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  • American Iconographic: National Geographic, Global Culture, and the Visual Imagination
  • Sigrid Anderson Cordell
American Iconographic: National Geographic, Global Culture, and the Visual Imagination. By Stephanie Hawkins. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010. 264 pp. $55.00, $22.50.

It is not surprising that the place of National Geographic in political, cultural, and print history has been the focus of much critical attention in recent years. The magazine sheds light on the history of photography and ethnography, the ways in which American identity was constructed in relation to ideas of the exotic, and the mainstream packaging of foreign cultures. Scholarly interest in National Geographic also coincides with interest in U.S. imperialism, critical race and gender studies, and the history of periodicals. Stephanie Hawkins’ American Iconographic thus enters an established field of scholarly work on the magazine that includes Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins’ Reading National Geographic (1993) and Tamar Rothenberg’s Presenting America’s World: Strategies of Innocence in National Geographic Magazine, 1888–1945 (2007). Hawkins’ work builds on previous studies by examining both the archive of unpublished readers’ letters to the magazine and the ways in which it was parodied throughout popular culture, an approach that illuminates the slippage between National Geographic’s message and how readers responded to it by resisting, endorsing, and/or reworking it.

Overall, this is a useful study, and it makes a substantial contribution to our understanding of the ways in which National Geographic became both a staple in American homes and a target of critique and parody. Hawkins begins her analysis of the magazine’s place in American culture by unpacking its iconic status, paying particular attention to the ways in which its visual icons circulate across borders, commodifying images while inviting global activism. For Hawkins, the haunting cover photograph of Sharbat Gula, the Afghan girl shown on the cover in 1985 and “found” again by a National Geographic team in 2002, is a key moment for understanding how these images enter the “mediascape,” inviting sympathy and allowing readers to participate in a global civic culture. In Hawkins’ reading, National Geographic is both a creator of icons and an icon of its own.

In tracing the history of how the magazine came to play a central role in creating iconic images, Hawkins points to its first photograph in 1896, “Zulu Bride and Bridegroom.” Through this image and others like it, Hawkins places [End Page 216] National Geographic in the context of American pedagogical theory as educators sought to teach Americans how to read visual images. Locating the Zulu bride and bridegroom in a “universal” discourse of marriage and the family, the magazine used images such as this one to “domesticate the more estranging aspects of cultural and racial difference” (28). In this way, National Geographic used images to inaugurate its educational mission, and Hawkins traces how this mission was in line with a progressive educational shift toward using visual imagery in the classroom. This discussion of how the magazine participated in educating its readers usefully sets up Hawkins’ subsequent analysis of how later generations of readers read back against the magazine’s more obviously propagandistic and nationalistic images, as when it endorsed Fascist nationalism. Hawkins does not view the magazine’s readers as passive consumers but rather examines how they responded to, resisted, and appropriated the magazine’s text and images. As Hawkins demonstrates, readers of National Geographic have been extremely savvy about identifying and critiquing the magazine’s political and nationalist biases, even as the magazine sought to balance its interest in patriotism with its emphasis on fostering a global cosmopolitanism. As Hawkins points out, readers saw through these attempts at the “manufacture of consent” much more than was previously assumed, and her examination of the archive of readers’ letters is particularly useful in demonstrating how readers recognized and objected to the magazine’s polemical leanings.

One of the most compelling sections in Hawkins’ work comes in her analysis of what she terms the “jungle housekeeping” motif in the magazine. Hawkins here refers to accounts that appeared periodically in the magazine detailing a married couple’s attempts to set up house in an exotic, undeveloped landscape, most frequently an out...


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pp. 216-218
Launched on MUSE
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