Category Archives: Comps

Now the real adventure begins

As of 12:30 Thursday, March 30 I am officially “ABD” which as I said when I tweeted that out, stands for “Should be writing.” Actually it stands for All but dissertation, all but done, or all but dead, depending on who you talk to.  Logistically this means I have 15 hours of coursework left before completing the degree program That means I have 15 credit hours left to write my dissertation, defend it, and graduate.  The last thing due before that whirlwind of excitement though is my dissertation prospectus, which, as every other part of this experience has been, is completely different for everyone. I have some friends that have turned them in as paragraph abstracts because their advisor’s believe it is just for the student to prove they are thinking about the project. At OU the prospectus meeting is due within 3 months of your defense.

But that is getting ahead and this post is really about looking back. If you have been following up to this point you will know that nothing about how I prepared for me exams followed any sense of traditional work.  I do no possess a single notecard with any information written upon it. This isn’t because I burned them all in celebration, it is because I never took any. I have never liked notecards at all, and a stack of loosely connected bullet points wasn’t going to get me anywhere. What I do have though is thousands of words here written as a progressed through my reading lists making connections, shifting my ideas, and sometimes changing my understanding of works based on new sources.

What I also possess is a renewed hatred for the formulaic framework of academic writing. It is terrible and it never leads to a true understanding of the arguments presented. It only exists to make it easier for other academics to guy and skim your book for your points, to search your citations and see if they agree with them or not, it is never about you or really your work. The Academic tradition is a snake devouring its own tail as the world around it has blasted into the 21st century it is wallowing in its own memory institutional filth.  Every single problem with the system of publish or perish could end in a single generation but no one really wants to because that would mean the whole game they have spent years and  money learning wouldn’t work the same way. The journal publishing houses are worse than the books (excepting textbook publishers). The continued maintenance and control of such non-entity hands would never be tolerated in any other University matter, but this one serves to reinforce the specialness of those publishing.

Following that arc, something that I found of great interest were the reviews for many of the books on my list. The first 1/3 of the sources (Natural History and the History thereof) was heavily reviewed, many with multiple, sometimes disagreeing, reviews showing up in a swath of journals. The second portion of works (American Studies) were less reviewed both in number and diversity of journals, possibly due to American Studies existing as this ephemeral discipline in many Universities. The third, and for my work one of the more important aspects of my exams (Art and Art History), was almost non-existent. Trying to place these works and artists in a historical context is an uphill battle when all you can find are a few gallery books, an encyclopedia entry, and maybe an “about the artist” blurb in  permanent collection. More often than not the “reviews” I could find were from librarians whose sole purpose it was to recommend books for pubic libraries.

With those unpleasantries out of the way, I will walk you through the three days of testing and (skipping the three weeks wait) the oral defense.  Our testing procedures here only recently changed. Before   you would had to slog to campus by 8, get your questions, and sit in a tiny room with a computer with no internet access and type out your answers. (After all you have to prove what you know and like the language exams here, you would never ever access a computer or the internet during your research). Now, thankfully, the process is a little less draconian. You can take your exams wherever you wish, utilizing your notes, books, and computer (you know, as if you were actually a working scholar). You have your questions emailed to you first thing in the morning with your instructions on when they are due back. Then you write everything you know.

Mine were done on a Tuesday, Thursday, Tuesday rotation. Armed with a printed and bound collection of the book reviews I could find and the blog posts from here (I used to export and print these notes) I waited for the first email. All three days worked pretty much the same way, I got up, did my regular morning routine or treadmilling and breakfasting before heading into our spare bedroom/office for my mission should I choose to accept it.

I queued up the entire season of Scooby Doo, threw on my headphones and started answering questions about the nature of 19th century nature and those who decided that what was. You can find the questions and unedited answers on the PDF page of this site if you want to spend some time with that.  I started at 8 or 9 depending on the day, which meant they were due at 4 or 5 respectively. The way that I constructed the day was one part of the question, stop for lunch, tweeting my progress, and second question. This may not work for everyone and I talked to people that were too nervous to worry about food for the day, I don’t recommend that, but some people don’t have control on their anxiety levels.

My answers were around 6000 words in two parts, and I finished well before the allotted time expired. There are some spelling and grammar mistakes throughout (kind of like these posts), but I have always had this terrible habit of changing things when I edit, even when copyediting which defeats the entire purpose of editing. I have come to terms with needing a good external editor for things so they will be finished and correct before going to press.

–Three Weeks Laters–

I have a dream team of a committee and they are almost impossible to track down at the same time. This is one of the reasons the oral defense was so far away from that last “send” push. I like my committee and I have worked closely with everyone on it. I enjoyed my reading list for the most part too. I was looking forward to my defense, not because I was expecting to be grilled, but because the very people I learned the approaches to my work were going to be there to talk to each other as well as grill me. I was asked specifics on some of the more broad examples I used in my answers, I was asked about framing answers in a certain way or starting at a certain position (specifically the West as America for the beginning or the changes in scholarship answer).  My answers were satisfactory, and I was indeed pushed to the point of having to say “I don’t know” which I have been told on several occasions is the main purpose of this medieval academic hazing process.  Congratulations were given, signatures were collected, and the official paperwork was taken to the Graduate College.

And that is it. Pretty anticlimactic for as much time, energy, equity that was put into the preparations, right? The preparation is the key, the exams are just a formality to give the preparations an endpoint so you don’t continue reading one more thing for the rest of your life. For me, the next step is hammering out a prospectus. Mine will definitely *not* be a paragraph abstract. One thing that I hope to implement will be a digital component to the work. Originally I wanted to rework a website (not this one) for the U.S. Exploring Expeditions and the Pacific Railroad Survey Reports so they could be explored, remixed, etc. Now, I believe I have a better option that might actually be able to happen.  My hope is to get good high resolution scans of all these journals and taking all of the plated out to create a huge digital atlas of the prints. The images could also be shuffled and arranged via meta data by content, location, type, etc. I will update that part of the project here as well. Until then it is back to the irregularly scheduled programming, and I have a couple ideas in the pipeline. As I start work on my dissertation, I will try to keep Sunday’s free for afternoon updates on that process and any other musings that come up along the way. This whole process was incredibly useful for me, and I don’t think I could have been as prepared for my exams had I not thought through the contents here and besides there is nothing quite like failing in full view of the public. Not only was it useful because writing is a way of thinking, but sitting down every week or so and hammering out an average 2000 word post was a great exercise in extemporaneous writing. If this whole process helps just one other person, it was more than worth it for me. I have gotten my use out of it, but maybe a first generation PhD student perspective on this whole thing will help someone else too.

~If you are interested to know, to answer all three questions I watched through all of the original Scooby Doo, Where Are You? season 1, and The Scooby Doo Show 1 and 3 (2 is short and bizarre) and got about halfway into Season 1 of What’s New Scooby Doo.

The Road to Comps Part 20: Staying in the Car until the audiobook finishes

This one really isn’t about comps, but I wanted to use it as a wrap up to that project as well as 2016. Besides, it is best to have something of this magnitude end on a nice round number like 20, isn’t it? I mean, base ten are some of the most celebrated milestones.

As 2016 comes to a close there will be tons of lists and predications, dedications and memorials. Seems like there might be more memorials this year than some in the past, but I haven’t taken the time to compare death notes. For me, it was spent in full preparation to take general exams (or comprehensive exams depending on what your people call them) as the last hurdle before dissertation. Technically is is next to last since I have to present a prospectus for my dissertation within three months of completed my exam defense. The questions will come in the Spring. I meet in a couple weeks to schedule them. The written will occur on three different days and the oral will wrap it up. When the questions arrive I will choose two of the three that are offered and I have 8 hours to answer them. So the all of the previous posts for comps prep will be distilled into 6 four hour extemporaneous writing exercises roughly corresponding with the larger divisions in the reading list.

Those posts can speak for themselves at this point, what has been really interesting for me as I take stock of the previous 12 months has been the non academic stuff that has kept me sane from all the academic synthesizing, to wit: I watched cartoons and painted. On the cartoon front I watched through the entire run of the Real Ghostbusters AND the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I am currently working through the 2003 version of TMNT while puttering around on the treadmill in the mornings. The most interesting aspects of this were the final seasons that had moved to cable that I had actually never seen. I am sure there will be ruminations on that later, or whenever.

But for my wrap up of 2016, here is the art I created (not counting the matting and framing I did). The pastels are copies of some Ghostbuster trading/art cards that were released by cryptozoic, they translate perfectly to pastels.

If you wonder about this odd man out, it was a gift to my cousin for her dorm wall for her first semester of college.

I didn’t make any predictions going into 16, and I don’t think that I will hazard any going into 2017. But I do hope that I manage to do as much of this ridiculous cartoon art as I did this past year. More than one person commented that I was the Bob Ross of Ninja Turtles, so there may come a time when I go a step farther than a simple time-lapse and walk everyone through a piece featuring happy little mutants. Happy New Year All!


This will be my shortest post: I’m done.

The End.

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.

Great Reconnaissance

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.

Picturing Nature

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.

art and science in america

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.

Citizen Spectator

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

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

Nature and Culture

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 Anatomy of Nature

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.

Looking Close and Seeing Far

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.

The Road to Comps Part 18: Art in the American West in the 19th Century: Art and other Visual Arts

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).

west as america

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.

Under an open sky

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.

Leutze Westward

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.

Pacific Arcadia

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.

american painting in the 19th century

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.

The Panorama

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

Hudson River School

Linda S. Ferber The Hudson River School: Nature and the American West

American Light

John Wilmerding (ed) American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850-1875. 

American Sublime

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.

Representing the Republic

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.


The Road to Comps Part 17: Art and the American West in the 19th Century: Photography

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.

Print the Legend

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.

Print the Legend

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.

Reading American Photographs

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.

Meaningful Places

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

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:

Shadow Catcher better 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 Light is 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.

River of Shadows

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:

From Robin E. Kelsey, "Viewing the Archive: Timothy O'Sullivan's Photographs for the Wheeler Survey, 1871-74." Art Bulletin 65 (Dec 2003), pp. 702-723
From Robin E. Kelsey, “Viewing the Archive: Timothy O’Sullivan’s Photographs for the Wheeler Survey, 1871-74.” Art Bulletin 65 (Dec 2003), pp. 702-723

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.

The Road to Comps part 16: Art and the American West in the 19th Century: Studies of Individual Artists

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:


The culmination of that course and all that blogging was a huge paper that was one of my favorites of writing since being at OU and, as it happens, may actually be a full third of my comprehensive exams: Artists on Expedition: Artifacts, Authenticity and Authority in Early 19th Century American Art of the American West. 

The Road to Comps part 15: Art and the American West in the 19th Century: General Background

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

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

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).

Nineteenth Century American Art

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 Road to Comps Part 14: Scenic Turnout 2

When I first constructed the schedule to get through all these readings there weren’t full days built into maintaining sanity. The plan was to have these large “scenic turnout” posts when I completed a full section. After trudging through the first few weeks I realized that in order to actually survive this road trip was to have at least one day each week that was devoted to specifically not reading anything.

To that end, most Sundays are spent doing something as far removed from comps lists as possible. Productively this usually means painting, like the one highlighted in Scenic Turnout 1.  This last path cut through the American Cultural Studies had more days of rest but less art production than the days would have provided.

This weeks installment is a nice urban landscape, which is fitting since I am starting the Art of the American West section of my comps and the American landscape features prominently in the myth-building of the new nation.

Firehouse painting

These are, by default, just one day adventures. So I haven’t had any extended canvasses sitting around unfinished during the week. I might attempt a longer, more complex (probably not less cartoony) piece after Christmas as I near the end of comps prep completely and our special collections offices are closed for the holidays, but I haven’t decided yet. As with all the ridiculous, useless things I create I do it as much for the time-lapse opportunities as for the finished products, which, as meager as they have been I have grown to like more and more.

There were far more days off than paintings painted. A lot of these ended up being wasted away on other side projects as exciting as shampooing the carpet and waiting for the cable internet tech to come and fix all our internet woes. Otherwise it was spend in the most time consuming manner imaginable: video games.

I have never been huge into video games, especially the sandbox games that require 416 hours to complete without doing any side missions. I do have Red Dead Redemption which is a great game when I have two days to play through, although I think I have been asleep in the bunkhouse now for four and a half years and never did master playing horseshoes.

Although there is a new one coming out, but I don’t know if it will be enough to warrant cobbling the cash together for a PS4 since Drake 4 wasn’t and Uncharted was the only reason I ever got a PS3, which happens to turn 8 this Christmas.

More recently, I have replayed Ghostbusters and the whole lack of backwards compatibility is one of the reasons I haven’t seriously looked into getting the 4.  It is great because you can pick it up, play awhile, and quit like the old beat ’em up arcade styles. Some creative youtubers have clipped and edited the cut scenes with some gameplay and it is actually an excellent Ghostbusters 3. (I’ve watched the “movie” twice).

Most recently, I actually bought a new game when it was released. I have no idea how that happened. Maybe I was preparing for comps earlier than I thought. Some of the reviewers hated it because it was simple, a quick play through, and didn’t have a gazillion side missions. Those are the very reasons that I have loved the game. It is a blast to play, and I can pick it up and play for an hour or so and go back to something else without feeling like I need to complete just one more mission. The graphics are great, the mechanics aren’t bad and the AI isn’t overly problematic if you aren’t running on “Easy.”

Of course all this is offset by having my old, original NES system hooked up to our giant-for-us television to play Kung Fu and (what else) TMNT: The Arcade Game. For the record I have never, ever, in the history of having the first TMNT nintendo game, gotten past the disarming the bombs in the reservoir.

Kung Fu


TMNT 2 The Arcade Game

The final undertaking that I have been putting off has been to paint the miniatures that came with the The Ghostbusters and Ninja Turtles Boardgames from Kickstarter. I suppose now might be the best time to tackle it on the Sundays in the future since it should start to ice and snow soon and the yard won’t need mowing again– at least after I mulch the leaves.

Intro texts for the art section coming up and with the holiday weekend, I will be back on the road to comps in just a couple days.


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.

American Artifacts

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.

Wilderness and the American Mind

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.”

Nature's Metropolis

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 W.H. Stark House in Orange Texas
The W.H. Stark House in Orange Texas

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.

Sacred Places

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.

he Bottomless Pit in Mammoth Cave, woodcut, 1887 (Nuno Carvalho de Sousa Collection, Lisbon)
he Bottomless Pit in Mammoth Cave, woodcut, 1887 (Nuno Carvalho de Sousa Collection, Lisbon)

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.

A nation of Counterfeiters

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.

Homer Cash

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.

Harnett's ultrarealistic paintings of money earned him a visit from the secret service
Harnett’s ultrarealistic paintings of money earned him a visit from the secret service

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.

John Haberle's Grandma's Hearthstone
John Haberle’s Grandma’s Hearthstone

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.

Arts of Deception

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.

Wile E Coyote Tunnel painting

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

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).

Sleuthing the Alamo

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:

  1. The call to “Remember the Alamo” should be a scholarly charge
  2. “Even when it is ‘the other’ who is silenced, we lose a part of our history—a part of ourselves” (1980.

The Road To Comps Part 12: Representative Studies of American Culture and Society in the 19th Century Part 2

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.

Confidence Men and Painted Women

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).

Disorderly Conduct

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.”

Empires of the Imagination

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.

To show just how engrained the purchase is, this meme appeared after the 2016 election with comments asking about France's return policy.
To show just how engrained the purchase is, this meme appeared after the 2016 election with comments asking about France’s return policy.

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.

Idle Threats

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.