Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 17, 2003
Joshua Brown Beyond the Lines: Pictorial Reporting, Everyday Life, and the Crisis of Gilded Age America Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. 384 pp.; 105 b/w ills. Cloth $49.95 (0520231031)
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In the last two decades the study of nineteenth-century American painting has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts. The same cannot be said, however, for the vast realm of nineteenth-century visual culture: the popular prints, book and magazine illustration, pictorial journalism, and ephemera that proliferated throughout the century and became increasingly important agents in the dissemination of news, information, and ideologies. For many ordinary Americans, pictures in books and newspapers had a far greater impact on understanding current events than contemporaneous paintings ever would. Yet, with relatively few exceptions, the “higher” art of painting has continued to occupy a privileged place in scholarly investigation. Certainly in recent years we have seen a great deal of new interest in “visual culture” and almost as much debate and discussion about just what the study of this subject entails, and who (with what sort of training) should be doing it.

Joshua Brown’s Beyond the Lines: Pictorial Reporting, Everyday Life, and the Crisis of Gilded Age America is an important and much-needed contribution to this nascent and still fluid field. Detailing the history of the popular Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper from 1855 to 1889, he opens up vast new tracts previously unexplored, and in so doing demonstrates how much more we can learn about nineteenth-century America and its visual culture by taking “pictorial reporting” seriously. This is not to say that scholars have neglected the subject altogether. For example, many have mined the pages of Harper’s Weekly Magazine, which offers a rich vein of imagery on a variety of socially and aesthetically interesting themes. It is probably safe to say, however, that for most of us Leslie’s has played “Avis” to the better-known Harper’s “Hertz.” Brown, bringing Leslie’s out of Harper’s shadow, reveals how significant, distinct, and influential a role it played, and how diverse a constituency it sought to serve.

Frank Leslie was the “nom de crayon” (18) of Henry Carter, an Englishman with a passion for wood engraving who worked for the Illustrated London News before emigrating to New York in 1848. After toiling in various capacities as an engraver (including a stint with P. T. Barnum), Leslie launched the first issue of his own illustrated newspaper on December 15, 1855. As Brown explains, the time was ripe for pictorial journalism: “…by the mid 1850s the transportation revolution, innovations in printing technology, and an expanded literary and pictorial market came together to provide almost all the conditions necessary for a commercially viable illustrated press” catering to a “broad ‘middle’ public…thirsty for knowledge” (22–23). There were still obstacles to overcome. Because the process of engraving images on wood was so laborious and time-consuming, illustrations of current events generally did not reach the public before the news had gone stale. Further technological refinement, along with workplace rationalization, soon closed that gap, and in 1859 Leslie was able to outstrip competitors in reporting John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry and his subsequent capture, trial, and execution, all served up in an “unprecedented flow of imagery” (30). From that time, Leslie’s, with a staff of 130 editors, artists, engravers, and writers, was established as “the leading source of pictorial news in the nation” (31).

In his meticulous account of Leslie’s practices, Brown neglects neither the technical and financial aspects of the paper, nor the demographic facets of the operation. He gives the reader a clear description of every phase between the artist-reporter’s on-the-spot sketch and the final appearance of the image on the printed page; he charts the ups and downs of the magazine’s circulation and—especially important—profiles the readership, which was far more diverse than the clientele served by Leslie’s staid rival, Harper’s. Indeed, as Brown points out, Leslie “teetered on the cusp of respectability,” and the magazine provided “inclusive, alternating coverage” representing “constituencies and popular pastimes,” such as the stage, that Harper’s steadfastly omitted (41–42).

In Brown’s view, that readership offers a vital key to understanding the changing nature of representation in Leslie’s after the Civil War. Brown argues that, like its English counterpart, the Illustrated London News, Leslie’s newspaper initially relied on established conventions of typing for pictorial legibility, in which physiognomic coding made individuals of different classes or nationalities instantly recognizable. During the Gilded Age, however, those conventions “cracked under the weight of postbellum social and political change” (102). Illustrations of gender and race alike reveal that “the resulting representations were at times confusing—not so much breaking from antebellum conventions as applying variations on those old themes that undermined the previous certainty of the old pictorial order” (102).

Brown vividly demonstrates those changes in a succession of cases ranging from images of newly enfranchised (and less easily stereotyped) African Americans in the South to representations of the radically class-stratified and increasingly illegible postwar metropolis, feminist activists in the public sphere, and the escalating and often deadly strife between capital and labor. Indeed, “strife” might be the leitmotif for the period as Brown sees it, and as it is embodied in the Leslie’s illustrations he analyzes. Picture after picture shows violent conflict, as rioters run amuck, soldiers fire into crowds, and thugs attack immigrants. A case in point is Leslie’s coverage of the Great Uprising of July 1877, a railroad workers’ strike that brought transportation and commerce to a standstill for two weeks. Leslie’s reported on every facet of the uprising: “halted trains, massive demonstrations, mobilized troops, street battles, flaming buildings, and smoldering ruins” (159). But whereas earlier typing conventions would have mandated the representation of strikers and rioters as alien brutes, in Leslie’s illustrations such signs were absent. The strikers looked like everyone else, for the simple reason that they were: “in localities across the country, the broad ‘middle’ came out to protest the abuses of the railroads” (162). The physiognomic signs denoting types, therefore, “no longer afforded readers an easy, useful guide to deciphering a news event…. The distancing function of social typing by facial appearance could not work in representing situations in which readers might, in effect, recognize themselves as participants and victims” (162).

Leslie’s own political position was as volatile as the events it chronicled. In 1883 the labor reformer Henry George was invited to contribute thirteen columns in a series called “Problems of the Time,” but by the end of the decade the newspaper’s stance had become hostile toward the labor movement. In Brown’s view, the illustrations likewise incorporate an ever-shifting range of positions, to the extent that “some individual cuts become capable of conveying more than one perspective” (184). A new realism divested of moral judgment had “dampened visual typing” and promoted “ ‘multi-accentuality’ in the narratives of many cuts: diverse readers could engage in their own different interpretive ‘systems of viewing,’ no longer hampered by invidious physiognomic comparisons” (184). Leslie’s pages, and especially its pictures, enacted the social instabilities of the day. The magazine surpassed any of its competitors in its ability to register the complexity and the many ambiguities of a turbulent time.

One of the many pleasures of the book is its wealth of absorbing and powerful illustrations. Brown often tends to pass over them too quickly, looking only for certain kinds of pictorial evidence: narrative structure, typing (or absence thereof), and signs of class and difference inscribed in dress, pose, and circumstance. He seldom considers how the graphic qualities themselves function as the bearers of meaning: how composition, perspective, scale, mass, space, movement, design, light, and shade also communicate, dramatize, and reinforce the meanings written into costume or story. For example, one illustration (124) depicts a group of Ku Klux Klansmen about to murder a victim who kneels imploringly in their midst. The Klansmen are in full regalia, with robes, steeple hats, and grotesque masks. This image, Brown states, is one of many that “graphically presented the Klan’s terrorism” in the late 1860s and early 1870s (123). Yet surely in this image the graphic presentation of terrorism resides as well in the nocturnal gloom, the sinister silhouetting of several figures, and the spooky forest setting. Throughout the book, numerous other pictures beg for such closer readings.

That quibble aside, Beyond the Lines offers a treasure trove of fascinating material, a cogent argument, and a great deal of important new information. Colorful characters—the expansive Leslie and his redoubtable second wife Miriam, who ran the publishing empire after her husband’s death in 1879—mingle with a host of strong and highly skilled but little-known artists such as Matthew Morgan and the Spanish immigrant Fernando Miranda. The illustrations, judiciously selected to support Brown’s points, are well reproduced, if too small to do justice to their details. Brown’s formidable achievement in research is matched by his power of synthesis and interpretation. The book has the added virtue of being well written and quite gripping to read. Beyond the Lines is a major contribution that should pave the way for further study of nineteenth-century American visual culture in its social context.

Sarah Burns
Department of History of Art, Indiana University

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