copyright 1997 Joshua Brown

Reconstructing Representation

The panic of 1873 and ensuing depression precipitated a crisis in the representation of the poor. As unemployment mounted, New York and other major cities discovered a new type. Possessing many of the attributes of the undeserving poor, the tramp was particularly threatening as a new brand of ambulatory corruption, one deplored by the respectable mechanic as much as by the merchant [Figure 8].

"The genus tramp," concluded an 1876 Frank Leslie's editorial, "is a dangerous element in society, and ought to be dealt with accordingly."[35] But, as the depression grew to unprecedented proportions, the social typing of the poor lost its predictability. Images of undeserving poor--now placed in even more wretched circumstances--continued to appear, but they were supplemented by engravings peopled by the "wrong" types. Among the homeless night lodgers pictured leaving a New York City police station on a frigid February morning in 1877, a reader uneasily noted faces and dress that did not belong in an engraving of "vagrants" [Figure 9].

"It has been noticed this Winter," Frank Leslie's warily commented, "that among the applicants for lodgings at the stations an unusually large number represents a class of men and women unaccustomed to such dormitories." Unlike the undeserving poor, the subjects of this and other engravings now potentially included some of Frank Leslie's readership.[36]

Indeed, in the face of mounting economic and social disorder, engravings appeared that once again ranged social types together in an effort to locate some unity. The 1875 "Fulton Market in the Fruit Season" depicted a mixed crowd enthusiastically consuming watermelons on a sultry August afternoon [Figure 10].

The accompanying text delineated the meaning of the juxtaposition of the assembled figures: "The bootblack, the newsboy, the longshoreman, the rustic visitor, the merchant's clerk, and sometimes the merchant himself, gather around the al-fresco stand in a truly democratic manner to indulge in the juicy luxury." More than a panorama of the streets, this cut depicted a rare moment of equality (even across race) as the varied social statuses of its subjects were leveled in a symbolic feast.[37]

The attempt to fend off disorder pictorially was certainly understandable. While Europeans tore down monuments, Americans seemed preoccupied with putting them up. Readers might view cuts of the communards pulling down the Vendome column, but Frank Leslie's had been providing a reassuring archive of monument dedications and statue-unveilings since 1865. And, yet, within months of the suppression of the Commune, troops were firing on Irish Catholic rioters in the streets of New York; a few weeks later, Chicago went up in flames.[38] Such images drew readers: born and legitimated in the national crisis of the 1850s and 1860s, it could be said that the illustrated press thrived on the perpetuation of a sense of crisis in the 1870s. If Frank Leslie's readers did not get their fill of images of destruction and disorder, there was the added mayhem promulgated by the crisis of industrial capitalism. When investors, stockbrokers and clerks weren't depicted rioting in Wall Street, there was always the dreadful prospect of devastating industrial accidents and transportation disasters.[39] Engravings of railroad accidents--depicting the fatal moment, the carnage and flames, the gruesome aftermath--became the metaphor for the arbitrariness and unaccountability of capital in the 1870s.

Relying on a broad and varied readership to sustain its expensive project and now confronting an atmosphere increasingly characterized by division, crisis and instability, Frank Leslie's could no longer count on the shared perceptions of its readers in determining the causes. Representations grew steadily more ambivalent or appeared in contradictory juxtapositions, their typed subjects gaining and losing coherence as the tool of the physiognomic enhancement of features came under attack. With this in mind, we may more easily interpret the change in the depiction of labor in the late 1870s.

Since its first publication of a strike image, depicting the March 7, 1860 Lynn shoemakers' procession, Frank Leslie's had sporadically covered the labor movement. Although at first sympathetically portraying New York strikes, the paper's generally dismissive and hostile stance toward the eight-hour movement of the late 1860s and early 1870s prompted numerous editorials but substantially fewer engravings.[40] The engraving of the June 10, 1872 parade that capped the ultimately unsuccessful city-wide trade union effort to win the eight-hour day worked up the continental signs of the participants to a level of unselfconscious buffoonery [Figure 11].

Showing a grotesquely snarling figure on horseback (reminiscent of a savage equestrian pictured in an 1867 engraving of a St. Patrick's Day riot), and newsboys mimicking the cigars absurdly projecting from a collection of "foreign" physiognomies, the cut reinforced the message of its accompanying text: "It would be difficult to convince ourselves that those who appeared were fair representatives of the workingmen of the city. They certainly did not exhibit the manly bone and sinew of the land."[41] Violent confrontations, notably the January 1874 Tompkins Square riot, were rendered as the sorry product of foreign agitators infecting labor republicanism, and the streets of the city, with a divisive class-conscious ideology [Figure 12].[42]

While the depression and the depredations of the railroad and coal monopolies eventually prodded Frank Leslie's editorials to occasional denunciations of capital as an agent of disorder and division, the preferred pictorial standard-bearer of American republican virtue became the stalwart Granger and not the urban or industrial worker. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper might acknowledge that strikes were sometimes unavoidable and capital provocative and unyielding, yet militant workers and trade unionists continued to inhabit fairly rigid representational categories, usually exoticized, sometimes buffoonish, sometimes menacing.[43]

The Great Uprising of 1877 marked a sea-change in the typing of American labor. The largely spontaneous two-week strike that paralyzed most of the nation's industrial cities defied the expectations of observers.[44] The events placed unexpected types in the actions and disorder as, in localities like Pittsburgh, the broad "middle" protested the abuses of the railroads; potential readers had become rioters. The physiognomic signs denoting social types no longer afforded readers an easy, useful map through which a news event could be deciphered. Still framed in the composition and conventions of history-painting narrative, the engravings of the strike depicted "anonymous Americans" without the predictable marks of moral character, social role, and motive.

The change was duly noted when the Pittsburgh Leader later complimented Frank Leslie's engravings of the July 21 clash between the Philadelphia militia and striking Pittsburgh railroad workers and sympathizers, based on sketches by the local artist John Donaghy [Figure 13].

The event culminated the following day in the destruction of the Pennsylvania Railroad's train yards, the single most destructive incident in the nationwide strike. "The riots," began the Leader editorial,

have given the illustrated newspapers an opportunity . . . to curdle the blood of the law-abiding citizen with representations of the wild scenes of last week in various American cities. It is very evident, however, that with the single exception of John Donaghy, of this city, special artist for FRANK LESLIE'S ILLUSTRATED NEWSPAPER, not one of the artists were near enough to "the mob" they assume to depict to know what it really looks like. They represent it as a wild and heterogeneous collection of rough men and virago women, in every variety of costume, some with blouses, some in open shirts and bare arms, some with bandannas around their brows and all with coarse, brutish features, exhibiting every phase of ignorance and malignity. Now this is a French mob, the traditional mob of the first French Revolution, as sketched by English artists . . . The artist who puts this mob in front of the American policemen and soldiers simply draws on his imagination and his memory of old cuts in the translations of Thier's "French Revolution," or Lamartine's "Girondists." The American mob is a different sort of a body altogether. It has no varieties of costume except such as indicate the sex and social condition of the wearers. American workmen . . . dress in the ordinary male costume of coat, vest and pants, sometimes, however, going in their shirt-sleeves. They are generally very well-looking men. Railroad employes [sic] especially have the reputation of being quite fine-looking, and playing havoc with the hearts of country girls. The South-side delegation, which marched up to the Round-House to help the strikers on that fatal Saturday evening, was led by a man in a good frock-coat, with a white neck-tie, and the men generally were well clad, and many of them had their boots blacked. An American mob . . . is a pretty fair representation in appearance of the American people.[45]

We need to know more about how the subjects of engravings were chosen, what leeway artists had in interpreting events, and how the subdivision of labor in the rapid production of news imagery--separating the representation on the artist's sketchpad and the image traced and then engraved on the boxwood (often by a number of craftsmen)--changed the intentions of a single recorder and addressed varied audiences. Although the engraving process disrupts traditional art-historical notions of authorial intention, the Leader comment also raises a possible distinction between a "local" artist depicting events--sharing a community's view of an event (e.g., Donaghy in Pittsburgh)--and an "outside" artist who might more easily resort to reducing individuals into "traditional" types (e.g., Joseph Becker and the Schuylkill County miners). Pittsburgh's cross-class hostility toward the Pennsylvania Railroad and invading Philadelphia militia would also mitigate heavy typing in the pictures. Frank Leslie's relied on both staff artists and an extensive list of local "talent," suggesting the many levels of mediation through which we must wade to locate the sources and motivations of representation.

Nevertheless, what we see here is a move toward realism that may have had less to do with the much-vaunted hegemony of photographic practice than with the conflicting demands of a broad readership composed of diverse "systems of viewing" (to paraphrase Michael Denning). The efficacy of physiognomic social typing relied on a widely-shared cognitive map; in the context of an event like the 1877 strike, unified perceptions could not be assumed and, therefore, social typing could not operate without doing damage to the very premise that made the illustrated paper commercially viable. Many of the readers comprising the broad "middle" refused to see themselves reduced to physical types and, apparently in some instances, overtly stated their objection. The necessity for Frank Leslie's to address such a range of responses opened the way for new experiments in capturing social reality without pictorial typing.[46]

For African Americans, however, pictorial practice would remain more indecisive. By the early 1870s, as Redemptionist violence mounted and federal support of Reconstruction policies collapsed, Frank Leslie's careful balancing act, weighing old types inspired by the antebellum plantation scene with new types--including images of freedpeople campaigning for office, voting, and cultivating homesteads (as well as a new pantheon of "illustrious" black portraits)--increasingly teetered in favor of the former representation. As the decade drew to a close, the "picturesque" plantation darky became a regular presence.[47] Nevertheless, equality would occasionally make its claim on the representation of African Americans in the subsequent period, most particularly in the portrayal of black participation in the interracial organizations of the burgeoning labor movement of the 1880s.[48]

The unmooring and general volatility of physiognomic types also affected the previously sacrosanct bastion of "illustrious Americans." The conventions of portraiture in the representation of notable figures began to undergo a transformation. The change was inaugurated during the extended pictorial coverage of the Henry Ward Beecher-Theodore Tilton scandal. Frank Leslie's depictions of Plymouth Church's investigation of the charges lodged against its minister in 1874 portrayed the protagonists with "traditional" official portrait heads and narrative tableaux. By the time Beecher's trial for adultery began in January 1875, many of the engravings had departed from the safety of official portraiture, presenting "character sketches" that portrayed facial expression, gesture, and the idiosyncrasy of personalized poses appropriate to the heated context of the event.[49] In February 1877, official portraiture was again undermined: among the illustrations depicting the bipartisan Electoral Commission appointed to settle the disputed 1876 presidential election, readers were presented with engravings that departed significantly from the expected history painting tableaux. In images "drawn with the freedom that distinguishes the pose of unconscious subjects," the commission's activities were fractured into vignettes that conveyed the urgency of the event through the congressmen's expressions and postures of exhaustion and exasperation [Figure 14].[50]

The realist turn here may have been affected by photography in that, after 1877, the process of photoxylography permitted the direct transfer of an artist's sketch onto the wood block without the intervention of a mediating office artist. But photography, itself, still could not capture or respond spontaneously "in the heat of the moment," and we must, thus, locate the source of these new pictorial "codes" elsewhere.[51]

Official faces and stiff tableaux did not disappear from the pages of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. The realist turn in official portraiture represented a departure rather than a trend; as reputations twisted in scandal, and the fate of the Union once again hung in the balance, the "hidden" faces of the famous transcended the boundary of cartoons to invade news images.[52] As for "anonymous" Americans, by the 1870s the illustrated press found that its pictorial practice was inadequate. In a nation now seemingly locked in perpetual crisis, its "middle" readership had grown too broad and varied to accept representations rendered in exclusive codes derived from the antebellum period. Social typing would remain as a device for reading society and pictorially reporting the news; in the 1880s physiognomic signs would locate new subjects in a new immigrant working class located outside of Leslie's readership (while also persisting in most images of African Americans). But, while continuing to frame its figures in the composition, narrative, and conventions of history-painting, the requirement to address a range of reader responses opened the way for Frank Leslie's to experiment in capturing social reality without pictorial typing.

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