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A Familiar Strangeness

American Fiction and the Language of Photography, 1839-1945

Stuart Burrows

Publication Year: 2008

Literary critics have traditionally suggested that the invention of photography led to the rise of the realist novel, which is believed to imitate the detail and accuracy of the photographic image. Instead, says Stuart Burrows, photography's influence on American fiction had less to do with any formal similarity between the two media than with the capacity of photography to render American identity and history homogeneous and reproducible. The camera, according to Burrows, provoked a representational crisis, one broadly modernist in character. Since the photograph is not only a copy of its subject but a physical product of it, the camera can be seen as actually challenging mimetic or realistic theories of representation, which depend on a recognizable gap between original and reproduction.

Burrows argues for the centrality of photography to a set of writers commonly thought of as hostile to the camera-including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, William Faulkner, and Zora Neale Hurston. The photographic metaphors and allusions to the medium that appear throughout these writers' work demonstrate the ways in which one representational form actually influences another—by changing how artists conceive of identity, history, and art itself.

A Familiar Strangeness thus challenges the notion of an absolute break between nineteenth-century realism and twentieth-century modernism, a break that typically centers precisely on the two movements' supposedly differing relation to the camera. Just as modernist fiction interrupts and questions the link between visuality and knowledge, so American realist fiction can be understood as making the world less knowable precisely by making it more visible.

Published by: University of Georgia Press


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p. vii

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pp. ix-xii

thanks first to the University of Georgia Press for supporting a book about photography that not only doesn’t include images but doesn’t even refer to any. Nancy Grayson and Jon Davies at the press have been a pleasure to work with from first to last; heartfelt thanks to them, to copy editor Marlene Allen, and to my two anonymous...

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Introduction. “Likeness Men”: Fiction and Photography

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pp. 1-27

Two groups of young men—three Americans and three Mexicans— confront each other late one evening in an alley in Mexico City. One of the Americans has insulted one of the Mexicans. The only sober member of the American group, the New York Kid, stares at the aggrieved man...

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ONE: Nature Herself: Hawthorne’s Self-Representation

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pp. 28-70

With Louis Daguerre’s unveiling of the daguerreotype in January 1839, the dream of nature reproducing herself without the aid of human hand or eye seemed finally on the verge of being realized. Because the subject of the photograph seemed to emerge spontaneously— early operators of the daguerreotype, when the exposure...

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TWO: Resembling Oneself: James’s Photographic Types

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pp. 71-114

Admiring the Capitol building in 1905, Henry James noted that he had for company “a trio of Indian braves, braves dispossessed of forest and prairie.” The men were dressed, he recounts in The American Scene, “in neat pot-hats, shoddy suits, and light...

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THREE: Vanishing Race: Faulkner’s Photographic Face

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pp. 115-153

What is the role of photography in determining who people are in a society in which identity is fundamentally determined by blood? This question is surprisingly central, this chapter argues, to William Faulkner’s obsessive inventory of racial identity in the...

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FOUR: “Seeing Myself like Somebody Else”: Hurston’s Similarities

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pp. 154-198

I have been arguing that American fiction’s debt to the camera takes the form of a fascination with questions of resemblance, driven principally by the sense that in the photographic age everyone begins to look the same. It is time, however, to mark the limits to this...

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Conclusion. Likeness Has Ceased to Be of Any Help: Fiction and Film

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pp. 199-217

This book has argued that photography shaped American fiction not by offering novelists a model of faithful reproduction, but by offering them a language in which to record the increasing homogeneity of modern identity, a homogeneity that is itself the product....


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pp. 219-255


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pp. 257-275


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pp. 277-287

E-ISBN-13: 9780820337418
E-ISBN-10: 0820337412
Print-ISBN-13: 9780820331744
Print-ISBN-10: 0820331740

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2008

OCLC Number: 649914599
MUSE Marc Record: Download for A Familiar Strangeness

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • American fiction -- 19th century -- History and criticism.
  • Literature and photography -- United States.
  • Modernism (Literature).
  • American fiction -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Realism in literature.
  • Visual perception in literature.
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