The Usable Past

From daguerreotypes to digital.
Jan. 22 1998 3:30 AM

The Usable Past

Pictures from America's unsavory history.

Eyes of the Nation: A Visual History of the United States
By Vincent Virga and the curators of the Library of Congress, with historical commentary by Alan Brinkley
Knopf; 416 pages; $75


Dreamland: America at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century
By Michael Lesy
New Press; 207 pages; $40

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Sometimes you read a preface by a writer who doesn't seem to have absorbed the book he purports to be introducing. In his opening remarks for Eyes of the Nation: A Visual History of the United States, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington strikes a fondly nationalistic note: "What makes the American narrative unique is the ability we have displayed time and again to remedy our mistakes, to adjust to changing circumstances, to debate and then move on in directions that seem better for all." These words, which might be appropriate for a Time-Life coffee-table volume titled, say, We the People!, seriously misrepresent the downbeat, contemplative collaboration of picture editor Vincent Virga and historian Alan Brinkley. Far from being a celebratory collection of inspiring American images, Eyes of the Nation is--in stretches, at least--a lavishly illustrated bad trip through 500 years of heavy-handed nation building. Though it's hard to sustain a point of view when the goal is to be best-selling and definitive, the book's reigning mood is progressive populism tempered by realistic pessimism.

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After a bit of visual throat-clearing, Eyes of the Nation begins in earnest with a drawing of the Indian village of Secota on Roanoke Island in what would become North Carolina. It shows neat rows of corn. Ceremonial dancers. A central marketplace. The drawing, done by an expedition mate of Sir Walter Raleigh's, portrays the state of native grace that the rest of the chapter ("Encounter, 1492-1600") depicts a falling away from. The emphasis is on European ignorance, backed by engravings of fanciful New World monsters and references to Shakespeare's The Tempest, a play inspired by explorers' journals. The rise of Spanish-English conflict marks the exit from Eden: "From the moment the European rivals began fighting among themselves for territory, ... the security of villages like Secotan came to an end." What follows is several pages ("The Garden"), linked thematically rather than chronologically, picturing sunflowers, rattlesnakes, and bison. The color plates are pretty, the captions neutral and informative, but the metaphorical message is sharp: Behold what was lost. Chapter 2 drives home the point. Titled "The World Turn'd Upside Down, 1600-1800," it opens with an apocalyptic watercolor, America: A Prophecy, by William Blake.

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Though it resembles a standard high-school history text, with chapters on the Civil War, immigration, imperial expansion, and so on, Eyes of the Nation is a book one flips through, not a book one views and reads in sequence. It speaks through clusters of words and images, not through argument and exposition. Open to Page 240, for example, and you'll find stills from D.W. Griffith's Intolerance juxtaposed with a pencil sketch of the Lincoln Monument and, on the facing page, a photograph of a charred and limbless lynched black male surrounded by smiling whites in coats and ties. combine a black-and-white shot of Dust Bowl farmers, a fertile California tomato field captured by Edward Weston, and a Technicolor Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz. The ironies aren't always as blunt as these, but in general it is tension, not harmony, that governs the arrangements.

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T he richest part of the book is its middle. Visually, there are just more sparks to strike after the invention of the camera and the flowering of modern advertising. The writing brightens, too. Brinkley, a highly class-conscious historian, is better at robber barons, depressions, strikes, and grass-roots politics than at wars and natural history. He knows how to isolate cultural decision points--the moment, say, when the populist cause was lost and William Jennings Bryan became a fool--and how to pin down such phantom entities as social conformity between the wars and Southern agrarian idealism. Though Brinkley's sympathies clearly lie with the progressives, he has a knack for portraying reactionaries. His Klansmen and red-baiters are people, too--not just bigots but also misguided dreamers. And though hindsight sometimes breeds determinism, Brinkley is alert to alternative histories and paths just barely not taken. The book concludes in orthodox multiculturalism and a surprisingly bitter estimate of America's democratic potential: "America approached the century's end as fractured along social, racial, ethnic, economic, gender, and regional lines as it had been in all but a few moments in its history; with a culture so diverse and so contentious that it seemed to lack any coherence or shape; with declining faith in its government, its leaders, and its principal institutions." The facing page shows a picture of a brick wall scratched full of chalk marks tallying enemy deaths in the Gulf War.

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L ess conventionally ambitious, and possibly more affecting because of it, is Michael Lesy's Dreamland: America at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century, a collection of turn-of-the-century photographic postcards that are both graphically gorgeous and spiritually haunting. Silvery and immaculate, with hallucinatory depth and detail, the pictures of Western mines and Eastern skyscrapers, cotton fields and battleships, boomtown main streets and metropolitan train stations have a strangely deserted Sunday-morning feel, as if they represented the first day, or perhaps the last, of American modernity.

The first thing one notices, paging through the book, is that objects, both natural and man-made, looked larger and more heroic in those days, if only because the people were fewer. Call it the age of titanic capitalism. Shots of the Flatiron Building under construction are weirdly short on human passersby, implying that the growth required to fill the place is still a hopeful article of faith, not yet a practical reality. That the American Century was built before the bulk of its tenants had arrived is one of those facts that shouldn't be any surprise but comes as a revelation nonetheless.

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Lesy's text--a filled-in time line that notes such events as the founding of department stores, the rise of banks and financial institutions, and the erection of famous public monuments--creates, in combination with the pictures, a retrospective mood that isn't nostalgia but a finer, more elevated yearning. The sadness is not for what was, or even for what might have been, but for what always comes between the two--the feeling of being in the eternal, dream-absorbing, imperfect present. On Page 13 there's a shot of New York schoolboys admiring a sidewalk assortment of metal windup toys. One boy, who looks wiser than his friends, glares at the camera, seemingly aware that his image is being delivered to the future. He appears to anticipate, and resent, our patronizing spying. He doesn't like us. We're from now and he's from way back when and he already seems to know we've let him down.

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