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  • A Familiar Strangeness: American Fiction and the Language of Photography, 1939–1945 by Stuart Burrows
  • Peter Lurie
Stuart Burrows. A Familiar Strangeness: American Fiction and the Language of Photography, 1939–1945. Athens: U of Georgia P, 2008. 255pp.

Stuart Burrows’s book makes a strangely familiar claim. Its premise traces an arc in literary history and understandings of vision and epistemology that we think we know but which, in Burrows’ hands, in fact turns toward a different idea about American prose realism than one with which we’re familiar (that is, that writers responded to the daguerreotype by emulating its representational fidelity). Realist writers like Hawthorne, Stephen Crane, and the early James, Burrows shows, were hardly naïve about the changes in perception wrought by a then-new technology of vision like photography. For their realism is not a version of fiction that, camera-like, seeks to reproduce the authentic surface aspect of people, objects, and places. Nor do these writers’ narratives and descriptions traffic in the also common nineteenth-century assumption that the daguerreotype plumbed the interiors of such surfaces—the premise of physiognomy, which, as Burrows indicates, nineteenth-century thinking saw as proof that the photographic subject revealed an inner nature. Rather, what Burrows shows is that such writers demonstrated an uncannily early awareness of developments we ordinarily attribute to modernist, postmodern, and even twenty-first-century writers and sensibilities: the pervasive sense in modernity, and especially in American cultural life and social reality, of the simulacrum.

Burrows draws his title—and a strain of his argument—from a passage in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) in which the novel’s investment in metaphor and visuality is clear. Citing the women of Eatonville’s observations about Janie’s “white” behavior, Burrows shows them using comparative modes of thinking to understand both racial difference as well as particularly racial understandings of language. He points out that comments by other characters about Janie’s behavior, such as “‘It was like seeing your sister turn into a ‘gator’” (qtd. 162), suggest the way in which “Janie’s condition is itself a comment upon language and image. The women do not compare Janie to a ‘gator, they compare Janie to the act of comparing someone to a ‘gator, to seeing something familiar in something foreign” (163). Burrows’s remarks appear in the context of his expanding on Barbara Johnson’s familiar essay about metaphor in Their Eyes, showing how Johnson’s claims that, in discovering metaphor, Janie learns to speak only tells part of the story. Expanding on Johnson’s claims, and referring to Their Eyes as well as to other Hurston works like “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” Burrows argues that “black language is metaphor, and thus to discover metaphor is to discover [End Page 866] language, and to discover language is to discover blackness” (161). Such a consideration allows Burrows to treat the slippage between the literal and the figurative in Hurston—but also in a visual mode like photography—and show how these categories determine our relationships to ourselves and to others.

In addition to offering a title and working premise for the book, the Hurston chapter may be its strongest as well as importantly different from the other chapters in Burrows’s study. For in showing the various ways in which Janie gains a sense of self, Burrows shows how Hurston subtly traces Janie’s publicly defined character, one in which, for example, she discovers her blackness in a photograph of herself as a girl or through others’ commentary on her actions, the result of which is “a withdrawal from the social into a private space of self-reflection” (164). Far from making Janie appear alienated or stricken, such recognition results in “the script [of racial identity] being written by the subject herself” (159). Such a vision of self-authoring is not quite at odds with readings of the novel like Johnson’s. But Burrows’s elaboration of Janie’s relationship to the image, and more generally, of the role in African American experience of language, visuality, and mésconnaisance, is highly original.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the book’s strongest assertions occur in the...