Category Archives: Books

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 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.

The Road To Comps Part 11: Representative Studies of American Culture and Society in the 19th Century Part 1

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.

Empire and Slavery

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.

History's Shadow

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.”

Rise and Fall of the White Republic

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

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

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.

The Road to Comps Part 10: Literary and Print Culture Part 2

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.

Temple and the Forum

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

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.

American Literature and Science

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

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.

The cigars were called "blades o' grass"
The cigars were called “blades o’ grass”

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.

The introductions are the same, but the companion to the works are markedly different. What if Poe had lived as long as Twain?
The introductions are the same, but the companion to the works are markedly different. What if Poe had lived as long as Twain?

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.

Cambridge Companion to Poe

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.

Introduction to Poe

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.

Introduction to Twain

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. 

Oxford companion to Twain

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.

Cambridge companion to Twain
I didn’t read this one, just making you aware that Cambridge has a companion volume too.

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.

I don't think Goofy has the same effect on the warning of unfettered American Industry.
I don’t think Goofy has the same effect on the warning of unfettered American Industry.

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.

The Road to Comps Part 9: Literary and Print Culture Part 1

This literary and print culture is one of the longer subsections and for means of brevity, sanity, and any semblance of understanding I have cut it close to half (8/7) in order to try and make sense of it.

The Sun and the Moon

One of my favorite books, and, incidentally, one of the most recent published in this menagerie is Matthew Goodman’s The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxes, Showmen, Dueling, Journalist and Lunar Man-Bats. The books over-arching cohesion comes in the form of the “Moon hoax” printed in the New York Sun newspaper in 1835. The rest of the subtitle is spread throughout the book with enough force that a hard-nosed editor would have required Goodman to make this three different books.

Other than struggling with competing narrative syndrome, the book is an excellent collection of newspaper and cultural American History in the 1830s. The main theme of the Moon Hoax is te discovery of living beings on the moon, reported as matter of fact in the same style as the scientific articles, in fact it was said to be reprinted from a science journal. that were gaining popularity with the new readers of the penny press.

Since Locke’s Moon story for the Sun was similar to one of Poe’s stories (Hans Pfaal) Poe remains a secondary character with a large footprint for the rest of the book. He serves as a kind of pivot point to look at other hoaxing (diddling) during the period from his exposing a chess playing automaton which was connected to Barnum enough for a Barnum chapter and the slave who was supposed to be a nurse of a young George Washington. You can see why it was easy to get carried away outside the moon hoax proper.

The rest of this is just a mess of literary criticism, scholars talking across one another to establish methodologies to “save” novels from obscurity, or to argued against the structured canon of distinctly “American” Literature.  It really doesn’t matter where we start there will be some broad brushing from here on.

Lay of the Land

The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters can be wholly summed up as a discussion of works in which nature is described, regarded, treated, vilified, etc as feminine.  The box that Annette Kolodny is unpacking (in 1975) is the idea that to talk about land as being both motherly sustaining and virgin to be taken leads to some great cognitive dissonance within the rhetoric of nearly anything in print. Land as both mother and mistress is something that, according to Kolodny, leads to the destruction of the environment as the frontier gradually disappeared. The destruction was ultimately the result of frustration and disillusionment. Freud would be proud.

As I understand it this is one of the earliest attempts are drawing tools across disciplines, in this case psycho-linguisitics, cultural history, literary history, and the analysis of symbols, to understand and possibly recreate how certain instances of the past influenced certain ways of thinking, describing, or writing.  She claims that it would raise more questions than it provided answers (it does) and that is should start a conversation which I *think* is part of the impetus for some of the books that follow.

Beneath the American Renaissance

Beneath the American Renaissance is where I realized that I might be floundering more than a little out of my element, not being a trained student in American Literature. This was my first foray into the American Renaissance both as an idea and as a place in time. I understand the connotations (similar to the Harlem Renaissance a century later), but I can’t help but get hung up on the idea that there was nothing in the pre-colonial period close to this level of “pure cultural development” that could be “reborn” in the early 19th century. In that case it is more of an American naissance than anything resembling a re. 

That being said the idea (and subtitle) that it was The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville promises a way to understand what makes American literature distinctly American.  The book exists to expand (get beneath) ye olde F.O. Mathiesson’s American Renaissance. Reynolds work challenges the idea that the (now famous) American authors were not “marginal figures in a society that offered few literary materials.” This established notion rests on the idea of what constituted “literary materials.”

Buried within Reynolds’ genre collecting and labeling is the most useful parts of the book. The connections between “high” American authors–Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorn, Poe, Melville, Whitman, Dickinson–and the “low” popular literature are exactly what made them the standard syllabi for Am. Lit now. Far from being “ahead of their time” or “above the flow” each of these authors gleaned much (in content and even style) from the popular literature including sentimental fiction, sensational  novels, reform tracts with “anonymous” authors, penny papers (which included trial reports), and dark humor.

Lay of the Land

Whereas Reynolds wants to expand Matthiesson’s pantheon, Jane Tompkins’ Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction wishes to deconstruct it completely. She says as much near the end: “this present study and Mattheissen’s are competing attempts to constitute American Literature” (200).  This is in the final chapter entitled “But is it any good?” the question that dogs the inclusion of some of the popular works that Tompkins highlights including Wieland, Arthur Mervyn, and the standard-bearer Last of the Mohicans. This becomes and argument (with Matthiesson, I think) over the canon of American Literature. She even has a chapter called “The Other American Renaissance.”  What the book mostly covers is the work of Susan Warner compared to Hawthorne. Hawthorne was aided by “circumstances” and Warner was hindered by (literally) not being Hawthorn. Partly I believe Tompkin’s is right, may of these works need to be brought in and studied as canonical, or at least historical works within antebellum American, just as Reynolds suggests with his inclusion of Poe and Dickinson on Matthiesson’s pantheon, there is room for Tompkin’s inclusions, but (and I think this is probably due to it being the 80s) she seems to think that there are only a set number of spaces and some of Matthiesson’s hallmarks need to be removed before Warner can taker her place. Taken together, instead of one of the other, these three works–Matthiesson from 1941, Tompkins, 1986, and Reynolds in 1988–can serve to get a much more holistic picture of early 19th century American literature.

Carnival on the Page

Some of that dark humor and popular fiction comes to the front in Isabelle Lehuu’s Carnival on the Page: Popular Print Media in Antebellum American. This book did not go in any direction that I had figured. Lehuu’s model from literary criticism (Mikhail Bakhtim) and Anthropology (Victor Turner’s liminality work) make for a less than charming odd couple. The idea that the carnival atmosphere from open markets and feasts in the middle ages is reinvented in the fiction of Antebellum America. The book itself is a carnival of sorts looking at a vast sample of Antebellum print materials including those penny newspapers mentioned above, illustrated ladies magazines, giant newspapers and giftbooks.

Lehuu’s position is that these publications significantly changed the cultural landscape of America by challenging the definition of what constituted a “book.” American literature could be shaped (and was according to Lehuu) by printed artifacts that were “cheap, light, and grotesque.”  These may have led to a “rupture” in print culture that separated the Antebellum period from its past and its present. This perspective depends on the idea that Antebellum literature looked a lot like it is taught to sophomores–that is expensive, homogenous, and serious. As we’ve seen in the other cases not only is that not true, but it was many of the light, cheap, and grotesque sources that fed the “greats” that are taught as cementing Antebellum literature as expensive, homogenous, and serious. She also lumps penny press papers into the same genre as yellow journalism, which I find extremely problematic.

Science and Technology in the Age of Hawthorne

Sam Halliday’s Science and Technology in the Age of Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, and James: Thinking and Writing Electricity swerves a little more into the science lane. Sort of. The book looks at the literary appropriated of science and technology vocabulary, in this case electricity. This is a continued list of examples where electricity is either a thing to be written about or described, a thing used to describe, or varying operations of bother. The “spark” and various other electrical subtexts serve as model, metaphor, or substance for ideas. Electric communications led to new ways of miscommunication and misrepresentation (think of the modern equivalent being the impossibility of read tone or mood in text messages and spam emails). It also brought people across a growing nation together and allowed for the alienation of these nearby.  It was these social constructs and cultural changes that lead to not only the “low” accounts of the popular press expressing worry or more often cynicism, to the more lofty accounts of the age by those mentioned in the books title. It was things like electricity and the telegraph and others that influenced both thinking and writing. An interested note, one of the reviews for this book that I read mentioned early on that Halliday’s study was “grounded in scientific and technological developments.” I would like to think that this is another example of electrical metaphor (of course it could just mean that Halliday’s head isn’t in the clouds, but I will give the reviewer the benefit of appreciating the imagery).  It also reminds me of one of the more popular Schoolhouse Rock videos that compares your nervous system to a telegraph line:

Sins Against Science is an attempt to analyze the text and reader response to (subtitle) The Scientific Media Hoaxes of Poe, Twain, and Others. There are pieces of this book that are phenomenal. There are other pieces of this book that show a newly developed methodology for literature and reader analysis on historical texts in a way to make it quantifiable. That isn’t the benefit of the book.

Sins Against Science

The useful parts of the book help you understand why the people might have believed media hoaxes. She uses a couple of examples byTwain, a few from Poe, and old Twain employer and colleague Dan DeQuille (William Wright). The notion that these hoaxes were presented in the same manner as actual factual texts is the broadest basis for understanding why people could be taken it. Most were attempts to show the public that their unquestioning faith in the science bug could have dire consequences. In these instances the morals are more along the lines of “in this case, you just look foolish, but you could have lost money, life or limb in other instances.” Other times it was just Twain being annoyed with the latest scientific “fads”–fossils in the case of his “Petrified Man” stories or Poe’s annoyance at the public funding of science at the expense of the arts.

Poe was trained in science in Philadelphia, and Dan DeQuille had been a miner before becoming a journalist. These instances were not only instances of “copying” science writing, both had been science writers at some time during their careers. The problem for historians using this book is that when you jump over all the “I’ve harnessed SPSS to study the humanities” (that is unfairly critical I know) you are left with interesting instances that could easily be tied together for a better understanding of how they managed to continue to be successful (or not) in the face of contrary facts.  At best it is a proof of concept for Lynda Walsh’s approach to understanding historical readerships. At worst it is a disassociated set of essays with some interesting asides into print culture. Where she mentions Lyell’s work in a quasi-asside it is evident that she has either never read Rudwick, or did not take what he said to heart, or where Lyell’s work sat within the circles of the English Geologist (as conservative and falling back on the old “theories of the earth” stance). There are other glaring omissions as well. In a book about Media hoaxes by Poe one would expect an analysis of his work on diddling.  If you can manage to wade through the over abundance of theorectical vocabulary and situational ists and isms in the beginning the individual chapters may serve as a start towards a better understanding of the cultural association of hoaxes within American society as a whole, and not just historically. It is just going to take someone besides Walsh to make that happen. Walsh ends the book the the 1996 Sokal Hoax wherein a paper “liberally sprinkled with nonsense” appeared in a postmodern cultural studies journal in an attempt to show that it was the postmodernists (specifically, but maybe not entirely, the cultural studies folks) were the real sinners against science.

Women of Letters

Nina Baym’s book would be better suited if the title and the subtitle were switched: American Women of Letters and the Nineteenth Century Sciences: Styles of Affiliation.  It is the affiliations that drive the book to uncover the ways in which women writers responded to the sciences.  Women did not challenge the premises of the sciences and later its developing professionalization or that it was a male-dominated institution. The affiliations here are between the middle class woman and science. From science women (and I suppose more broadly Woman) could gain connections to reason, progress and modernity. On the other hand, women could provide science with popularizers, appreciators, and (more importantly) consumers. Nature writing, ladies magazines, and education promotion were just some of the topics that women of letters were publishing. Botany as we’ve seen in the earlier posts again rules supreme in the eye of these appreciators. Botany was hailed as the perfect hobby for a middle class wife living in the country in order to stave off boredom. Beyond the cadre of women popularizers Baym looks at the wives of men of note who were generating scientific knowledge. Either as illustrator or, in the case of Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, her husband’s “ghostwriter and publicist.” More than just bringing women out of obscurity Baym’s work provides a more complete image of the scientific writings that Walsh deemed so common to the laypeople on either side of the 1840s. In the end it provides readers with, among other catalogue lists, the outline for the strategies middle class women of letters used to associate themselves with science as well as the limitations of the same affiliations.

The Road to Comps Part 8: American Studies Background

This is an area of study I had no idea existed, wanted to pursue, and was then told there would be no jobs all in about 3 months time. Of course, the job field isn’t exactly a tyranny of choice these days for anything else either.

The background subsections are here to give me false hope about productivity and quick blog posts. The bulk of this section was collections, anthologies, and companions. In that sense they aren’t much for the reviewing process as they outline the state of the field and then offer the best (in their opinion) sources to understand why the field is in that shape it’s in. American Exceptionalism works to deconstruct the phrase in order to understand what it meant to those in the past and less about what it means to us. If there is anything that I have learned, either through study or life, it is that it doesn’t necessarily matter if something is true, what matters is how people react to the idea that it is (the corollary of this is also true). 946298

That being said all the relevant chapters include books that are on the list and will be included in future posts as well as books I am familiar with from my time as a graduate student is just “History.” Specifically mentioned were books The Shopkeeper’s Millennium and Wages of Whiteness both of which were part of an “Age of Jackson.” Other essays were written by authors that constituted most of my readings from Art History.

What do they say about American Studies? Some that it was inevitable others that is might by unfocused. “Practical dilettantes” I think was my favorite phrase. I still can not figure out why working across disciplines is either novel or revolutionary. How can you piece together any historical event without understand the people, places,  and things involved in its construction. It goes far beyond who was president and has much to do with what the public was reading, watching, gossiping, and more often then not, concern for their (and other’s) salvation.

American Studies

You can study American History, American Literature, Religion, Women and Gender, etc and you can become an expert on describing whatever part of the elephant you’ve chosen (been assigned). It isn’t even as if we have institutions in place to allow these people to talk to each other in order to provide a broader context. No. We allow them to talk amongst themselves at conferences setup for their specific work. From what I see and understand American Studies was the first semi-successful attempt to fight this mutual admiration society plague. It is also something that I have been employing in my own work as well. It doesn’t hurt that one of my professors is an American Studies PhD.

To visualize this process think of a round room with windows looking out into every conceivable direction. Each window has a shade (or a venetian blind, if that’s your thing). Going through straight history you have a chosen window to look through. If you work on fringe areas or across set “times” you may get to peak out either of the adjacent windows. History of Science folks get opposing windows (think of it like a color wheel) and might accidentally get to see out someone else’s window. American Studies folks get to move around the room in its entirety looking through any window they wish with the great privilege  of enjoying the view or closing the blinds again. The more ambitious might set up mirrors in the room so they can look out their window and the one behind them at the same time. I seem to have fallen into the arc of studying American Cultural History of Science. This means I have entered the room, ripped all the blinds down, left the door open, and raised all the windows so I can yell to other towers.

I wrote a paper on the American Circus once, it was brilliant but I almost failed because it was cultural history and not a Historiography (which I loathe)
I wrote a paper on the American Circus once, it was brilliant but I almost failed because it was cultural history and not a Historiography (which I loathe)

That Age of Jackson course I mentioned was one of the better courses I took in college. The arguments about what to call the period, while not entirely irrelevant, tend to miss the point about the importance of the “Era of Good Feeling.” Jackson was the president of the common man. This means the common white man. There is absolutely zero ambiguity here.  The problem seems to stem with the “marketing” of that period now to historians who aren’t white men.

Waking Giant

Some of the complaints I found about David Reynolds’ Waking Giant was that it simply retold everything that had been done to date by Schlesinger, Sellers (Charles, not Peter), and Watson, and he does, but it needs to remain part of the conversation. I don’t think any historian writing today believes the “Age of Jackson” as benign. But just because the period was more nuanced doesn’t mean you let the classic narrative stale while the rest of the facets get brought into more recent scholarship. You are swinging the pendulum to far in the other direction, and if it isn’t fair to ignore all the outliers then how can you structure a narrative without the major movers an shakers.

I still have the readings from that old Age of Jackson class and between reading this and What Hath God Wrought I pulled many of them out. I liked them specifically because they were assigned primary sources and we worked through what they meant, we didn’t argue about what other people thought they meant. This should *not* be a novel way to teach history. I distinctly remember reading through my binders during lunch at work when someone asked what I was reading. I showed them half of the paper and said ” These are documents sent to the American Government by Indians saying they have the right to exist, and these (showing the other half) are from Andrew Jackson and his representatives saying that they don’t.” Reynolds’ approach to his antebellum history follows the same lines with updated scholarship and it was fortuitous that I read it first to review what I understood about the period.

What Hath God Wrought

It wasn’t actually fortuitous it was practical because Waking Giant is half the size of What Hath God Wrought.  As I said this was a one or the other setup but since I was ahead of schedule on my readings and that invariable sets off my self-sabotage systems I wanted to tackle them both. And why not? This is one of the most interesting periods in American History.

David Howe’s What Hath God Wrought is summarily a bible for antebellum history. It, as we will come to see, is the epitome of American Studies crossing discilpine boundaries to look at culture, literature, art, politics, socio-economic, and more than a bit of biography. That being said it is a huge pro-whig book. This is why it serves to “balance” the standard Age of Jackson discussion by imbalancing in the opposite directions. I honestly think he wanted to write a biography of John Quincy Adams, but as a genre biography is frowned upon by the establishment, so he went with this behemouth. He spent a good deal of time talking about the Amistad case as well which seems like a good time to share this again.

The great strengths of the book are the arguments against the ideas of market or even solely technological revolution. Throughout he takes great pains to deconstruct ye olde theories and reveals that the market was constantly changing before the expansion and while railroads could count as either one of the above revolutions they were part of a larger whole. Think of it as “if everything was a revolution then nothing was.” Except Howe’s concluding chapter dealing with the women’s rights revolution being the most important of 1848.

Know that if you read either just Reynolds or Howe you will almost literally get half the story behind the massive amounts of change as American influence (and land ownership) stretch from Appalachia all the way to the Pacific. As someone who grew up in Tyler County, Texas that is next to Polk County, the chapters on Texas Annexation and expansionism were the most interesting. For a wide ranging book Howe was able to go surprisingly deep into the altercations in the Southwest that led to varying outcomes and war with Mexico. Seeing his comparison between a US Map of 1848 and a Map of the US “as Polk would have have it” was an incredible piece of visual aid. Additionally, many of the images chosen for the book (that weren’t political yearbook-esque) were paintings that I have blogged about from my art history courses.

The US through 1848 v. The US as Polk Wanted

This is the background for the next few weeks of reading and some of my favorite books and authors will be discussed. More literature than I have taken in a while and it will be interesting to see how some of these works tie together across the disciplines and across the dates they were published.


The Road to Comps Part 6: Different Approaches to the History of Natural History in the United States

The final section of the first portion of comps prep has the longest title, and the longest entry. These books are mainly a cross section of methodologies used in framing historical accounts of Natural History in America.  The best part about looking at these different approaches is that the content was generally useful as well.  They also criss cross the same time periods, geographies and often the same people.

The Poetics of Natural History

This history of Natural History in the Unites States starts with botany. In fact, most histories of Natural History start with Botany. Irmsher’s The Poetics of Natural History opens with two Quaker botanista, or rather plant enthusiasts, and their lasting exchanges of letters and botanical specimens. Moving chronologically Irmscher turns then to the museum collections of both Charles Wilson Peale and P.T. Barnum (some specimens being the same ones as Barnum purchased the last remnants of Peale’s museum to create his own).

Rattlesnakes and woodpeckers fill the ways, but it is descriptions obtained from the field and from people in the field. Of Course Audubon’s work is described as the “pinnacle of the poetics of natural history ” with his expert renderings of birds in something of a suggested habitat. That is not to saw that everything was 100% correct and this is where Irmscher offers another method of gleaning truth from facts.

What Irmscher’s work does it provide an avenue for information to disperse that does not necessarily require structured education, although it does require literacy, at least for the descriptions of Audubon’s birds of Holbrook’s snakes (North American Herpetology). It is the sources of information and not the information itself that is important to Irmscher’s analysis. The work goes well into his chosen project to expand the importance of storytelling and collecting beyond the “belles lettres” and to its beginnings in concrete experience.

A word about the rattlesnakes. Recently our natural history museum  hosted an Audubon exhibit filled with his amazing artwork, some sketches, and more ephemera. Of all the works and labels the one with the eagle and the rattlesnake stand out the most because the text belabored the fact that Audubon had gotten the snake wrong. This is what Irmscher and some of the following authors are working on: the idea that facts aren’t necessarily the only place to find truth. That is to say, that just representing the facts is something the least useful way to relate, or even understand history. This is also symptomatic of having the fully scientific collection curators serve as the exhibit curators. Nine and a half times of of 10 this comes off as condescending and doesn’t provide the visitor–reader or museum patron–with anything illuminating that they can take away and keep or use in their lives. Turns out historians, museum curators, and people in general could learn a lot from filmmakers in this sense:

Since we are not being pedantic as Werner Herzog advised above, looking at The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes may be one of the best examples of the academic establishment cutting off its nose to spite its face. Again we are looking at sources, and where knowledge is created and how it is traded. The greatest geological event in North American recorded history is forgotten to history and is only reintroduced as seismic scientists attempt to reconstruct the earthquakes to answer questions unrelated to settlement of the Mississippi River Valley in the early 19th century.

Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquake

Conevery Valencius’s research runs the gamut of personal letters and as many newspaper reports as she could kick up in the archives.  The biggest revelation is that the earthquakes were part of everyday life and for a while were on everyone’s lips and at the end of everyone’s pens.  The synthesis of these common sources provide a glimpse into the largest issue of the professionalization of the sciences in the late 19th century–that is, not trusting anyone outside of the profession.

By the time civilization had roared past New Madrid, the impact of the once ubiquitous earthquakes had been relegated to the annals of tall tales of westward expansion and were taken with the same mount of salt as stories of blue oxen and giant lumberjacks.  As it happens, I first read about the earthquakes in high school in a Wild West Magazine article that retold the tale of a murder uncovered by the earthquakes. Valencius mentions the same story briefly as the remains of a murdered slave were uncovered after a chimney collapse.

Coming from a geologic background into the History of Science this has been one of my favorite books from the readings. Not just because of the history, but because Valencius easily justifies the use of “vernacular” science in the case of the earthquakes and provides an excellent precedent for doing the same thing with other historical events. To go further on this point of vernacular, the tide is now turning towards utilizing the stories of indigenous peoples (where they can be found) in relation to larger European and American historical events The most recent being the discovery of the HMS Terror in areas that match up to Inuit tales, tales which also include incidents of cannibalism among desperate seamen. Valencius’ work also means that now those in between indigenous knowledge and learned professionals can also have a voice in the history of American science. Especially revealing is the fact that this isn’t just an exchange of information, it is the creation of knowledge.

Humboldt Current

That aptly named Humboldt Current (which ironically has been renamed the Peru Current) attempts to reframe some American exploration in the light of Humbolt’s “ecological” pursuits. Many well-known names in America were students (in the philosophical sense) of Humbolt’s work to provide evidence of an intricately connected world. J.N. Reynolds, Clarence King, George Melville, and John Muir are all connected mainly through their adoption of Humboltian idea(l)s.

Whether or not the book succeeds in convincing any of the deeply rooted professionals that some exploration is not imperialistically motivated (several reviews indicate it wasn’t) is immaterial. The book provides another angle to look at not only exploration, but ironically, empire, ecology, environmentalism, and nature. That some  expeditions were undertaken for explorations sake, or to prove some pet theory (in the case of Symmes’ Hollow Earth) seems to be beyond belief for more than a few historians. Many of these people also have a problem differentiating between exploration and exploitation (and that says nothing of using the word “exploitation” as a neutral descriptor for environment use a la anthropological theory).

How the Canyon Became Grand

Some of those environments can become cultural even though they have zero survival/subsistence value. The case of the Grand Canyon is one such event. How the Canyon Became Grand is strikingly similar to The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes in that it charts a discovery, forgetting, and rediscovery of something. Anyone on a road trip to visit the Grand Canyon should read this book. Not only to understand how the canyon became grand, but because it is kind of a meta trip as in visiting you are becoming part of that story and its reasoning.

For me, the most interesting parts of the book looks at the first Europeans to see the canyon in 1540. The Spanish were far from embracing Enlightenment thinking in Europe and they were in no way going to waste important colonial time on anything as novel and romantic as a giant hole in the ground.

Fluvialism in the mid 19th century and the geological surveys a few decades later provide adventure and natural spectacle that was part of the great American West. For the exact same reasons the early Spaniards ignored the canyon, 19th century Americans made it Grand. Pyne’s analysis and charts that record the mentions, descriptions, and other engagements with the Grand Canyon foreshadow many of the projects going on in Digital Humanities today. Pyne’s idea that the Grand Canyon became an important American icon because a select group of educated elite gave it  meaning can serve as avatar for any number of American Icons. After all, visits to the canyon or for that purpose. Since you really have to be going there to get there (as it isn’t conveniently on the way to anywhere) it seems that not only is Pyne right about the Canyon, but his results can be applied to nearly anything that educated elite decided to “give meaning.”

American Curiosity

American Curiosity is a lot like the ecological exchange book in the previous post–i.e. that knowledge wasn’t a unidirectional commodity no more than pigs or plants were. Parrish’s work situations the colonial Americans, in the earliest years including women, Native Americans, and slaves, not in reference to London, but in concert with the capital. Think of these “white men in London” in the 1790s as the educated elite of Pyne’s Grand Canyon Analysis. Any and all information was useful during the colonial period. This seems to be the case in any colonial possession of Great Britain, but Parrish stays focused on the American holdings.

Parrish’s work reveals the adversarial nature of colonization was a driving force in the early diversity of natural history “knowledge makers.” This also explains why, as Great Britain came to dominate the continent all enterprises became less diverse. This coincides with the treatment of the Native Americans as well, following the end of the French and Indian Wars, many Native people were on the losing end of decisions that left them with no one to offset British power. This more or less was the case for natural history providers as well.

Correspondence from women were important in practice but failed to be printed in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. One of the issues to remember from this process is that it repeats itself after the American Revolution and as America discovers itself.  There is almost a frontier theory of scientific correspondence and authority. Once a center is solidified (London, or in the US Philadelphia for science and Washington D.C. for politics) the periphery becomes less important as voices of authority in most matters not least natural history collecting, naming, trading. There is much to glean from the analysis if you can get through Parrish’s her smug (90s) theoretical vocabulary regarding  race and gender.  In my case, it is best used as a resource to utilize the same various source material that Valencius uses tracking down accounts of forgotten earthquakes.

It also another facet reading of  Moby Dick as the only people who could understand what it meant to be a whale was the whalers and more broadly why the cetacean chapter or the book is in the middle of the crew waxing on Shakespeare. If she had stopped there it would have been an excellent analysis, but, as with many of the great points she continues to show what “Melville failed to realize,” etc. Although not part of the reading in this case, this book will work exceptionally well paired with Kariann Yokota’s Unbecoming British. 

Unbecoming British

The Passage to Cosmos is the second Humboldt book in the section, and it is useful to see them together. Walls works in the same manner as Sachs in resituating Humboldt’s expeditions. In Sachs case it was to make it less imperialistic, and to Walls it meant fighting the dismissal that Humboldt’s work was overly romantic. More importantly, Walls delves into the loss of Humboldt in American History shortly after his death and huge continent-wide celebrations for his centennial.

Passage to Cosmos

As much as Humboldt tried to find the common thread throughout nature, the differences in his disciples (chosen and unchosen) unravelled it as quickly as he could make ends meet. Materialist, atheist, scientist, “ecologist”, man of letters, romantic, Prussian, Humboldt was all these things and just as individuals can attach themselves to parts of nature and ignore others, the same can be seen in those early adopters of Humboldt’s ideas. In the end it was the professionalization of science, arguments of social darwinism, and (above all) wars with Germany that ground Humboldt’s name out of the annals of (north) American history.

If Passage does nothing else, it should serve as a call to action among historians of science, especially cultural historians of science, to work more unravel the mysteries Walls presents. That Humboldt is still a national hero in many Latin American countries is not just a quaint aside, it is vastly important to the development of natural history and relationships with nature south of the United States border. That most of the english editions of Humboldt works and biographies are severely dated would be an easy place to start. It might also help if the Academy would ever get over its own importance as a memory institution and let Spanish count as a “academic” language. ( I had to petition to get Spanish to count, it was approved, but that I had to petition at all speaks volumes).

It might also be useful to note that Walls is not a historian of science, she is a specialist in English Literature (currently at Notre Dame).  I mention this because the bulk of Passage is devoted to the American Transcendentalist authors and poets that were the earliest adopters of Humboldtian idea(ls). These authors, and the movement will come in another post as I work through the American Studies portion of my readings. Incidentally most of these readings were from original dissertations in American Civilizations or similar disciplines.

Nature's Ghost

Nature’s Ghosts follows the idea of extinction from “the age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology.” It is right there in the subtitle. Content wise it doesn’t add much to the plethora of there books that deal with American Natural History at any or all points in time mentioned. What Barrow’s work does, however, is important. It traces the history of an idea from the very idea that it went against nature to the modern attempts to document it as it wipes out specie after specie.

By following the idea through time Barrow allows us to move through the development of natural history through its splintering into countless professions, the battle for the acceptance of evolution and what it meant for species extinction in regards to natural occurrences, all the way to modern efforts to keep things from going extinct. This is as much a history of conservation as it is any history of ideas. He compares the historical accounts of saving the alligator and the bison to losing the Passenger Pigeon and the Heath Hen. These stories set up the final instances of the California Condor and the whooping crane that even non history inclined individuals will be familiar with.

The strength of the book for my purposes lie in its scope and its relevance to the existing modern period. Something that most people get bent out of shape about when histories start trying to explain how things work today. They hurl Whiggish history around like it is an insult that you want to understand how we got where e are today. This is why the most useful books, and ones that reach the most people are printed by Viking or St. Martin’s Press, and not University presses. Barrow’s work is another in this series that serves as a guide of how to write good, useful, and readable history by including sources that are “outside the box” for most modern American historians.

The Book of Nature

The Book of Nature shrinks Barrows scope to a mere 50 years. It also takes Valencius’ approach and sources out to the popular books of natural history. By looking at what the average (literate) Americans had in hand, Welch follows the development of the educated hobbyist for generations on either side of the Civil War. This crosses much of the same territory as some of the earlier works and deals with some of the familiar authors as well (Thoreau, for example).  The biggest boon to these early nature studies was the explosion of printing, text and more importantly images during the 19th century.

Welch’s study also follows along the development of the American Transcendentalist movement regarding self reflection, with biographies and autobiographies helping author’s work out their, and by extension humankind’s place in nature.  Welch’s study ends just as the professionalization of scientific disciplines start taking authority out of the hand of learned citizenry as well as the earliest rumbles of the American Renaissance. It is an excellent book to show the obverse side to Barrow’s Nature’s Ghost providing a more in depth look at a few sources and historical actors instead of the survey spanning two centuries.

The Destruction of the Bison

The final book in this section, and this portion of comps study has to be one of the strangest books I have ever read. On the surface it seems straightforward enough to be an environmental history about the destruction of the bison. I mean, it is titled The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History. I literally have no idea what the purpose of this book is. I think, in the end Isenberg wanted to point out how complex the near extinction of the American Bison was.

Explaining that something is complex and making it complicated are two entirely different things. This book is heavy on the latter.  Isenberg states that several chapters of this short book appeared in print as various articles prior to publishing in 2001. This (I hope) is why the book is so schizophrenic. On the other hand it isn’t just choppy between chapters.

Within the chapters Isenberg goes from setting up the history of Native Americans turn to nomadism after the introduction of the horse, back to the vocabulary for the plains Indians more broadly to bits and pieces of Chaos theory.  To sum it all up: Isenberg implicates climate, Indians, and the Plains themselves as accomplices to the Buffalo hunters in the demise of the numbers.

I love this comic. The fact that it was released on my birthday makes it even better. ©Neil Kohney
I am using this again because I use both buffalo and bison when talking about this book, and because I love it.  ©Neil Kohney

Several key, and reiterated, points include that fact that Native Americans were not harmonious with nature in some Edenic way, they were not stewards of wildlife, and they were sometimes wasteful in the utilization of the bison carcass. He also shows the market pressures for the Indians to become hunters and providers of hides for the robe market as well. All this historical intraculturalism could serve to provide a more holistic picture of the plight of the buffalo, but then he evokes modern ecological studies (which, for the record I think is actual Whiggish history in the sense that people sneer at it).

To help prove that nature is in no way stable, Isenberg follows a handful of biologist that follow chaos theory. Think Ian Malcolm in Buffalo Park. The absolute worst for me is the use of a modern population study to back up claims that Bison populations experience drastic fluctuations in number. The study in question involved the reindeer on St. Matthews Island.

This is one of the (literal) textbook studies of population as the 29 original reindeer swell to 6000 in almost 20 years only to crash back to 60. The problems with this analogy are: 1) An island is a closed ecosystem in no way similar to the vast expanse of the Great Plains and B) Reindeer were introduced to the island whereas bison evolved over 30+ million years on the great plains. To this end I wonder if Isenberg has ever taken an ecology course or seen a buffalo or the Great Plains.

I will end the discussion on Isenberg’s book with a wonder at just how much he wanted chaos theory to work here. There is already a smoking gun in the plight of the bison and it belongs to the American hunter. Isenberg tries to put other instigators up on the grassy knoll but spends so much time setting up the position he does not establish and accountability for each in relation to each other before  applying them all to the larger problem at hand.

He introduces an idea and then either neutralizes it or proffers a counter almost immediately. If this was supposed to help in the explanation of a complex system it failed. My favorite line in the book falls near the end when he is (again) approaching chaos theory and describes the standard butterfly in Africa causing havoc elsewhere: “no butterfly ever shouldered a .50 caliber rifle on the hide hunters’ range” (196).  He also starts tangents about bison preserves serving to domesticate the bison in regards to the drive of civilization.  This book would far better serve as a collection of essays centered around a relative theme, as a single, drive, work though, it serves as an example of what not to do.  By trying to be history and ecology research it fails to do justice to either.