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American Periodicals: A Journal of History, Criticism, and Bibliography 14.1 (2004) 153-155

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Beyond the Lines: Pictorial Reporting, Everyday Life, and the Crisis of Gilded Age America. By Joshua Brown. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002. xxiv, 361 pp. Illus. Index. $49.95

In the history of nineteenth-century American illustrated weeklies, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper has long taken second place behind Harper's Weekly. In their heyday, Harper's had the greater circulation and the cartoons of Thomas Nast; today, online access to its contents makes Harper's seem even more dominant. Joshua Brown argues for renewed attention to Frank Leslie's, not merely as Harper's Weekly's competitor but as the paper that more fully engaged and enacted the social, cultural, and economic divisions of the Gilded Age. For two decades after the Civil War, Frank Leslie's sought to maintain what Brown characterizes as a "balancing act," as antebellum visual and especially physiognomic conventions became increasingly untenable in the face of a diverse reading audience.

Brown's argument contests the familiar view that illustrated news weeklies appealed to a genteel middle class, often through "transparent class, ethnic, and racial stereotypes" that ratified "dominant" views of social and economic structure (2). Instead of complacency, Brown finds volatility and change within the pages of Frank Leslie's, especially within the illustrations that reported news. Rejecting the technological determinism that attributes the paper's demise to the emergence of half-tone photographic reproduction, Brown suggests that Frank Leslie's greater challenge was "a continuous and largely unsuccessful effort to find equilibrium amid rapid social change, a persistent attempt to encompass the demands of a broad and diverse 'middle' readership that was increasingly characterized by different experiences and perceptions in Gilded Age America" (4-5).

Born Henry Carter in Suffolk, England, in 1821, "Frank Leslie" began his engraving career in London and worked on the pioneering Illustrated London News in the 1840s. He immigrated to the United States in 1848, securing work for Gleason's Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, the earliest American illustrated weekly. In December 1855 Leslie entered the field with his own paper. John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry and subsequent trial and a scandal over swill milk in New York raised Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper to prominence, even as the depression of 1857 killed one rival (Ballou's, the successor to Gleason's) and as another—Harper's—emerged. During the Civil War, Leslie's and Harper's dispatched "special artists" to sketch combat and camp life; artists and engravers in New York offices turned those sketches into wood-block illustrations, a process that Brown explains in pellucid detail. These assembly lines of illustration make it difficult to attribute the images to any particular craftsman's artistic [End Page 153] intention; indeed, the magazines accelerated the devaluation of the engraver's craft.

After the war, distinctions between the two weeklies became more pronounced. Brown writes, "Harper's Weekly's consistent success in the late nineteenth century was based on its adherence to literary and pictorial respectability and didacticism" (62), an ideology summarized in its masthead subtitle "A Journal of Civilization." Frank Leslie's emphasized more topical news coverage, which led to fluctuating circulation and representational problems. A skillful interpreter of the engraved image, Brown demonstrates how first African American emancipation and changes in women's roles, then labor strife around 1877, and finally the link between labor radicalism and ethnic tension in the 1880s, all posed challenges. Physiognomic representations of particular groups, with the native-born, northeastern middle class as the ideal, became difficult to sustain, given a readership that Brown suggests cut across class, ethnic, and regional lines. Diversity and multivocality became the norm. African Americans might be American yeomen in one image, but instigators of white violence in another; residents of mining communities could resent their depiction as "a criminal, degraded social type" (135). In language similar to Michael Denning's characterization of Gilded...