Lincolns Smile and Other Enigmas by Alan Trachtenberg

Standing on a street corner in Midtown Manhattan in 1946, Jean-Paul Sartre looked for New York. But he couldn’t find it. To Sartre, a Parisian, a city was a social milieu, where “streets run into other streets,” and people meet, drink, eat and talk. On New York’s grid, with its numbered avenues, “you never lose your way, and you are always lost.”

In Lincoln’s Smile and Other Enigmas, Alan Trachtenberg, professor emeritus of American studies at Yale University, examines the act and art of seeing. His essays, many of them previously published, range across American literature and material culture in the 19th and 20th centuries: from the daguerreotype to Stephen Crane’s city sketches to Walker Evans’ Depression-era photographs to film noir. Trachtenberg does not decipher the enigma of Lincoln’s smile, captured — or conjured — in a photograph taken shortly before he died. But he does illuminate the complicated relationship between seeing and knowing.

Trachtenberg demonstrates that a photograph is much more than “a transparent copy of a thing in the world.” Introduced in the United States in 1839, daguerreotypes were hailed as mirrors in a world of deception, able to penetrate the mysteries of human character. But well before the century ended, sophisticated observers understood that photographers — and their subjects — constructed identities, not “true” inner selves; photographs were a means of representation, framed by words, captions, context, proximity to other photographs, and the assumptions of viewers.

Walker Evans wanted his pictures of the “Gudger” and “Woods” families, taken in Hale County, Ala., for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, to constitute “a pure record and no propaganda.” But, Trachtenberg suggests, as he made poverty painfully visible, along with pride in a place — and in the past — Evans registered his dissent as an “old American” against modernity, metropolitanism and industrial capitalism.

Photographs, Trachtenberg writes, elegantly and eloquently, are “not so much a guide to reality as a uniquely modern means of questioning reality.” They are locked in an eternal present, where something is always about to happen. Appearing at the intersection of image and speech, photographs present the paradox of “things appearing while disappearing, apprehended just in time, in time” — to “expire into new life.”

With or without the aid of photography, writers also re-viewed American cities. Led by William Dean Howells and Jacob Riis, the “realists” tried to make urban spaces transparent and comprehensible and arouse moral indignation against poverty and exploitation. But, Trachtenberg argues, their work was, at bottom, voyeuristic; their readers “did not cross into the inner world of the slums.”

In an essay, “New York Streets,” Howells recognized that while a picture of sidewalks swarming with children was “pleasingly effective,” to live in that picture “was to inhale the stenches of the neglected street and to catch that yet fouler and dreadfuler poverty-smell which breed from the open doorways” — a reality that “makes you hasten your pace down to the river.”

At the turn of the 20th century, with Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, Trachtenberg suggests, the city was “naturalized”: Data were converted into lived experience, and characters accepted, with neither compassion nor social guilt, as they committed “self-sufficient acts of desire.”

Modern ways of seeing, Trachtenberg concludes, grew out of — and reinforce — a “political economy of image commodities,” with each individual reduced to a “market self,” an object of surveillance. Like Uncle Venner in Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables, Trachtenberg prefers “a true exchange among familiars,” where seeing is believing. But, like any aficionado of film noir, he knows that there’s a disjunction between appearances and reality, that “shadows remain and seem only to have deepened.”

___

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

PopMatters