- Immersive Words: Mass Media, Visuality, and American Literature, 1839–1893 by Shelly Jarenski
Shelly Jarenski’s Immersive Words: Mass Media, Visuality, and American Literature, 1839–1893 focuses on the dynamic interrelation between literary texts and emerging visual technologies and practices such as the daguerreotype, panoramas, and exhibition culture. Countering comparative approaches, Jarenski argues for an understanding of this relationship as one of convergence, a “representational interdependence” of literary and visual forms out of which new aesthetics arise. Immersive Words identifies how these aesthetics are employed by two divergent discourses: an ideological project to normalize a white middle-class subjectivity; and a “counteraesthetic discourse” in the work of Melville, Douglass, Hawthorne, and Jewett that highlights the consequences visuality has on evolving notions of race, gender, and nation. This reading of nineteenth-century visual culture presents an important intervention for scholars of media and cultural studies and of canonical nineteenth-century American authors.
The primary strength of Immersive Words lies in Jarenski’s careful archival work to elucidate this convergent relationship, a strategy best exemplified by the final chapter. Focusing on Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs and the visual practice of exhibition culture, Jarenski draws on archival photographs and pamphlets from the 1893 Columbian Exposition to establish a visual aesthetic reliant upon spectatorship and encounter with cultural otherness. Jarenski then identifies an inherent tension in this aesthetic between its ideological mediation of a white, male gaze and its openness to subversion through the spectator’s potential interaction with the spectacle. Implicit in each technology and practice discussed, this conflict serves as the foundation for Jewett’s counteraesthetic, registered most clearly in the narrator’s shifts between a didactic authority position and a self-effacing negation of that power. This narratorial strategy “reveals the potential, and the potential problems, these new visual sites and their aesthetic forms present female viewers”—the notion that, while exhibition culture offers new forms of [End Page 185] power to women spectators, this subversive freedom is checked by the larger networks of power within which it exists. This reading of Jewett’s narrative as an exhibitionist text not only offers an innovative means to understand regionalist realism but also has significant implications for how scholars engage with photographic archives by emphasizing the imperative of considering the dynamism of lived experience rendered static in still images.
Jarenski broadens the significance of nineteenth-century visuality by attempting to trace its continuing legacy in shaping contemporary American culture. She makes this case by discussing literary figures’ prescient engagement with issues and concerns inherent to media and representation, which critics generally ascribe to postmodernity. However, her efforts to substantiate such a claim through readings of contemporary art digress from the focused scrutiny of a particular historical moment and fail to offer a meaningful extension of the argument. Nevertheless, Immersive Words is successful in identifying the mid- to late-nineteenth century as a cultural moment wherein literary texts converged with visual technologies and experiences to create aesthetics that highlight the importance of their interactive coexistence. In so doing, Jarenski puts forth a useful reorientation of literary history that emphasizes how “the social consequences of the nineteenth century are still structuring our culture.”