muybridge’s life can be seen as a parallel with both the arc of the West and the rise of photography. He “invented” himself in western culture, photographed through the landscapes as did his contemporaries, and then made studies with the movement displayed in still photographs. His moving pictures were the legacy his family life never produced. Solnit describes Muybridge as a man who “split the second,” which had “as dramatic and far reaching [effect] as splitting the atom” (7). One reviewer did not care for this phrasing, but given the circumstances and the tenor of the book (and Muybridge’s life) I think it fits.
The final piece was an article in the Art Bulletin in December 2003 highlighting Timothy O’Sullivan as a survey photographer. Trachtenberg mentioned O’Sullivan in the quote above as the person who brought photography into the came of scientific instruments. Robin E. Kelsey’s article “Viewing the Archive: Timothy O’Sullivan’s Photographs for the Wheeler Survey, 1871-74” look at the photographs as a new form of graphic representation. That is a more precise way of expressing the landscapes, forms, materials, etc that the survey encountered. “Pictorial Rhetoric” became the tool for people like Ferdinand Hayden in order to increase (or sustain) federal appropriations for their continued surveys. One of the mor interesting portions of the articles many photographs is the sort of “line of custody” we see in O’Sullivan’s (i.e. The Survey’s) photographs:
A final thought on this reframing of photography as primary sources is stirred by the author byline in Kelsey’s article. “He is preparing a book on Survey photography.” If the article is any indication it will be an excellent book. I wonder though, if the pendulum is swinging too far into the study of photographs as primary sources that they will become more detached from their created context as they become topics or study. Something like Survey photographs is an excellent topic to undertake, but at the time the photographs, as graphic representations, were another means of transferring information and raising interest in the surveys, government exploration, and the American West as construed by the myth-makers. I think it shows the power of photographs to evoke audience interest and emotion that no popular book has been written on the Survey graph or map making or their field reports as entities. Journals have been reprinted and photos as well, but I think it will a long time before the similarities and differences between visual and literary will ever be hammered out.
This will be one of the shortest posts made on this travelogue through everything in print (Every time I start this way I drone on for over 1000 words). This is not due to the end of the semester doldrums (I’ve been on 12 -month work contracts since moving up here) or the holidays (I’d rather not do them), but because the bulk of what I have read is review of review of things that I have already written about at great length. In fact, it was precisely such foci that started my posting in earnest as I collected and transcribed my notes for class. In addition to typing up the notes I was able to track down most of the images that we used in class and included them in with their appropriate author. There is no need to re-invent the wheel at this point, so I will link to them throughout the post. This is an excellent time to realize that my previous work is now back paying dividends.
Before moving on to the two main points I want to make in this post, I wish to take a moment to remark on the shifts of formulas in the books read about individual artists. I have moved on from the rubrics of “academic” writing and fallen into the interesting (and more visually appealing) gallery books that accompanied exhibits across the United States (and sometimes farther). These collections of essays group around the artists whose work is on display and offers just enough insight to be interesting but not so much as to be overly useful for comprehensive exams preparation. I have enjoyed them though.
Early in my foray into the Art History department I made a remark about there being so few artist biographies. One of the other students (now a director at a museum in New Mexico) voiced disagreement, but offered no examples outside of these collected essays or a few pages of encyclopedia entries. I still stand by my complaint. I am not suggesting separating the artist from their work, but more bringing in as full a context as we can manage for the world their work was a part of.
What can be done is something along the lines of what Benita Eisler does for George Catlin in The Red Man’s Bones. I have read this book once before (and never got around to reviewing it which was what this whole stupid spelunk into blogging was supposed to be), but reading it a second time after reading about the culture of the growing United States, showmanship, art, and European tours, it is an even better example of taking someone who is currently existing “out of time” and putting them back into the structure that shaped there careers. For my take on Catlin see this old post.
Bierstadt and Bingham both have (excellent) posts of their own as well. I was actually able to visit the Bingham exhibit Navigating the West(which is the exhibit book that I just finished) and get a tour with the co-curator Nenette Luarca-Shoaf.
One of the best books in this section that isn’t currently being held for ransom by some other library patron (the Winslow Homer book will have to be edited back in this post or added to another one when it finally gets returned to the library) is Robert Taft’s Artists and Illustrators of the Old West 1850-1900. Each chapter is an excellent overview of an artist or a set of artists working in the same genre or region. Each one of these chapters could easily be made into a book. In fact, taking Taft as a starting point and Eisler as an end template I think one could make a lasting furrow into that lack of useful biography thing I mentioned earlier. The kicker with Taft’s work is that is was published in 1953. On a hunch I emailed one of my professors and asked if there were any updated versions or had anyone added to it. He replied there were some updated materials but no one has done it better than Taft. After finishing the book, I have to agree. It is one of those that has been added to the “purchase own copy” list that is an outgrowth of this project.
One of those included in Taft’s survey was William Jacob Hays. I bring this one up here because he might be lesser known than anyone mentioned here (or even in Taft’s book) but produced one of my favorite paintings that I have actually seen because it is at the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa: Herd of Buffaloes on the Bed of the River Missouri. The sheer mass of the megafauna portrayed in the river bed give an idea of how many buffalo there were. I suppose thinking back to the environmental histories I have read here, it really is sort of the same thing as Burroughs’ poetry about nature and descriptions of the Passenger Pigeons. (this whole endeavor is turning into Dirk Gently’s Holistic detective agency).
Moving on from Taft and Buffalo I want to end with Alfred Jacob Miller and horses. Like the others I have reviewed Miller in previous posts but there are a few points to add here, less because they are new to the discussion and more because they are familiar to my life before the university: horses.
At the height of or equine days my family had 17 horses full under AQHA values, papers and all. Our number one stallion was born two weeks before I was and only recently died a year ago. Turns out he was 96 or 98% Foundation Quarter Horse which means that I could have completed all of my schooling and advanced degrees with the stud fees we never charged.
I tell that story to set up the one about Miller’s horses. When we first started looking at Miller’s paintings in class I recognized his horses all looked like Arabians which where the stock the Spanish brought back to the United States (I saw “back” because paleontologically speaking horses first evolved in the “new” world before invading the old and going extinct here). I never thought more about it until reading more about the complaints people have about Miller’s horses. They were too Arabian to be authentic wild ponies that the Indians were riding. This is the keystone in this whole putting the artist back into their context lamentation I keep tearing my sackcloth over. Miller may best be remembered for his commissions for the Scottish nobleman William Drummond Stewart.
Miller only ventured west for a few months of his life. His real mark of success (by that I mean living comfortably off his art) was back in Baltimore where he set up his studio in the center of the trade offices of the merchants, bankers, and lawyers. Just like real estate art patronage is all about location, location, location. These were the wellest-to-do of New England and were part of the growing trend in thoroughbred horse breeding and racing of which Arabians was choice starting stock. These were the people purchasing Miller’s work and commissioning his time. They expected to see Arabain horses, so that is what Miller gave them. Miller clearly had a feel for his genre, but he also had a handle on the desires of his audience. In addition to the real estate location, he also mastered another rule central to all forms of artistry–know your audience.
Just so they are most included, here is the link to my Karl Bodmer and Thomas Moran posts too. I will come back and add anything pertinent on Frederich Church or Winslow Homer if I find anything in this book:
Art and the American West is the most recent undertaking of my long and checkered career as an academic. Since finishing my MA in the History of Science, Technology and Medicine I have spent a great deal of time in our Art History department learning ways to tie in the arts to the American cultural studies that I seem to have fallen into in recent years.
The greatest benefit to getting into a program at this late in the game is that you are still interested in the topic and it hasn’t been completely scraped from your soul by years of arguing theory. I have always said that the surest way to remove any of the joy in literature is to study it at university. The same can be applied to art.
Since I have been involved in the courses or the last two years, the three intro books on my list are excellent reviews for stuff we’ve talked about in class. In class we spent more time with articles and visual analysis and less with the broader portrayals and involvement of the artists, art (as object), and art (as culture) within their historical context. This is also the same field that led to the more structured development of this blog and eventually the webpage where it lives. Many of the individual artists that will come into play in the future posts will be linked back to my first art history works that used some of the books in the series as part of the courses I was taking.
From what I have been working on, I find it is completely impossible to understand the antebellum period in American history without understanding its art. All of these overview books are collections of essays that isolate major themes and then reapply them back to the larger American Cultural landscape.
Reading American Art (Marianna Doezema and Elizabeth Milroy) offers a handy collection of American Art and their interpretations through the academy and through time. The survey runs from the colonial period through to Jackson Pollock. For my purposes the usefulness of this collection comes from the analysis of the early 19th century establishment of art as American. There is much lamentation over the fact that Americans had little pride in their own form of art. The hardest question to answer or explain is the schizophrenic nature of early art in American that needed to prove it was its own thing while striving to make it work on European terms. Political history sets up the development of this art form less in manner of than artists and more in the manner of the artists’ patrons. Whigs and Democrats in the early to mid 19th century were both striving to arrange the new Republic in a manner that benefitted their constituency. The lack of any actual aristocracy and the expansion os suffrage to those who did not own land drove the Whigs to seek control over American culture where it had lost control over American politics. Instead of calling themselves Dukes or Lords, they opted for the title of patroon and shifted to constructing reflections of American culture through their patronage of early American artists.
American Icons (Thomas W. Gaehtgens and Heinz Ickstadt) is a larger format and, frankly, easier to read version of Reading American Art. The essays are all arranged from a comparison perspective between American and European art. Many of them are comparing the differences in the American arc from those of their European counterparts. Save one. William Hauptman’s essay “Kindred Spirits: Notes on Swiss and American Painting of the Nineteenth Century” looks at the parallels with Swiss and American art, most notably the fact that national artists had to leave the nation (Switzerland or the US) in order to make their names and (however measly of) fortunes in the art world. The most interesting aspect beside the timing is the cultural arrangement of Switzerland that can be used to illuminate that of the American side. With a population less than that of New York of City, Switzerland was self divided into regional cultures that “shared more differences than similarities” and led to a multifaceted emergence of “Swiss” art. (Contrary to popular belief Swiss art is not art that is full of holes).
Finally, Barbara Groseclose’s Nineteenth-Century American Art is part of the Oxford History of Arts series and is filled not only with useful chapters and asides, but with further reading and sections on which museums to visit to see some of the famous collections of American art. As with the others, Groseclose starts American Art in Boston and follows it through the development of art unions as “culture” spreads through New York and Philadelphia. One of the strengths of this book is that was published with most of the art images in color. Even Reading American Art which sold itself on being a collection of essays intended to remove the need for bad photocopies of articles and aides for teaching class was published without colored images.
These intros all serve to orient oneself in the larger field of American Art History as it pertains to the Antebellum period which all have mentioned is a bit of a black hole of art history theory (which I think is one of its strong suit) even as it proves to be more important for the development of the culture of the young Republic than it at first seems. You can’t separate early American history from early American Art History and have either make any sense. Many of the artists that have works in this books were mentioned by name and covered in the books of the previous posts. Even those like John Haberle, and William Harnett who aren’t as famous as Bingham, Bodmer, or Bierstadt (who ironically, may not be that popular either given the number of times these authors talk about the obscurity of American artists in the 19th century. These early collections and studies from the mid-late 1980s all remark that this period in Art History has fallen under that research of American Cultural History and American Studies departments which means I have been on the right track trying to put it all together to understand a more complete America during the long 19th century.
I will end this with the same thing I tweeted when I finished the last book: “It should be illegal to publish black and white images of colored art works in art books.”
The final installment of these representative studies works means that I am onto the final third of this monstrosity. This far into the project has led to the interlibrary loan due dates shaping the reading order which, at first, looked like it would throw a couple odd books out from the main theme of the post. Fortunately they all talk about the same thing in some form or another so they aren’t as disjointed as it looked on first arrangement.
That isn’t to say they all fit together seamlessly. I will start with the full odd man out in this section because it is so narrowly focused on material culture in method and practice that it doesn’t flow with the broad antebellum cultural analysis that make up the rest of the books in this section. American Artifacts: Essays in Material Culture (edited by Jules Prown and Kenneth Haltman) contains a selection of essays written by Haltman’s graduate students while he was at Yale. (he is currently at the University of Oklahoma where he teaches a version of this same class. I have talked to him a couple times about his book on Titian Peale Looking Close and Seeing Far). These are detailed analyses of seeming random objects. The swath of objects to pick from ranged from cigarette lighters and telephones to photograms and stoves. The essays themselves serve as great examples of how object analysis can be effective on nearly any object. Prown would argue any object, but, for me sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. That is most likely due to my training in Archaeology. The way this collection is organized makes it perfect for teaching these concepts to graduate students or a group of really dedicated undergraduates. Haltman’s introductory essay outlines and summarizes Prown’s own articles about material cultural. Throughout Haltman breaks down and annotates the steps in Prowns syllabi. This collection is less about the objects and more about the training and ability to analyze these objects. For me it was interesting to see the close study of objects that have known uses, since most of my work with Maya artifacts consist of trying to figure out the use first and then trying to work on the symbology of form.
Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind is about as broad an analysis as you can find in an academic text. Since it is in its 5th edition, it likely has a life as a textbook for conservation and environmental history, of which, according to one of the book’s cover blurbs, Nash is one of the inventors. It makes sense that it would be as there have been many movements and cultural pendulum swings since the first edition came off the press in 1967. The whole idea of the work is to look at wilderness as a concept, ideology, and new vocabulary. Nash starts with an anecdote about securing his advisor who suggested that he try biology or geology to study “wilderness.” It is the “American Mind” part of the study that is important. Nash breaks down the idea of wilderness and how that shaped the formation of cities in the colonies as well as the expansion west. For Nash, wilderness mattered mostly to the early Americans who were developing ways to clear it. To make it less wild. Exploitation comes later, and throughout the subsequent editions the sort of guilt first seeps into members of Nash’s generation. The bottomest of bottom lines in Nash’s work is that wilderness needs to be understood as a mental concept and social construct as much as (more than) a geographical space. The bulk of the book is a collection on literary, history, and cultural analysis revolving around how Americans described, constructed (and deconstructed) the wilderness and wild spaces that were part of the shared experience. Nature itself is hardly “untouched” or “pristine.” The idea that Native Americans were less perceived as humans interacting with nature and more as part of the wildness of that space is a key point for Nash, an explains much about the relationship between “Americans” and “Native Americans” which were in fact “indians” in the sense that there weren’t “Americans.”
Interestingly enough Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West by William Cronon does something similar with “the city.” The opening of the book describes his own mental constructs of Chicago in the very same manner that Nash observed with Americans and their wilderness. Taking on Chicago itself Cronon illuminates the cities importance in shaping the 19th century flow of trade of wheat, beef, and lumber. All roads may lead to Rome, but all railroads lead to Chicago. This has been studied before, but what Cronon does is follow the railcars back out of Chicago and how they interacted and shaped the markets outside of Chicago, the state, and even the region (The Great West being more of an extended middled west by the modern geographic regionalities).
“First Nature” and “Second Nature” come into play to mark the changes in the landscapes around Chicago and its suburbs. Outside the larger analysis some ket points of interest for me was how railroads went from boon to bane for the city as its population grew. Railcars carrying trade goods or people all traveled at the city’s grade level and the hundreds of pedestrian rail deaths became part of the ebb and flow of city life. To protect the citizens the city slowed the trains which slowed trade. Even as people began utilizing the rails to get out of town Chicago became a passing point and less a destination. Every passenger line came into Chicago on one side of the City and departed it on the other. The express was less so and as other lines were built to the South more people travelled alternate routes west. Chicagoans shaped the urban getaways of Michigan and Wisconsin as trains took them out of the city and out to the lakes regions for vacations and extended stays. Even Cronon’s grandparents lived on the lake. Reading the two together it was interesting to see how Nash’s wilderness was shaped into Cronon’s Metropolis, and that metropolis reconstructed the wilderness (As cultural concept that equals “not in the city”) again. That is not to address the fact that Chicago meatpacking industry (of The Jungle) fame led to the demise of the west as a buffalo market and firmly into a beef one.
The lumber trade was a interesting analysis for me since I grew up in lumber country in the Pineywoods of Texas. Many people made their wealth in Southeast Texas by lumber, without the existing market i a city the size of Chicago. There were rail systems to Galveston for transport to market until the 1900 hurricane. Which shifted industry north to developing Houston and later shipping canals and interwater ways make it similar to Cronon’s Chicago in the south. The dirt road I grew up on was an old logging tram that was abandoned after the lumber was harvested. After heavy rains it was common to find railroad spikes washed out of the sand. This is a perfect synthesis of Nash and Cronon’s work. My great-grandfather was a linemen for John Kirby enterprises that brought electricity to the “Kirby Camps” that popped up across the landscape where workers lived as they worked the timber. Many of which went on to become established communities (Woodville and Kirbyville, for example). The Starks made their mark in lumber and their home is now a historic landmark and museum in Orange, Texas and their private art collection-containing an original double elephant folio Audubon- lead to the Stark Museum.
John Sears’ Sacred Places: American Tourist Attractions in the Nineteenth Century is one of my favorite books about this period. It covers a wide array of natural and manmade spaces that people travel to in order to visit. Niagara Falls, with its proximity to the east (and north) of the original “settled”areas of the continent was one of the first tourist attractions. The size of the falls and the geology of the area were evidence of “the sublime.” As travel became easier and the falls were harnessed for hydroelectric power the space became a tribute of the advancement of technology and man’s power over nature. In a sense it became the avatar for the sacred and the profane–less so because of the hydroelectric turbines and more for the shopping malls. Mammoth Cave was a near antithesis of the falls since it was absent of the sights and sounds, smells, and other sensory experiences that made up the visit to Niagara.
The whole idea of “Sacred Places” is that Americans had to find natural phenomena as exemplars of cultural achievement. Without the vast cultural history of Europe, the stylings of wealthy aristocrats and their private collections Americans turned toward their (and Nash’s) “wilderness.” As the century progressed, man made areas such as cemeteries morphed from simple burial plots to quasi city parks to full on tourist spots. Dark tourism is nothing new as those of means in the 19th century visited asylums and other hospitals either to marvel as how culture was evolving to help those less fortunate or to gawk at those whose handicaps meant they were not welcomed (or able to function) in modern society. Sears doesn’t delve into the latter for obvious reasons besides it being out of the scope of the book.
Moving back to the cities, Stephen Mihm’s A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalist, Con Men, and the Making of the United States takes a deeper look at those confidence men that I wrote about last week as well as the development of the American way of making money. The federal government abstained from its right to print and control money after the revolution which led to hundreds of states’ (and other) banks printing and circulating bank notes which were exchanged thoughout with the confidence that eventually they could be taken back to the source and exchanged for hard currency specie (gold or silver). There was never enough specie to cover all the legitimate bank notes much less any that were forged and counterfeited. In this sense counterfeit didn’t just mean fake bank notes, it could mean fake banks. Either way, it was the confidence behind the notes’ abilities to be traded for goods and services that drove the market, both the legitimate market and the counterfeit market.
The culture of counterfeiting emerged and evolved along with capitalism within the United States. Things were so bad in the 1830s and 40s that many people trusted (had more confidence in) bank notes from banks that didn’t exist or were illegal than they did in many notes from legal but insolvent states’ or municipal banks. It wasn’t just a matter of forging documents which needed handbooks to spot (many of which were in circulation in multiple editions), but catering to or on the confidence in the system. Interestingly Mihm ends the book looking at how the civil war solidified the federal government’s resolve to be in sole control of the nation’s currency through the development of the secret service to work to clear out the hard counterfeiters even as the nation’s confidence in their currency (and paper money) became an issue of national pride and confidence. In some respect the war and the post war economy made money a nationalistic issue. So much so that artist like William Harnett who was famous for illusionary paintings (trompe l’oeil) made to fool the eye, was arrested for his hyperrealistic paintings of money. Since his work was not created for the expressed purpose of passing them off as actual currency he was released and advised to stop.
I have always liked Harnett’s work. The hyperrealism paired with careful curation could lead people to thinking that the images were real. John Haberle’s Grandma’s Hearthstone composed of hunting gear and fireplace scene “even fooled the cat” who curled up next to the hearth to warm itself.
Harnett is also a great bridge into The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum by James Cook. There is an entire chapter on these tromp l’oeil paintings. In fact I don’t think I have ever seen the words trompe l’oeil in print as many times I have in this book.
These works are the hardest, realist evidence of the Barnum-esque deception that Cook describes in his book. The idea is that it was directed specifically at the emerging middle class who were in on the trick the whole time. Barnum mentions this himself in (one of) his autobiographies, that the public was aware of the deception even if they did not know how it was done, but the the entertainment was delivered at the full equivalency of the admission price. Two of the biggest themes in Cooks book is that this type of deceit is something that is part of all culture and returns from time to time without any real measurement cyclical regularity. The best 20th century trompe l’oiel painter is Wile. E. Coyote and his tunnels.
This ambiguity is part of the culture itself and is actually a way to understand and illustrate the same ambiguity that was 19th century American culture. While Cook ends with the tie-in with modern entertainment of scripted “reality” TV which, at 2001 was The Jerry Springer Show without it being mentioned, but would grow to the sufferable genre of popular television that is now going from Survivor and Big Brother to The Voice and Dancing with the Stars.
It isn’t all about paintings, slight of hand illusions are part of Cook’s analysis. One of the most interesting aspects is when a new magician takes he stage in New York only to have an Englishman in the audience go to the newspaper to reveal that he had seen these tricks when he as a child in England. Which brings to mind another of those period pieces that seem disconnected from historical fact on the surface, but, when you look more closely more parts of it are relevant than you would like to believe.
Cook also highlights professional wrestling as the best example of modern Barnum deception with the suspension of disbelief and the possibility of realism is served in equal parts. The audience is as much invested in the ruse as the marketer, and that is Barnum’s work and world in a nutshell.
Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show is similar in scope and arrangement as Reynolds Walt Whitman’s America that was part of an earlier set. Looking at it this way, you get the sense that they lived in different Americas. This might not be too far fetched given we are a nation of individuals as it is, and maybe there is historical precedent for that. It is also more Cook’s Arts of Deception in that Louis Warren outlines just how much the development of William Cody into Buffalo Bill was the marrying of fact and fancy from the earliest times through to Bill’s death. On the stage Buffalo Bill might as well have been Barnum Bill as he recreated the daring-dos on the range behind the footlights. The myth-building was exacerbated by the dime novels that were exploding into the hands of an emerging class of Americans who could afford books and have time to read them. Perhaps it was because of the inroads Barnum had made in culture that paved the way for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Those roads stretched from the western frontier across the Atlantic into the major cities of Europe (Cronon) who were just as detached from their own wilderness (Nash) as the Americans were from their cultural history (Sears). Throughout the interdisciplinary research one of the strongest statements in Warrens book is that the Wild West Show itself was more diverse than any city it ever visited. We also learn that Bill had an impact on Bram Stroker who was the agent for the most famous actor in England: Henry Irving. So much so that the Texas vampire hunter in Dracula is a remodeled character based on Buffalo Bill himself. The best way to sum up these books and lead into the problems addressed in the last one is Warren at length:
“Hailing from a West that was practically a borderland between real and fake, full of charlatans posing as heroes and of everyday people invited to assume heroic poses, [Buffalo Bill]…learned the allure of that tense space between authentic and copy, regeneration and degeneration” (543).
That copying, regenerating, and degenerating is nowhere stronger or more evident than the myths and stories that surround the battle of the Alamo. In Sleuthing the Alamo: Davy Crockett’s Last Stand and Many other Mysteries of the Texas Revolution James Crisps takes a long needed step back to figure out what we know about the Texas heroes and, more importantly, why we think we know it. I remember when the de la Peña’s journal came back to the front in the 1990s and revealed that Davy Crockett was executed after the battle. Growing up in Texas this was tantamount to high treason. Such is the devotion to the deception. How is it that Crockett is a Texas hero anyway, since he was only in San Antonio a few months before the battle? So much is his Buffalo Bill-esque celebrity that he overshadows all the Tejano involvement in shaping the Texas Republic. This is the large elephant in the room that Crisps little book points out. For years scholars have just been cleaning up after that elephant by rehashing old scholarship and not getting to the bottom of all the primary sources that don’t claim to be true, like some biographies. Crisps work with some of the most famous paintings of the battle reveal that in the 1870s early sketches varied greatly from the finished product after the turn of the century. These changed reflected changes in culture and racial tensions in Texas among other places in the nation. The book is written in a very personal manner which violates almost every tenant of academic writing, but is is important and useful as Crisp describes. His inclusion of a photograph of he, a cousin, and a black child was part of the impetus of the analysis. When a copy of the photo was finally found (a copy his cousin had) the third child, who was not family, but had lived as a tenant farming family under the cousin’s family, was cut out of the photo. This was very real evidence of what Crisp writes about in the text of Sleuthing. Two great things to take away from Crisp’s work are:
The call to “Remember the Alamo” should be a scholarly charge
“Even when it is ‘the other’ who is silenced, we lose a part of our history—a part of ourselves” (1980.
This section will be a three parter, so here is the middle child. I have been reading about the antebellum period for over 2 months straight now, only to have the present completely reassemble itself over the same template.
I might as well start with the best book to read before any election, but it seemed exceptionally prescient when I finished it last weekend. Karen Halttunen’s Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America 1850-1870 captures the nation as it literally and figuratively moves from rural to urban. The main focus of her book is the untying of “Victorian Hypocrisy” and how the structure of sincerity and propriety lead to the development of middle class culture. Confidence Men and Painted Women (not always prostitutes) were those who we only acting sincere within the newly formed manners and customs that were to be the defining separating features between middle and working class. In case money wasn’t enough. In case you think this is a niche outlier of antebellum culture, the fact that there were handbooks for sincerity were printed into the double digit editions from a wide range of publishers throughout the period.
For me the greatest explanation Halttunen offers is the difference between Romanticism and Sentimentalism. I think, for me, I have settled into an odd sort of Romantic Nihilism in life where everything is beautiful and nothing matters. It was hard to explain before seeing Hallttunen’s comparison here. Romanticism is coming to terms with reality and the world as it is and choosing to embrace mythology instead (or in spite) of that reality. Sentimentalism on the other had embraces the myth but refuses (or is incapable) of embracing or coming to terms with reality. This sets up the rest of Halttunen’s book looking at those “rubes” who come into the city from their farms for a new life only to lose most of their money and more of their dignity at the hands of confidence men. They are the pinnacle of that victorian hypocrisy that the book is concerned with. If it seems like a foreign idea, you’ve met confidence men before: the wolf and the cat from Pinocchio and the whole idea of that Pleasure Island (utopia).
Carrol Smith-Rosenberg picks the gender portion of the Victorian hypocrisy (without calling it that) in Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America. The work is a collection of essays that span Smith-Rosenberg’s career to the point of publication. The book looks at the many antebellum instabilities, socioeconomic and cultural, and the psychological anxieties about their respected positions in all were expressed (or at least revealed) within language. Women used language to protect themselves from the growing repression that trended along with the revolutions with commerce, industry, and transportation that disrupted and confused the dominant male constructed ideologies regarding their attempts to legitimize their old power structure within the new emerging class/industry organizations. The threatening (or the perception of threatening) of their existing family structure from the unfamiliar led to attempted control of sexual behavior. The book goes well into the 20th century as well but any scholar of women’s studies (especially in an American context) would do well to add this collection of essays to their collection.
The “race” leg of this stool comes in the form of Scott Trafton’s Egypt-Land: Race and Nineteenth-Century American Egyptomania. The fun thing about this book is that it looks at a history of science topic (Egyptomania–archaeology, etc) from a hard literary perspective. The early emergence of archaeology and ethnology was a way to scientize what was already a cultural phenomena of racial hierarchy. For Trafton, “the scientific construction of race begins with the question of Ancient Egypt and vice versa” (49). The book is “irreducibly interdisciplinary” and will serve nearly anyone who picks it up. For me and the ties through the antebellum period and the earlier literature studies is the analysis of Poe’s short story “Some Words with a Mummy.” Trafton’s analysis looks at it as general satire on the situation of “melodramatic” spectacle (tomb openings and unwrapping).
One of the things missed however is the very real spectacle that the story was based on. More generally the story could be any one of instances, but, leading up to the publication an unwrapping party was advertised with growing excitement. The advertisements grew until the mummy was billed as a princess. Only to be revealed at the unwrapping as more than a woman. If royal, which it wasn’t, it would have to have been a prince. This was the last straw for Poe’s patience with Egyptomania before penning “Some Words.”
Going back to the beginning of the 19th century the edited volume Empires of the Imagination: Transatlantic Histories of the Louisiana Purchase takes a long (time and distance) look at one of the hallmark stories of American history, and deconstructs why it is such a hallmark. The whole idea of the Purchase (according to Richard White and others) is that is was more of a claim than a place. The fact that it only appears as a Purchase in the US reveals the relationship that the French government had with the holdings. Some of the contributors point out that the area, which is still quite diverse in culture, was more influenced by the Spanish when they held the real estate than it was from the French who eventually sold it to the young republic.
The largest over-arching theme within the essays is that the ultimate deal to sale was not due to the American diplomatic maneuvering on the world stage, but was rather choices made in the European governments. If that is the case, and it is certainly argued well in this volume, then that might explain why the Lewis and Clark Expedition has eclipsed the actual purchase even in the last century.
In the end, industry and Puritan Work ethic became (and in some places still are) the modern hallmarks of Americanism, that is, according to Andrew Lyndon Knighton, productivity. The entire notion of his book Idle Threats: Men and the Limits of Productivity in Nineteenth-Century America is that the lines determining what was productive and what was unproductive was not only blurry, but constantly shifting. Early on Knighton posits that the idea of un-productivity was a terrible characteristic of the working class, it was exactly what it meant to be part of the leisure class. It was, at once, a sign of laziness and productivity, poorness and wealth. This can be best understood going back to that idea of Victorian Hypocrisy in Confidence Men and Painted Women. Thank God it does too, because Idle Threats is one of the most impossible books I have ever tried to read. The book is filled with examples of the instances I described above, but instead of being written in a manner that would actually help in explaining the contradictions, they are lost in a series of jargon laden vocabulary tests. I am sure it is a quite useful book for those who can manage to break through the surface, but as it stands as part of a series America in the Long 19th Century by New York University Press, it was written for six people and I most certainly wasn’t number seven.
As this starts the downhill side of the list it is only appropriate for things to get weird. Since many of these literary, print, American culture books are from interlibrary loans, the reading order is currently being structured by when the books are due back to their respected libraries. The other somewhat bizarre occurrence is that the books are starting to all say the same thing. I would like to think this is due to some achievement of enlightenment on my part and not simply due to the fact that the only people publishing on this topic are the ones on this list. That being said it is getting harder to figure out how these books fit together in the sense that many of them use the same early secondary source and then interpret it slightly differently. I want to keep up the series here until I am finished with the readings and then I can go back and study through here and my notes, but I can see the usefulness starting to drop off at this point. Maybe it is just a lull, maybe not. Either way, I am keeping on keeping on.
Working honestly, when I saw the title Empire and Slavery in American Literature, 1820-1865 I was less than thrilled to undertake it. Make no mistake I know how important it is to student slavery in context, women and gender studies, under representative cultures, etc., but I have a hard time making sure I check each box on things that I write. I refuse to shoehorn asides of race and gender into a narrative if they are not part of what I am researching. Eric Sundquist’s book is delightfully not what I was expecting. I was expecting it to be this dry, matter-of-fact, treatise on representation of race and slavery within Literature and how imperialism was a misdirection of fools in power.
The greatest strength of Sundquist’s work is his dive into the primary sources. Something that seems to be lacking in many history seminar (and even some research methods) courses. He starts the book out by looking at letters, journals, and autobiographical accounts of individuals to construct a more personal view of the antebellum period with feelings, thoughts, logical interpolations on either side of these enormous but delicate issues. Many of these are the basis (according to Sundquist) for the development of chicano and Mexican literature in the American Southwest. The second part looks at American expansion as it roared over the American Indian and the outcomes of those dispossessed in the form of myths, tales, and songs transcribed by ethnologist, treaty and war orations transcribed by first hand witnesses, and “prose fiction by Indians or their amanuenses” (89). In the final section Sundquist turns to African American literature as well as works by abolitionist and those who were pro-slavery. The book is filled with little known, or unknown works that provide a more even scope of the literature that was circulating in the antebellum period and through the civil war.
I have had History’s Shadow: Native Americans and Historical Consciousness in the Nineteenth Century for a couple years not since stumbling across it during an art history course. The book is centered on the idea that the Native American question in general, and Native Americans in particular, focused American national historical consciousness during the 19th century. That analysis ends up (many times) revolving around the interplay between popular culture and the professionalization and specialization of academic disciplines. Moving from the art that allowed for the continued acceptance of the native peoples as all parts of a larger “vanishing race” Steven Conn follows the main theme of developing anthropology. Linguistics, and especially “objects-based epistemology” had evolved along with the artist’s brush and the archaeologist’s spade. By placing Native Americans into 19th century history instead of just (or only) 19th century anthropology, Conn breaks with longstandign traditions that kept native peoples aligned with their own history (prehistory) and thus vanishing in the face of modernity, and more importantly not being part of their own present. One important point was drawn for anthropologists by Regna Darnell in her review of the book. Her closing line reads, “For anthropologists, the moral may be that Native Americans had a history in American popular thought that preceded the discipline’s hegemony over them.”
The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth Century America is a firm companion piece to a book we used in a undergraduate class sometime ago, and one I expected to show up in more places than this: The Wages of Whiteness. Alexander Saxton’s multidisciplinary approach to questions of race and white egalitarianism is ambition in method and scope. Beyond the politics of the developing political parties (and class) with the “soft racism” of the Whig party among the most interesting issues at hand, it is the mass culture that I found the most interesting. Specifically Saxton’s handling of the Irish use of blackface minstrelsy to establish themselves as white first and catholic second. By distinguishing themselves as something other than the other, they worked at become more of the same (from the ethnic white perspective). A simple take from the work could be that racism is far more than race relations. To expand on this a bit, the question of race specifically lies in the bedrock of the American (white) Republic and pervades through modern times with deeper roots, meanings, and expressions than any one perspective will ever unpack. Ignoring the other nonwhites the quasi-binary here is that nonwhites were incapable of taking part of republicanism because of the “natural” order of things. To wit: black inhabitants of America were too subjugated into bondage to ever be true participants in a republic while those with Red skin were too free.
Intimate Frontiers: Sex, Gender, and Culture in Old California was the reverse side of the coin that I was expecting Empire and Slavery to be. It is a short book, and a quick read, but that belies the importance of the points that Albert Hurtado raises. Everything about this book boils down to mixing: mixed blood, mixed marriage, mixed cultures. For the most part it deals with the rations of men to women in California at any one time, specifically during the gold rush which caused more issues than it solved with throngs of men and only few of the “right” women to marry while Native, Mexican, and other “women of color” fell into prostitution in high numbers. Outside sex and gender, Intimate Frontiers is a strong, well written reminder that California is the best example to understand American frontier development. Those living in what becomes California were never a confederate band before it was infiltrated by Franciscans and then Spaniards en masse. From the earliest european involvement on the North American West Coast it was a mixed bag. With Mexican independence from Spain in 1821 the Spanish in California become Mexican, and then with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago they change again into Americans. All the while working within existing cultural hierarchies and patriarchies and things did not get any better when the discovery of gold brought in peoples from all corners of the globe. Areas like San Francisco were culturally diverese in people and architecture, it would take the a city demolishing fire to erase that footprint and see a more homogenous looking city in direct opposition to what the inhabitants exhibited.
American Sensations: Class, Empire, and the Production of Popular Culture (notice a pattern of these subtitles?) looks at popular fiction as a means of understanding the expansion of American culture. Shelley Streeby analyzes dime novels and popular fiction as it pertained to things like the Mexican War. Some may be surprised at the sex and violence that purveys the 19th century texts that she analyzes, but it is as true for then as now that sex and violence sells books. But Streeby’s analysis goes further than the materialistic and looks at publishers political bents. Specifically George Lippard and how his catholic paranoia and desire to fight industrialism by empire building led to his books being filled with blood, guts, and sex. Even Lippard’s non Mexican War related texts were heavily Gothic in tone and were brimming with scenes of massacres, rapes, naked women, and sided with the class struggles with a position of damn the rich and champion the poor.
Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America should be read by anyone with an opinion on what consists of learn-ed culture. Lawrence Levine follows the decline of a rich, largely shared culture (or even a common cultural consciousness) from 1840s into the 1890s. He starts by looking at the popularity of Shakespeare within the public and just how well known the bard’s work was. The impetus for this pursuit came from the realization that many of the blackface minstrel jokers were parodies of Shakespeare, and you can’t pardoy what isn’t popular (or unknown). This is something I have thought about since learning that the stagehands on the east coast were largely made up of sailors on shore leave since they had a working knowledge of ropes, knots, and rigging. The idea that these sailors would be quoting and/or performing the plays while at sea has always made me smile. Levine’s work is the strongest independent confirmation that those thoughts might indeed hold water. It seems that is is the bifurcation of culture follows the development of those class stuggles that Lippard would have been writing about. Serious, learned, high, art and culture opposed the popular, vulgar, and low forms of entertainment. That Levine opened these doors and lines of questioning in 1988 it is sad that only a few scholars have attempted to follow up on them or go through them. Honestly I see more who are comfortable with their seat in “high” culture that would like to close the doors that Levine opened. This is the problems that Whitman and Poe were lamenting, that they never reached the people. Their work, Whitman’s especially, while about the common man were adopted by the quasi intellectuals and discussed out of sight of the public. Twain, on the other hand managed to tap into that popular mass with a loss of potency of his social criticism. There are reasons you won’t see a Norman Rockwell exhibit at the MET even though it would likely be one of the most attended in memory. The problem is, as Levine quotes in the end “The public is an ass” and it is exactly those asses the MET doesn’t care to have en masse at the sites of high art. This book is paired usefully with The Temple and the Forum from last week. To cite a modern example, what Levine is describing is exactly what happened to the music of Tracy Chapman in the 1990s. Her songs, mainly about lower class minorities, found its strongest fanbase in white middle class suburbia. The people that make culture define culture. As I have gotten back into comics since starting work towards a PhD, I recall several honors English courses at my undergrad alma mater that utilized graphic novels for literary criticism. Much to the chagrin of some members of the faculty, how can you waste time teaching with such aspects of popular culture. As Levine implies, you always have to say “popular culture” with a sneer, because anything popular can’t possible be useful except in all the cases illustrated through the books in this section.
Welcome back to the “teach yourself literary criticism in 12 easy steps” portion of this endeavor. This will actually (likely) be s shorter than average post as almost half of the readings subdivided here were companions or intros to Poe or Twain. The differences in which are interesting themselves and something I will come back to at the end.
The first at bat here (world series between the Indians and Cubs is currently underway) is a holdover from when my rough lists included much more about the history of display and museum culture/theory. The Temple and the Forum: The American Museum and Cultural Authority in Hawthorne, Melville, Stowe, and Whitman will be one of those books I try to teach with in the rare event there are any tenure track positions available when and if I survive all this. Les Harrison looks back at the developments of three “American” museums: Peale’s, Barnum’s, and the Smithsonian. The idea of democratic, or even public, discourse is shaped by the architecture of these buildings and the cities where they reside(d). The temple is filled with reverence for more than holy nature, but it is the paramount example of unidirectional authority. Specialist (or at least the initiated) were the ones dispensing and recollecting the order of nature. The forum on the other hand was (and is) the bustling arena for opinions, thoughts, private enterprise, and in some of the examples of Barnum: the popular, the bizarre, and the humbug.
But, it isn’t just about museums. The subtitle is your pocket-seized who’s who of American literature. Hawthorne emerges as the showman shining the spotlight on the tensions between the temple of the official history and the forum of fiction. Interestingly, Harrison sets Melville’s Moby Dick up as a confrontation with both the temple and the forum for the manner in which both were being controlled and shaped by Ahab-esque showmen. Stowe’s work seems to follow the same arc as the museums–from a Peale light narration through the stage plays and literal exhibition in the forum of theatre in not one, but two extremely popular forums in New York alone. Wrapping up with Whitman Harrison situated Specimen Days under the complete iron dome of the capital building finalizing the United States growth politically, scientifically, and through much personal exertion on Whitman’s part, culturally.
A Fictive People could follow a few paths, but its subtitle Economic Development and the American Reading Public set out from the cover to explain the impact of such things as high literacy rates, improved printing technology, new schooling systems, and the “cult of domesticity” had on the “golden age of reading.” This isn’t a cause an effect history. It is almost the opposite. Ronald Zboray moves from the earlier travel records of Europeans visiting America through the merchant travels of booksellers and increased publishing all to show that far from democratizing the populace, economic development actually exacerbated the regional differences within the country, and not just in literary tastes.
Even after the development of a book trade, distribution networks were still differentiated by region, tastes and consumption (of potable and non potable goods) remained stratified by class, colonial preferences still remained (even if dress in new post colonial clothes). On the other side of the analysis Zboray reveals that reader’s tastes were not as radically divided aling gender lines. It would appear, to paraphrase someone we will be talking about later, that the arrival of a “mass literary marketplace” in the 1850s have been greatly exaggerated.
Understanding American literature in the antebellum, and most of the post-bellum period means understanding the entire cultural context of the United States. This is true for American Science, American religion, American art, and American Apparel. The collection of essays in American Literature and Science (ed. Robert Scholnick) cuts a cross-section through the period with a host of well-known American men of letters. During the early republic science and literature could be pursued together in the cases of Franklin and Jefferson. The growing schism between the two towards separate specialties and professions are chronicled by Thoreau, Poe, and Emerson among others. The essays fall short of the modern period, although Scholnick does mention modern essayist such as Stephen J Gould, Lewis Thomas, and John McPhee at varioud times in the introduction. The later chapters highlight how science and literature still speak to each other, sometimes subliminally, across the rift that is modernism. In the closing essay N. Katherine Hayles discussions (airs her justified annoyance) that most of the science and literature literature focuses on how science influences (or influenced) literature. In the end science, like literature, is a cultural construct and both of them need to be considered (and understood) as two sites within a complex cultural field” (229).
Walt. Whitman. I have never especially cared for poetry. Sometimes I still have a bit of an issue with the fact that it is perfectly okay for it to not rhyme. So, coming to Whitman as a cultural icon instead of an iconoclast probably sets me at a disadvantage when considering his mark on American Culture. Luckily David Reynolds (we’ve discussed some of his other work before) has a giant horse pill of a book to help reposition Whitman within a broader cultural context (sometimes created by Whitman). Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography I think is less about Whitman’s life regarding Whitman and more a biography of cultural told through the development of Whitman. This is like thinking that Anne Rice just wanted to write books about world history and decided that the immortal undead is the best vehicle for such.
Reynolds takes down this notion that Whitman is America and American is Whitman. I was unaware that this was the case. This was my first exposure to Whitman’s bohemian ways endearing him as America’s native son. Good thing, because it turns out that such a notion isn’t entirely true. The overall arc of Whitman’s life fits with the arc of American culture. His best plan was living longer than many of his contemporaries. For many of the cultural monoliths we do not have baselines for comparison pre and post civil war. Reynolds begins and ends the book with Whitman’s 70th birthday to show that the zenith of the American Cultural celebration for Whitman coincided with the author’s largest absorption of capitalism and self promotion.
The middle bit of this nearly 700 page handbook to the 19th century is filled, sometimes to overflowing, of analysis or art, literature, and science. Similar to Reynolds other work Waking Giant it borders on sensory overload for the reader but provides a familiar avenue to access Whitman for nearly anyone. Reynolds also uses the same high school yearbook type run of portraits in the center of the book. He also includes some of the art discussed as corresponding (in most cases 1:1) with lines of Whitman’s poems. The Alfred Jacob Miller piece is striking because I blogged about it for an art history course and I will be taking up studies of Miller in a few weeks. Maybe this means I am on the right track. When Whitman’s likeness is used for cigars it is more or less proof that he has become American culture. Reynolds, and perhaps Whitman himself, believes that this was less than what Whitman was hoping for. Even at the end of his life Whitman lamented not getting through to the “people” and being a more powerful agent of social change in the the world, especially after the Civil War. As I stated earlier, I think that to follow Whitman through the 19th century is to follow American Culture through the same.
Poe and Twain. I am not sure this isn’t akin to that Beatles or Elvis question from Pulp Fiction. That is to say that you are one or the other. You may be an Elvis person that likes some Beatles stuff, but you can’t be booth. (Man, there is a lot of italics emphasis in this post). Is it the same for Poe and Twain. It seems that way, but then you can break it down farther with Poe. Do you prefer Poe’s poetry or prose? I have always preferred the prose with the exception of The Raven and Annabelle Lee. Again this is how I came to Poe first, so reading in these companions that it is only recently his fiction has become mainstream, is a bit of a shock.
Poe, whatever his faults, seems to have always had his finger on the pulse of American Culture. Like Whitman’s lament Poe never really reached the “people” either, save the immense popularity of The Raven. (he even wrote that the bird outdid the bug, in response to the poem overshadowing his most popular prose The Gold-Bug). He is seen as a hoaxer with Hanns Phaal and Balloons, or MS found in a bottle. He was also an astute critic in the press, much to the detriment of his personal amicability. His science work may arguably be ancestral to science fiction. With Eureka, which was dedicated to Alexander von Humboldt, among others being prescient into the 20th century. His satire of Egyptomania and deferment to science in “Some Words with a Mummy” is one of my personal favorites.
Back in American Literature and Science the Poe chapter looks at his use of Newtonian and Platonic theories of optics. Looking and seeing is a lasting distinguishing theme in my own work, probably only second to authenticity and authority. The work here allows for both Newton and Plato to argue the same case. Newtonian optics for the actual mechanical process of looking, and more or less sight, while the older “untrue” system is where the seat of imagination and actual “seeing” comes into play. This is the type of thing that give examples to Poe’s brilliance. There is almost no escaping tragedy in Poe’s life, some self-inflicted, most beyond his own control. Poe, defining, or defiling genres is at his best and the most tragic thing for American literary culture is that he died in the middle of it. Better known, if not better appreciated in Europe it seems fitting to end with the modern cliché that he was known as a genius in France.
Mark Twain. Use this in its actual working context and know that the waters are dangerous and shallow here. Twain is one of those people that are eminently miss-quotable for any occasion. Think of him as an American Oscar Wilde. God, he would hate that. You can’t get out of the American school system without getting Twain on you. Unfortunately it is always the same stuff and it is getting harder to wash off. I will stop here to say that to a certain extent I love Twain and have fond memories of reading things that aren’t Tom or Huck related.
Twain was a humorist. He was funny, and that is exactly why he has endured this long. He is still funny. The reason that he is have less to do with his prophetic ability and more to do with the stagnation of culture. I think Twain remains popular because of the massive amounts of anti-intellectualism that is injected into his work. We still have a culture divided over book-learnin’. On one side, it doesn’t teach common sense, but on the other it doesn’t elevate to the levels of pretense that some like to subscribe. If Poe was the pulse of culture Twain is the pulse of class. The companions and introductions all treat Mark Twain as more than a pseudonym. Samuel Clemens needs a vehicle to travel through the frequently disunited states in order to make reports back to the reader and it not be a personal affiliation. This adds great strength to the ideas brought forth in Fictive People.
Twain’s “hoaxes,” humor, or satire always tend to attack the establishment from the outside. Always the outsider, similar to that honed identity of Whitman and practiced nature of Poe are the hallmarks of Americana. Twain reached the people that Poe and Whitman missed. This seems mainly due to the popular press, and the reading public’s penchant for fiction. In the end Twain spins a good yarn, even if they follow the same model and employ many of the same tropes.
There were others writing satirical humor against science and culture, but it was done from a different background, most notably George Derby. Derby was West Point stock from the immortal class of 1846 with Grant, McClellan, Pickett, and Stonewall Jackson. A student of science, Derby, under the name John Phoenix, skewered the plethora of “official report” literature coming in from the American West. Derby makes fun of the scientists Twain makes fun of the science. Derby’s surveyors serve the same purpose as Poe’s (and Locke’s) hoaxes: they are warnings against uncritical acceptance of “facts.” Twain makes fun of the science, and uses that to later launch personal attacks on the likes of O.C. Marsh for mishandling federal funds finding birds with teeth. More attacks on science (specifically paleontology and the “fossil craze”) in Twain’s “Petrified Man” are hard social commentary. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court presents and even more dire portait of the unstoppable juggernaut of American technology. These aren’t just stories for stories sake, even if they do get absorbed separately from their social warnings.
Understanding more about Twain has led me to realize why I only like some of his work now. Like Poe it is usually his lesser studied (or assigned) works. A Tramp Abroad is one that comes to mind immediately. Although I have a full collection of Twain’s work, I always find myself skipping over Tom, Huck, and Pudd’n Head for some of the more entertaining collection of essays. The best analogy I can find for moving beyond the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn is when you finally outgrow Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama. Even with their works tilt the same way their methods and means are still markedly different. Twain’s Yankee modernizes (and ultimately destroys) King Arthur’s Court, while Poe’s mummy offers a retort for every piece of ‘modern’ life, save on. The ultimate production of American society, industrial, economical culture is the cough drop. That is probably why I like that story so much.
Southern fried paleontology and life stories from the world’s front porch