Historian Frost and Illustrator Croome

Historians and artists associated with the pictorial book market in the 1840s rarely collaborated in coordinated or efficient ways. Even though Frost and Croome both resided in Philadelphia, there is no evidence that Frost and Croome communicated with each other much if at all during the production phases of the Pictorial History of the United States. This lack of communication was perhaps the result of their conflicting work schedules. While creating illustrations for Frost’s pictorial history, for instance, Croome was simultaneously at work on the Crockett Almanacs [Image 16], Goodrich’s “Parley’s Magazine,” a pictorial history of the United States Navy, an illustrated geography, the aforementioned panoramic map of the Hudson River, and numerous other children’s books and magazines. Frost, in turn, was involved with six publishing projects of his own, including several primers for students and a pictorial history of the world.

Despite these challenges, Frost had confidence in Croome’s ability to translate his text into visual codes. “In selecting the subjects for his designs,” Frost wrote in his preface, “Mr. Croome has taken those which it was deemed important upon the mind of the reader,—those prominent incidents and characters which deserve to be cherished in the memory of every American.” Evoking the language of the graver, Frost asserted that Croome’s images would make their “impression” on readers by taking “a stronger hold on the imagination than any effort of descriptive power” thus “remain[ing] longer and produc[ing] a livelier satisfaction than any mere record of language.” On first glance, this privileging of images relative to words seems uncharacteristically deferential on Frost’s part, although closer inspection suggests that for the historian the most acceptable use of illustration was to elucidate the “visible language” of a text and thereby clarify (rather than usurp) its meanings. To the extent that pictures could reflect narrative meaning without distorting it, then, they were acceptable as adjuncts to the text for Frost. [26]

Writers like Frost rarely composed their historical texts with pictures in mind, and typically publication staffs made decisions as to who might illustrate a text and how it would be pictorialized after copy had been approved. Consequently, artists often felt subordinate to writers in a process that required pictorial images to serve as accessories to the written text. This sense of inferiority resulted in part from limitations book illustrators faced in trying to present historical themes pictorially. They could not accomplish certain things with the graver that were crucial to the historical enterprise, for instance, especially conveying the passage of time adequately. Illustrations could portray confidently the details of individual moments in time, to be sure, but without the use of friezes, diptychs, or triptychs, it was virtually impossible for artists to depict the sequencing of time in a single book image. Croome’s pictorial representations often “freeze” the action of Frost’s narrative, disturbing the narrative flow and reducing its power to advance the reader in terms of causation through an historical episode under consideration. The result was that Croome’s representations failed to do justice to the literary passages with which they were associated. Their effect is almost always to reduce the drama and suppress the action explicit in the writing, as is the case with a remarkably nonplussed De Soto discovering the Mississippi [Image 17].[27] The fact that Frost’s literary contributions to the Pictorial History of the United States far outpaced Croome’s visual ones suggests the continuing triumph of the word over the image in the mid-nineteenth century.

[26] Frost, Pictorial History of the United States, 1:vii-viii.
[27] Wendy Steiner, Pictures of Romance: Form Against Context in Painting and Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988), 20-21, 13-14.