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Journal of Interdisciplinary History 34.3 (2003) 478-480

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Beyond the Lines: Pictorial Reporting, Everyday Life, and the Crisis of Gilded Age America. By Joshua Brown (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2002) 344pp. $49.95

The scope of Beyond the Lines is both broader and narrower than the subtitle suggests. It is narrower because it is largely a study of a single weekly periodical—Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. It is broader because Brown situates his analysis of Leslie's at the interdisciplinary crossroads [End Page 478] of visual culture studies, one of the most significant lines of contemporary scholarly inquiry. Brown writes succinctly about the intersections of art, photography, journalism, and social history. His methodology is conventionally historical in its attention to broad contexts and to ways that pictorial representations evolved over time. But Brown has moved beyond using images as illustrations or documents of reality to viewing them and their production as elements of a developing social practice in their own right. Leslie's wood engravings are of such immense visual and historical interest that Brown's choice of a single magazine bears substantial fruit. No one will be able to write about late nineteenth-century visual culture without consulting Beyond the Lines.

Like other illustrated publications, Leslie's (originating in 1855) rode a wave of demand for news during the sectional crisis and the Civil War. Circulation rose to 200,000, and settled at a still profitable 70,000 after the war. The Newspaper was the flagship of the company's eventual array of fourteen periodicals, including several for women and children. Leslie's took up a cultural position midway between the highbrow Harper's Weekly and the lowbrow National Police Gazette.Harper's marked its lofty position by favoring art work over news images; the Gazette reveled in illustrating the most sensational of the news stories.

Leslie's met the mass desire for illustrations, including some Gazette-style "glimpses of raucous, sexually charged cheap amusements," but claimed a high, noncommercial justification of its own (41). Harper's, according to a Leslie's editor, emphasized "pictures of sentiment, which last in the mind of the purchaser," whereas Leslie's captured the "transient and precarious" news (62). It accepted the "duty," in the words of one of its published notices, "of giving to the public original, accurate and faithful representations of the most prominent events of the day in every part of the globe" (61). Speed of delivery was as important as accuracy. "As soon as any important event occurs unexpectedly at any distant point, we are certain to receive at the earliest moment, from our correspondents, accurate sketches and reliable descriptions of it" (61).

Brown might have said more about Leslie's linkage between originality and immersion in the flow of events. Originality for Harper's (and for Nation editor Edwin Lawrence Godkin), lay in the application of timeless principles to issues of the day. Originality for Leslie's lay in the recording of recent happenings—a documentary function that engravings could perform better than photographs because engravings could encompass a sequence of events within a single image. Harper's and other traditionalists wanted to ground social and political analysis in hard-won truths about human nature. The best illustrations were those art classics that had already stood the test of time. When Harper's took up topical events, it was as much to squeeze old truths out of them as it was to document them. Leslie's valorization of the new, and its implicit limitation of the new to what could be "accurately" visualized, was a major boost to the social practice of "realism." Brown rightly notes that realism exuded a sentiment of its own (not to mention rarely delivering the accuracy [End Page 479] that it promised). But he may not do justice to the Harper's-Godkin critique of Leslie's "news" orientation. They didn't object to it because it was a "leveling" of culture, but because it was a shallowing of culture (60). It...