Conclusion: The Attack on Gift Books

Image 58

The majestic colorized illustration of the controversial John Smith-Pocahontas incident in Murat Halstead’s The Discovery and Conquest of the New World (1892) provides a good example of the overwhelming power of these pictorial representations. [Image 58]. Based on a reproduction of an original painting by V. Nehlig titled The Renowned Pocahontas, the illustration depicts a swirl of color and action around the dramatic near-death moment that would have made Simms proud.

Despite the obvious pictorial advantages to these new processes, not everyone was enamored of the benefits of the new pictorialism. Complaints about the corrupting influence of illustrations that had lingered since the eighteenth century increased throughout the nineteenth century in direct relation to the expansion of the genre of pictorial history. In the 1840s, when Benjamin Walker began his experiment of introducing crude black-and-white woodcuts into the text of his pictorial history, limited technologies made it impossible for illustrations to play more than a restricted, supporting role in the production. By the 1850s skilled artists like Chappel had begun to demonstrate that books could be sold with a profusion of in-text illustrations. In the decades that followed, when photographic technologies allowed for the intermingling of text and image in increasingly sophisticated ways, the potential for pictorial excesses was real. Consequently, critics of illustrated literature at the end of the century complained with increasing frequency about the misuses of illustrations in historical texts and their corrupting influence on readers of popular history.

As Neil Harris has pointed out, the rise of pictorial history led to a counter-reaction on the part of those who warned against the usurping power of illustrations and the “tyranny of the pictorial.” Artists such as Alonzo Chappell were accused of trying to dazzle readers with beautiful pictures and idealized texts in an effort to entice them with “fictions of nationhood” and “painted lies.” [93] An anti-pictorial campaign was undertaken by those like Sidney Fairfield of Lippincott’s, who feared the consequences of the triumph of images over words for a reading public that had gone “picture mad.” Fairfield especially disliked “chromos,” a term that by the end of the nineteenth century had become synonymous with “ugly” and “offensive.” [Image 59][94]  The illustration “Indian Warfare During the Revolution” suggests the ways in which color affected visual comprehension in ways to which Fairfield objected by influencing perceptions and depth in the picture plane [Image 60]. The requirements of separation and balance of color create an action plane that is too extended to be easily comprehended. The telescoping that might have been accomplished with a black and white line drawing through a tighter and more controlled space is lost as the viewer’s eye is forced toward the edges of the illustration by the decorative surface and the ornamental quality of the coloring. The figures are rendered cartoonlike by the exaggerated effects of scale and dispersed action created by color technologies.

Some of the loudest complaints about pictorial histories came from a new breed of professional scholars interested in codifying historical practice in the interest of objectivity and scholarly detachment. Trained primarily in the Enlightenment tradition of verbal analysis, these scholars claimed that the loss of preeminence for the written word spelled disaster for historical literacy, especially for “young mind[s]” that could “scarcely be likely to do any original thinking” when “overfed pictorially.” They expressed concern for the “deverbalization” of culture brought on by the “pictorial effects” of illustrated histories. [95]

In particular such professionals disagreed with the tendency of publishers to reduce a book or magazine “to a mere picture album” by squeezing text out to make room for pictures. In their estimation, illustrations such as “Progress and Development of the Western World” in Columbus and Columbia: A Pictorial History of the Man and the Nation encroached so aggressively on the written word as to confine the historian’s assessment to less than one-quarter of the page at the bottom right-hand corner. [Image 61] This literal infringement of illustrations on the printed page had its figurative equivalent in the tendency of pictures to crowd out or preempt the imagination, thus precluding anything other than the most superficial and clichéd responses to historical texts. [96]

By the turn of the twentieth century, pictorial history as a genre had succumbed a bit to the attacks of critics who continued to remain skeptical of “visual propaganda.” Not that pictorial histories disappeared altogether in the 1900s; on the contrary, book illustrators remained in high demand, and bibliographic records suggest that there were numerous works with the words “pictorial history” in the title genre. Yet enough questions were raised about the accuracy and objectivity of illustrations by scholars to cause readers to lose patience with visual embellishments, professional historians dismissing pictorial works as cheaply imitative and falsifying. As pictorial histories became more and more hackneyed and clichéd in their visual forms, they lost credibility with those who campaigned effectively to convince readers that history required different evidentiary standards for truth than book illustrations allowed. Illustrations might be tolerated if they served decorative or ornamental purposes (as they had been in the eighteenth century), but not if they were expected to carry the burden of historical interpretation. By the mid-twentieth century the denotative functions of illustration once again came to dominate its connotative functions, signaling that the heyday of pictorial history had ended.

Only recently (within the last twenty years) has the profession come to appreciate again the power of the visual as an instrument for improving historical literacy and to revive interest in it. As with the inception of the genre, this change has been the result both of technological and intellectual revolutions. In the former case, the digital age and the internet have increased the range and improved the quality of visual materials in circulation (as this website attests). In the latter instance, new outlooks on what constitutes “truth” in a postmodern world have reopened debates about the relationship of the written word to visual images. Readers today unquestionably rely on visual cues for historical comprehension, and many still believe that illustrations are complementary to the literary goals of historical texts. The key now (as in the nineteenth century) is to find visual formats that do not contradict the authenticating intentions of historians who rely primarily on non-visual sources for their work. As it was for Walker, Frost, and Croome as well as for Johnson, Spencer, and Chappel, balance and collaboration are the most significant factors in the success of recent campaigns to pictorialize the past in meaningful and significant ways.

[93] The term “fictions of nationhood” comes from Barbara Gaehtgens, “Fictions of Nationhood: Leutze’s Pursuit of an American Historical Painting in Dusseldorf,” in American Icons: Transatlantic Perspectives on Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century American Art, ed. Thomas W. Gaehtgens and Heinz Ickstadt (Los Angeles: Getty Center Publications, 1992), 155. The term “painted lies” comes from Peter Cannon-Brakes, ed., The Painted Word: British History Painting 1750-1830 (Woodbridge, England: Boydell Press, 1991), 55.
[94] Sidney Fairfield, “Tyranny of the Pictorial,” Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine 55 (1895): 863-864. Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow, 160.
[95] Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow, 47-48.
[96] “The Contributors Club,” Atlantic Monthly, 93, no. 55 (January 1904): 136-37 as cited in Neil Harris, “Pictorial Perils: The Rise of American Illustration,” in (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 10-11.Cultural Excursions: Marketing Appetites and Cultural Tastes in Modern America