In the decades before the U.S. Civil War, the city of Boston evolved from a dilapidated, haphazardly planned, and architecturally stagnant provincial town into a booming and visually impressive metropolis. In an effort to remake Boston into the "Athens of America," neighborhoods were leveled, streets straightened, and an ambitious set of architectural ordinances enacted. However, even as residents reveled in a vibrant new landscape of landmark buildings, art galleries, parks, and bustling streets, the social and sensory upheaval of city life also gave rise to a widespread fascination with the unseen. Focusing his analysis between 1820 and 1860, Justin T. Clark traces how the effort to impose moral and social order on the city also inspired many—from Transcendentalists to clairvoyants and amateur artists—to seek out more ethereal visions of the infinite and ideal beyond the gilded paintings and glimmering storefronts.
By elucidating the reciprocal influence of two of the most important developments in nineteenth-century American culture—the spectacular city and visionary culture—Clark demonstrates how the nineteenth-century city is not only the birthplace of modern spectacle but also a battleground for the freedom and autonomy of the spectator.