- Pastoral and Monumental: Dams, Postcards, and the American Landscape by Donald C. Jackson
Pastoral and Monumental is Donald C. Jackson’s latest installment in a series of dam histories. In Building the Ultimate Dam (1995), he uses the work of engineer John S. Eastwood to explore the psychology behind “massive” versus “structural” dams. In Big Dams of the New Deal (2006), coauthored with David P. Billington, he excavates the politics, engineering, and social life behind the New Deal–era monumental dams erected by the Corps of Engineers and Bureau of Reclamation. Jackson’s most recent [End Page 1012] work deploys a visual lens to encompass some of this same terrain. Through the text and images contained in more than 400 postcards, he links the technological, political, social, and environmental history of dams to the cultural narratives that card producers and consumers have created about them.
Jackson surveys the interactions of dams, landscapes, and everyday lives, from the late nineteenth through mid-twentieth centuries. He demonstrates how public perception transformed during this period from viewing dams as natural parts of the landscape to “ill-advised intrusions into ecologically-sensitive” (p. 10) environments. Yet Jackson also argues that the history of dams does not follow a simple linear narrative. Over time, dams have occupied a complex position between “pastoral,” small-scale structures that blend into the environment, and “monumental” technological interventions that remake the landscape for human ends. With declining numbers of dam postcards, Jackson argues that we have lost “a broad-based understanding of how ingrained this infrastructure is within the fabric of America’s culture and political economy” (p. 296).
The heart of the book positions the postcard as primary source in a concise history of American dams. Jackson begins by surveying the variety of dam designs, building materials, and construction processes. He also demonstrates postcards’ extensive coverage of dam disasters, which he argues exaggerated the ubiquity of such technological failures. He chronicles the changing uses of dams, from milling to logging, navigation, mining, water supply, hydroelectricity, flood control, and recreation. The multipurpose nature of dams, he argues, has characterized this built form throughout time. During the New Deal, the federal government played an increased role in the development of monumental dams that served both utilitarian and symbolic roles. While the focus on big dams continued after the war, it was eventually tempered by an environmental backlash that redefined the pastoral as associated with free-flowing streams rather than small, useful dams. Jackson shows that this backlash—the battle of “fish versus power” (p. 263)—was long in coming. Postcards capture this tension throughout time in images of fish ladders, underutilized dams blown open to release halted rivers, and scenes of natural beauty that would soon be lost due to a dam’s imposition.
Jackson bookends this tale by considering two forms of media that have represented dams over time. First, he places postcards in American cultural history, chronicling the cards’ production, distribution, and rise and fall in popularity. Foundational to this story were the nineteenth-century emergence of postal culture and the business of photography. Jackson also identifies thematic trends from postcards’ golden age (1905–15) that show how “dam postcards intersected with the lives of people and communities” (p. 61). As he shows by the book’s end, however, as snapshot culture replaced postcard culture in the postwar decades, dams increasingly [End Page 1013] shifted from postcard foregrounds to the backdrops of personal photographs. Popular understanding of this infrastructure diminished with this transition.
While Jackson treats postcards not just as illustrations, but as source material, visual culture scholars may wish for closer analysis of the images. The author might, for example, have more closely parsed postcard photographs versus drawings. Urban historian Alison Isenberg’s research on the effective airbrushing of early-twentieth-century Main Street postcard images suggests how such scenes have been used to rewrite the landscape in a cleaner, more orderly light. By contrast, Jackson generally takes his postcard images at face value and focuses more on...