Lincoln's Smile and Other Enigmasby Alan Trachtenberg
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/p>/b>
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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Lincoln's Smile and Other Enigmas
By Alan Trachtenberg
Hill and WangCopyright © 2007 Alan Trachtenberg
All rights reserved.
MIRROR IN THE MARKETPLACE
American Responses to the Daguerreotype, 1839–51
First published in The Daguerreotype: A Sesquicentennial Celebration, edited by John Wood (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989), pp. 60–71.
IN the salon of a Broadway hotel on December 4, 1839, the first French daguerreotypes made their initial New World appearance. In the preceding months American examples of the fledgling art of picturing had already been seen in New York shop windows, but here were specimens from the hand of the inventor and master himself, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, offered to the public by his ingratiating agent François Gouraud. With impeccable credentials as "friend and pupil of Mr. Daguerre," Gouraud announced his "charge of introducing to the New World the perfect knowledge of the marvelous process of drawing, which fame has already made known to you under the name of 'The Daguerreotype.'" Already known by name, the curious objects with their flickering images of Parisian boulevards and monuments nevertheless challenged the credulity of the select audience. Seeking an appropriate language to describe "their exquisite perfection [that] transcends the bounds of sober belief," Lewis Gaylord Clark, patrician editor of The Knickerbocker, struck upon a perfect solution from the apparatus of everyday life — a looking glass:
Let us endeavor to convey to the reader an impression of their character. Let him suppose himself standing in the middle of Broadway, with a looking-glass held perpendicular in his hand, in which is reflected the street, with all that therein is, for two or three miles, taking in the haziest distance. Then let him take the glass into the house, and find the impression of the entire view, in the softest light and shade, visibly retained upon its surface. This is the Daguerreotype! ... There is not an object even the most minute embraced in that wide scope, which was not in the original; and it is impossible that one should have been omitted. Think of that!
Like Plato's whirling mirror, Clark's panorama of Broadway beguiles the mind with flashing images of the real. Of course, Plato's conundrum of appearance and reality, in which the mirror induces a kind of inebriation in the deceptive pleasure of mere illusion, is hardly the case here; Clark's mirror stands simply and unambiguously for exactitude, and the author's quite anti-Platonic awe at imitation itself: "Think of that!"
Exuberant awe and fascination prevailed at the inauguration of photography in America, as it did everywhere in Europe. Here was proof again, like lithography, the steam engine, the railroad, of an age of "progress," of enlightened reason prevailing over dark superstition, and science over magic. But the chorus of celebration was not without its discordant notes. The very wonder excited by first sight of the new objects occasionally harbored a more reserved, disbelieving response, such as we hear from Philip Hone, another visitor to Gouraud's exhibition, who included among his words of praise in his diary this flickering hint of uncertainty: "One may almost be excused for disbelieving it without seeing the very process by which it is created. It appears to me a confusion of the very elements of nature." This note of discomfort, quickly muffled in Hone's hymn of celebration, finds an answering echo in the reaction of Phoebe in Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables (1851): "I don't much like pictures of that sort, — they are so hard and stern; besides dodging away from the eye, and trying to escape altogether." Phoebe's unease invokes a little-regarded moment in the early career of photography in America, a moment of shudder, suspicion, and refusal. "I don't wish to see it any more," she cries. To be sure, most Americans proved eager enough not only to see but to possess a specimen of the new art, and a thriving trade in daguerrean images developed rapidly. Photography fit so neatly the rhetoric of the "technological sublime" common in the age of steam in America, how are we to understand the few but insinuating signs of a countervailing response?
For the cultural historian such rifts within the linguistic environment of a technological innovation provide telling signs of an uneven process of change. In regard to photography, the process of acclimatization was neither as spontaneous nor as unequivocal as is often assumed. The compacted overlay of implication within the language of response can help us reconstruct and understand a climate of mind within which photography achieved its initial cultural identity in America. Language in its figurative uses especially — images, allusions, metaphors — preserves nuances of meaning that can be read as indices to the cultural effects of historical change. The figures by which people represent new phenomena to themselves and each other is especially valuable to the historian, for by such language the new is brought into relation with the old and the familiar — in Emerson's words, is perceived "to be only a new version of our familiar experience." By familiarizing new objects, tropes such as Clark's mirror on Broadway serve as more than descriptive terms; they signify an entire process of ingesting new experiences, making a place for them within existing systems of thought and feeling, and in the process modifying old structures in ways only a sensitive attention to language can reveal. Particularly apt and promising for close attention, then, is the metaphor of the photograph as mirror, especially as Clark imagines it: a mirror in the New World marketplace of Broadway.
"Talk no more of 'holding the mirror up to nature'— she will hold it up to herself, and present you with a copy of her countenance for a penny." Thus exclaimed N. P. Willis in the Corsair, April 13, 1839, the first published news of photography in the American press. He had not set eyes on an actual specimen, had only read William Henry Fox Talbot's account of his experiments in the English Literary Gazette (February 2, 1839), but instantly imagined the medium as a kind of mirror press by which nature imprints itself as a cheap picture. Seizing the Englishman's remark that the invention would abridge "the labor of the artist in copying natural objects," and that "by means of this contrivance, it is not the artist who makes the picture, but the picture which makes itself," Willis calls up a scene of panic among displaced craftsmen: "Steel engravers, copper engravers, and etchers, drink up your aquafortis, and die! There is an end of your black art — 'Othello's occupation gone.' The real black art of true magic arises and cries avaunt.... The Daguerreoscope and the Photogenic revolutions are to keep you all down, ye painters, engravers, and, alas! the harmless race, the sketchers."
The cleverness of the conceit was not entirely a joking matter. New York in the winter and spring of 1839 still felt the worst effects of the catastrophic Panic of 1837: financial collapse, ruinous defaults and bankruptcies, uncontrollable deflation, and an economic slowdown of an order never before experienced in the United States. Over the next ten years, virtually until the discovery of California gold in 1849, the city remained gripped by unemployment, rising pauperism and homelessness, sporadic riots, and an increase in violent crime. In light of what one writer in 1843 called "these Jeremiad times," in which "only the beggars and the takers of likenesses by daguerreotype" can survive, Willis's "real black art" reveals a distinct social meaning.
Among the early writers on the new medium, mostly gentlemen scientists and artists like Samuel F. B. Morse, Willis is virtually alone in imaging the situation from the point of view of practicing draftsmen, engravers, and printers. The depressed condition in fact created a favorable climate for the commercial development of portrait daguerreotypy. To set up on one's own required only a minor outlay of capital and small expenses, and thus photography could take up some of the slack among unemployed craftsmen. Not that he himself refers explicitly to the hard times visible on the streets of New York, but his imaginary scene of discarded craftsmen, their "occupation gone," serves as a sharp reminder that photography appeared in America in the midst of the first modern depression and mass unemployment, the first signal of an unstable economic system keyed to the mysterious vagaries of capital, of money. It seemed to many at the time that blame for the depression lay at the hands of private banks and their issuance of paper money not backed by specie, a practice that encouraged unrestrained speculation. While this is difficult to prove, it is not improbable that loss of the authority of printed money and the consequent widespread perception of instability in society's basic token of exchange affected the reception of photography, a new technique that itself threatened, as Willis foresaw, to destabilize the entire craft of picture making and, not least, to deflate another kind of standard currency: the representational value of handcrafted pictures.
Willis imagines further ambiguities and encroachments in the realm of daily life.
What would you say to looking in a mirror and having the image fastened!! As one looks sometimes, it is really quite frightful to think of it; but such a thing is possible — nay, it is probable — no, it is certain. What will become of the poor thieves, when they shall see handed in as evidence against them their own portraits, taken by the room in which they stole, and in the very act of stealing! What wonderful discoveries is this wonderful discovery destined to discover! The telescope is rather an unfair tell-tale; but now every thing and every body may have to encounter his double every where, most inconveniently, and every one become his own caricaturist.
Beneath the witticism lies a vein of serious contemporary worry, the telling linkage of anxiety over losing one's "image" by stealth and one's property by theft. The doubled fear results in a paradoxical predicament: what the magic mirror seems to offer on one hand — security of possessions through an invisible system of surveillance — it removes on the other — the security of self-possession, the danger of appearing in public as a caricature of oneself. Owners and thieves stand equally naked, undefended, against the scrutiny of a newly ubiquitous social eye, a gaze belonging to an invisible body; the implacable mirror is simply immanent, part of the room. Thus the inconvenient "double" is itself doubled, representing two apparently distinct but distinctly connected objects of anxiety: personal goods and public "image." Are owner and thief, then, two sides of the same self? Willis seems to grasp, at least in the unconscious vibrations of his language, that he stands at the threshold of a major turn in culture, toward a condition in which mechanically reproduced self-images will emerge as a new form of marketable, and thus vulnerable, personal property.
This is not to claim any special prescience in Willis but to identify implicit concerns and fears betrayed by the linguistic resources that lay ready at hand to a Broadway writer in 1839. In the following years numerous writers will include, in their list of "applications" of photography, protection against crime both by direct surveillance (anticipating the autoptic functions of the camera) and by physiognomic identification of criminality, or revelation of "character" through "image." Willis's fantasy of self-indicting thieves in the night, slight as it is, can be seen as answering to the sort of tense nervousness in middle-class New York we detect by noticing what lies on either side of Philip Hone's diary entry about his visit to the Gouraud exhibition. His glowing account of the French daguerreotypes appears between two entries of disturbing acts of violence. The first tells of drunken street brawls and stabbings, "some even in Broadway," signs that "the city is infested by gangs of hardened wretches, born in the haunts of infamy"; the second, of "a most outrageous revolt" of tenants near Albany, "of a piece with the vile disorganizing spirit which overspreads the land like a cloud." The social turmoil within which photography appeared in America, and the perceptions of crisis among the earliest elite patrons of the new medium, could hardly be made more graphic than this location within the private discourse of his diary of Hone's appreciation of "one of the wonders of modern times."
Even more graphic and dire are scenes depicted in a slim novel by Augustine Joseph Hockey Duganne, published in Philadelphia in 1846 by G. B. Zieber, suggestively titled The Daguerreotype Miniature; or, Life in the Empire City. The earliest appearance of photography in American fiction, this otherwise unremarkable pulp fiction puts into dramatic motion many of the covert concerns and perceptions dashed off in Willis's brief essay. By plot and theme the story belongs to the genre of "city mystery" popularized in the 1840s by the labor radical George Lippard. A country lad appears on Broadway and falls into the clutches of two confidence men who scheme against his life as well as the inheritance of which he himself is ignorant. While their elaborate plans proceed, the innocent hero wanders among the "gorgeous" shop window displays of Broadway and falls in love with a daguerreotype portrait he sees in the window of the "Plumbe National Daguerrian Gallery" at Broadway and Murray streets (an actual place; indeed Duganne dedicates the book to "Professor Plumbe"), recognizing it as the very image of the beautiful young lady he had glimpsed his first day on Broadway, when he risked his life to stop the runaway horses of her carriage. He procures a copy of the daguerreotype in exchange for allowing Plumbe to take his own likeness and wears it in his bosom as an amulet; indeed it proves its magical powers in the end by deflecting a knife blade aimed at his heart by one of the villainous crew and leads him to marriage with the appreciative young heiress.
But the plot alone provides only a fraction of the interest of the tale. Life in the Empire City, which takes place chiefly on Broadway, appears as a never-ceasing drama of eyes, of watching, observing, gazing. The plot itself centers on acts of deception, of false identity, disguise, and betrayal; its villains are gamblers, speculators, conniving lawyers — a predictable Jacksonian cast of enemies of republican virtue. Duganne opens the narrative upon the "river of life" of Broadway, in which the crowds go about their business mindless of a certain set of "men with cunning eyes ... watchful and observing, glancing at each and all." They are all "robbers," though "some were called merchants, bankers, brokers, aldermen, judges, lawyers, and gentlemen — others were designated as speculators, sportsmen, bloods, and beggars." What they have in common is a certain kind of eye, "in the expression of which were cunning, and uncharitableness, and cruelty, and deceit." The text overflows with terms of seeing: "survey," "glance," "gaze," "observe," "view," "detect," "penetrate," "look," "behold," "inspect," "stare," "scrutinize," "appear," and "disappear." Moreover, a number of reflective surfaces — the large plate windows of a saloon, the waters on the bay, the gloss and glitter of the arch–confidence man's sartorial splendor, and not least, the eyes in which the united lovers at the end "beheld ... the light of first love" — provide a mise-en-scène of glinting mirror effects. A paradoxical place of heightened visibility and counterfeit appearances, Duganne's Broadway resembles a hall of mirrors, where selves encounter each other as images, as doubles, and "robbers" disguised as respectable men of business lie spying on unaware victims.
And in the midst of Broadway, at the still center of this swirling spectacle, Duganne inserts a picture gallery. The very site of both image making and exhibition, it is a place above the street where "ladies and their attendant gentlemen" "promenaded the floor, or paused admiringly beneath some elegant frame." Duganne's description of the actual Plumbe gallery corresponds strikingly with a newspaper account by Walt Whitman in the Brooklyn Eagle in the same year: "The crowds continually coming and going — the fashionable belle, the many distinguished men.... What a spectacle! In whatever direction you turn your peering gaze, you see naught but human faces! There they stretch, from floor to ceiling — hundreds of them. Ah! what tales might those pictures tell if their mute lips had the power of speech!"
Excerpted from Lincoln's Smile and Other Enigmas by Alan Trachtenberg. Copyright © 2007 Alan Trachtenberg. Excerpted by permission of Hill and Wang.
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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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