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Reviewed by:
  • Mediating American Autobiography: Photography in Emerson, Thoreau, Douglass, and Whitman
  • Marta L. Werner (bio)
Sean Ross Meehan. Mediating American Autobiography: Photography in Emerson, Thoreau, Douglass, and Whitman. Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2008. 250 pp. ISBN 978-0-8262-1792-9, $39.95.

Strange Developments. In 1839, the photographer Robert Cornelius “posed” for the first daguerrean portrait made in America. Yet since in this case Cornelius was both the subject and the artist, the portrait is a eerie one: “You will notice the figure is not in the center of the plate,” he observed, continuing, “The [End Page 369] reason for it is, I was alone, and ran in front of the camera after preparing it for the picture, and I could not know until the picture was taken. It required some minutes with iodine to produce the effect” (qtd. in Meehan 24–25). This image, blurred, off-center, and belonging entirely to the order of the ephemeral, is both the point of departure and an exemplary figure for Meehan’s absorbing meditations on the collisions and collusions of photography and autobiography in the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Frederick Douglass, and Walt Whitman. In Meehan’s study of these four “exceptional sitters,” photography and autobiography, two modes of referentiality once posited as immediate and even transparent, are re-imagined as uncanny communication technologies revealing (after Emerson) “our condition of infinite remoteness” not only from each other, but still more crucially, from ourselves. The difficulties inherent in recording and transmitting a subject through the vast wastes of space and time, whether in one medium or the other, turn all subjects, Meehan suggests, into fugitives whose authenticity is evidenced paradoxically by their contingency, and whose identity is most apparent in the moment of their disappearance. Thus in Meehan’s account, the nineteenth-century visual and textual archives of self-presentation are ghostly, “negative” spaces where conjecture replaces conclusion and where all acts of interpretation are as shimmering as they are transient. Such is equally true of Meehan’s own exquisite readings in this work. Here, Meehan achieves an admirable balance of proximity to and analytical distance from his objects of study, interlacing an extensive theoretical knowledge with close textual analyses that co-animate each other in a thoughtful, sometimes astonishing dialectic.

Following an introductory chapter, “Photography’s Autobiography,” in which Meehan establishes the fundamental tension between what Rudolf Arnheim has called the “enviable timelessness” of the early photograph and the time-bound processes of its exposure, development, and reproduction, he turns to a reading of Emerson’s “photographic thinking.” Specifically, he argues that photography offers a crucial figure in Emerson’s writings for the apprehension of creative genius and its “negatively electric” mode of communication. Unlike critics who, like Timothy Sweet, conclude that for Emerson, “the photographic process is outside nature, producing images that are only poor resemblances” (qtd. in Meehan 67), Meehan believes that Emerson sees the failure of the photographic process to prevent the “total expression” of the face from escaping as analogous to nature’s own still more beautiful failure to capture or “fix” its “dynamic, circulating emanations” (69). Thus failure is Emerson’s watchword and password, for as Meehan insightfully observes, “the failed portrait becomes representative of that description of nature that Emerson gives the name art ” (69). What Emerson most values in art is not [End Page 370] mimetic exactness (surely, an impossible aim), but the illumination of the temporal process by which art comes into being. It is the traces of a work’s production, where a trace is both the visible sign of the work’s history and the mark of the absence of a presence, which Emerson celebrates. In the final pages of this chapter, Meehan calls our attention to Emerson’s “remarkable proposition” in “Poetry and Imagination”—“All thinking is analogizing, and it is the use of life to learn metonymy. The endless passing of one element into new forms, the incessant metamorphosis . . .” (qtd. in Meehan 92)—and then offers a remarkable proposition of his own. Arguing that Shakespeare is the “type” of the poet for Emerson because in place of fixed thought-pictures he offers his...