Lincoln's Smile: And Other Enigmas


A new assemblage of masterly essays from a foremost scholar of American history and culture

Alan Trachtenberg has always been interested in cultural artifacts that register meanings and feelings that Americans share even when they disagree about them. Some of the most beloved ones—like the famous last photograph of Abraham Lincoln, taken at the time of his second inaugural—are downright puzzling, and it is ...

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A new assemblage of masterly essays from a foremost scholar of American history and culture

Alan Trachtenberg has always been interested in cultural artifacts that register meanings and feelings that Americans share even when they disagree about them. Some of the most beloved ones—like the famous last photograph of Abraham Lincoln, taken at the time of his second inaugural—are downright puzzling, and it is their obscure, riddlelike aspects that draw his attention in the scintillating essays of Lincoln’s Smile and Other Enigmas.

With matchless authority, Trachtenberg moves from the daguerreotypes that entranced Americans from the start (and that Hawthorne made much of in The House of Seven Gables) to literary texts of which he is a peerless interpreter: Howell’s novels, Horatio Alger’s stories, Huckleberry Finn, the cityscapes of Walt Whitman and Stephen Crane. In his exploration of the ways that nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century writers tried to make sense of the modern American city he also addresses subjects as diverse as Louis Sullivan’s Auditorium Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the early works of Lewis Mumford. The celebrated author of Reading American Photographs concludes his important new book with “readings” not only of the photographs of Walker Evans, Wright Morris, and Eugene Smith, but of the city images of film noir.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
One of America's leading cultural historians, Trachtenberg (Shades of Hiawatha) has gathered together his essays from the last 40 years. Those who know Trachtenberg's work will recognize much that is familiar. The essay "Brooklyn Bridge as a Cultural Text," for example, plays with ideas that found their most mature expression in his pathbreaking book on the same topic. Many other essays take up Trachtenberg's interest in photographs; the title essay uses portraits of Lincoln to look at the 19th-century belief that photographs of faces reveal the subject's inner essence. Another fascinating piece examines the extent to which Walker Evans's Depression-era photographs created, rather than revealed, images of the South that to this day shape national discourse about the region. Trachtenberg is a gifted stylist, and he generally avoids academic jargon; still, his prose is dense, and not everyone will have the patience for sentences such as "Newspapers respond... to the increasing mystification, the deepening estrangement of urban space from interpenetration, from exchange of subjectivities." This book is episodic, and highlighted with many moments of brilliance-such as the analysis of the political meanings of daguerreotypes in the work of Nathaniel Hawthorne and a discussion of deadpan in the work of Mark Twain that will please devotees. (Feb.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Trachtenberg (English & American studies, Yale Univ.; Shades of Hiawatha), the author of many books dealing with American culture, has compiled 19 of his lectures and essays from the past 40 years, which he divides into three sections. Part 1, which covers the mid-19th century, deals primarily with the new invention of photography, especially the Daguerreotype. Part 2 looks at the literature of the Gilded Age (e.g., Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn), with an excursion into architecture (Auditorium Building, Chicago). Finally, Part 3 focuses on aspects of the 20th century, especially its photography (e.g., the Depression-era photos collected by the Farm Security Administration), and includes essays on film noir and the Brooklyn Bridge. Many of the pieces are connected in that they offer close readings of artifacts, structures, and art forms that other critics would dismiss or discuss only in passing. Ultimately, they reflect Trachtenberg's passion for and advocacy of the field of American studies; after absorbing his essays on photography, for example, the reader will never look at a photograph again without considering the artistic and cultural questions he raises. Recommended for larger public library and university collections, especially those offering programs in American studies. (Photographs and index not seen.)
—Morris Hounion
Kirkus Reviews
A collection of the author's essays gathered from his last four decades of ruminating about light and dark, shadow and substance, photographs and films. Trachtenberg (Emeritus, English and American Studies/Yale Univ.; Shades of Hiawatha: Staging Indians, Making Americans: 1880-1930, 2004, not reviewed) has long focused on the issue of images-still, moving-and on their history and significance. In these 19 pieces (most previously published), the author shows the wide range of his interest and knowledge. The initial two essays deal with the daguerreotype; others explore the work of Hawthorne, Twain, Crane, Whitman, Alger; others concern Louis Sullivan's architecture, Lewis Mumford's historiography, the Brooklyn Bridge; others examine the work of photographers Walker Evans, W. Eugene Smith and Wright Morris. And there is a very strong essay about the role of the city in film noir. Trachtenberg's audience, unsurprisingly, has a marked effect on his diction. Pieces he wrote for scholarly journals can be dense, slow-moving. Of Crane, for example, he writes, "By projecting in the contrasted points of view a dialectic of felt values, Crane forces the reader to free his or her own point of view from any limiting perspective." But throughout, Trachtenberg urges us to think about the "truth" or the "reality" that a photograph presents, about the agenda of the photographer, about the narrative that the photograph-or group of photographs-tells. He urges us, too, to consider the evolving image of the city offered by our writers and photographers. Some of his earlier pieces have not aged well. His 1970 essay on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, seems almost quaint. He does recognize thepower and prescience of Poe's 1840 story "The Man of the Crowd," and he discusses it in several essays. A work that will be best enjoyed by readers eager to read slowly and think deeply.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781437968422
  • Publisher: DIANE Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 8/28/2009
  • Pages: 378
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Alan Trachtenberg is the Neil Gray, Jr. Professor Emeritus of English and American studies at Yale University, where he taught for thirty-five years. His books include Shades of Hiawatha (H&W, 2004).

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Table of Contents

Preface     xi
Part 1
Mirror in the Marketplace: American Responses to the Daguerreotype, 1839-51     3
Mute Romance: Stories of a Daguerreotype     26
Seeing and Believing: Hawthorne's Reflections on the Daguerreotype in The House of the Seven Gables     46
Lincoln's Smile: Ambiguities of the Face in Photography     69
Photographs as Symbolic History     86
Part 2
Whitman's Lesson of the City     125
Reading the Gilded Age City     140
Horatio Alger's Ragged Dick     154
The Form of Freedom in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn     167
Experiments in Another Country: Stephen Crane's City Sketches     185
Civic Idealism in Stone: Louis Sullivan's Auditorium Building     206
Part 3
Mumford in the 1920s: The Historian as Artist     225
Brooklyn Bridge as a Cultural Text     241
Photography/Cinematography     255
The FSA File: From Image to Story     265
Walker Evans's Fictions of the South     299
W. Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh: Rumors of a City     315
Realms of Shadow: Film Noir and the City     326
Things on Film: Wright Morris's Fields of Vision     342
Acknowledgments     365
Index     367
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