The Mainstreaming of Visual Culture in U. S. History
Abstract

Abstract:

Steadily the study of visual culture has moved into the mainstream of U. S. historiography. More and more scholars have realized that the pictures they long used to illustrate their books and lectures possess a history of their own, as material objects and as ways of seeing. Decades ago Michel Foucault and an assortment of linguistic “turners” alerted historians to textuality—the constant play of language-forms within structures of power and consciousness—and now we see that cultural discourses comprise the visual as much as the verbal. Images and words intertwine as people refashion their rituals and conventions. Two recent studies of celebrated ex-slaves and abolitionists Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass--Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby's Enduring Truths and John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd, and Celeste-Marie Bernier's Picturing Frederick Douglass--show how far we have come in granting the pictorial its proper place alongside the spoken, the written, and the read. Among the most charismatic wordsmiths of their day, Truth and Douglass excelled as orators and authors (the illiterate Truth dictated her published Narrative of 1850 to reformer Olive Gilbert). They knew that distributing their likenesses would promote the cause of liberty. And they learned that politicizing their appearance did more than contribute to the battle for freedom. It gave them experience in living as free people in a modern commercial world. While some militant abolitionists followed Thoreau in affirming the old republican dichotomy between commerce and virtue, Douglass and Truth in effect celebrated the virtue of commerce.