I suppose it all depends on the angle from which you look at it. From one perspective you could say my approach to social history is, in keeping with the demonization of the discipline, the spawn of youthful political activism. Or, from another angle, it is the collateral damage resulting from early exposure to a range of visual arts (fine and not so fine: my father was a cartoonist and a painter). Or, it is what happens when you take a tortuous path, such as the one (or several) I followed, to and through graduate school and beyond to public history: from focusing on working class history in the 1970s at an institution not known at the time for that predilection, to the rough and tumble methodological and presentational experimentation in MARHO: The Radical Historians Organization in the 1970s and 80s; to the American Social History Project (in which I have now labored for more than thirty years) and its commitment to rigor and access in history education.
This I do know: it was during work on the ASHP film 1877: The Grand Army of Starvation (1985) that I first considered the narrative structure of the wood engravings that composed pictorial news coverage for almost half of the nineteenth century. That interest, in turn, led to the realization that the representation of news events in the illustrated press changed in relation to social, economic, and political crises—and that, in turn, led me to consider how visual evidence assisted by social history method might glean new insights about the past, and eventually resulted in a book, Beyond the Lines: Pictorial Reporting, Everyday Life, and the Crisis of Gilded Age America. (Some of the sordid details of these and other activities may be found here.)
Now, as to what this particular venture is about. Thanks to a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, I have embarked on a new book project tentatively entitled, “The Divided Eye: Studies in the Visual Culture of the American Civil War.” The book is comprised of interrelated essays that investigate how public visual culture represented people, events, places, and policies during the Civil War, and how it affected perception and opinion on both sides of the conflict, as well as internationally. The study also examines how, interacting with readers, changing circumstances, and unforeseen contingencies, the visualization of the war changed over the course of four years—and the long-term impact of that change.
It is my hope that this blog will serve the dual function of getting me to write (if in snippets) some insights garnered during the course of my research and upon which I might expand in the future book—and to offer some nuggets about visual culture and the Civil War that promotes that particular field of inquiry.