A collection of the author’s essays gathered from his last four decades of ruminating about light and dark, shadow and substance, photographs and films.
Trachtenberg (Emeritus, English and American Studies/Yale Univ.; Shades of Hiawatha: Staging Indians, Making Americans: 1880-1930, 2004, not reviewed) has long focused on the issue of images—still, moving—and on their history and significance. In these 19 pieces (most previously published), the author shows the wide range of his interest and knowledge. The initial two essays deal with the daguerreotype; others explore the work of Hawthorne, Twain, Crane, Whitman, Alger; others concern Louis Sullivan’s architecture, Lewis Mumford’s historiography, the Brooklyn Bridge; others examine the work of photographers Walker Evans, W. Eugene Smith and Wright Morris. And there is a very strong essay about the role of the city in film noir. Trachtenberg’s audience, unsurprisingly, has a marked effect on his diction. Pieces he wrote for scholarly journals can be dense, slow-moving. Of Crane, for example, he writes, “By projecting in the contrasted points of view a dialectic of felt values, Crane forces the reader to free his or her own point of view from any limiting perspective.” But throughout, Trachtenberg urges us to think about the “truth” or the “reality” that a photograph presents, about the agenda of the photographer, about the narrative that the photograph—or group of photographs—tells. He urges us, too, to consider the evolving image of the city offered by our writers and photographers. Some of his earlier pieces have not aged well. His 1970 essay on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for example, seems almost quaint. He does recognize the power and prescience of Poe’s 1840 story “The Man of the Crowd,” and he discusses it in several essays.
A work that will be best enjoyed by readers eager to read slowly and think deeply.