- Narrating the Landscape: Print Culture and American Expansion in the Nineteenth Century by Matthew N. Johnston
Matthew N. Johnston's Narrating the Landscape (the latest volume in the now decade-old Charles M. Russell Center Series on Art and Photography of the American West) examines the wider "print culture" that informed discourses of transportation and tourism, science, and ethnography in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. An insightful and precise media history of railroad and scenic guides, gift books, ethnographic studies, and geological surveys, Johnston's analysis pushes forward western studies' growing interest in visual culture and its significance for understanding pre-twentieth-century views of landscapes and peoples.
"Views" should be read here in its most literal sense, as Johnston is very much concerned with the ways that illustrated texts mediated consumers' observations of landscapes both out the window of a train and on the page of a guidebook. While the study is usefully situated in art historical scholarship, what makes Narrating the Landscape particularly pertinent to scholars of western literature is its focus on the ways that image and text combine to form innovative narrative practices. In this way Johnston productively reads texts not just as objects, but also as curated experiences unfolding in time, interpreting how a wide range of published works "align the very act of reading them with a visceral experience of the kinds of time that structure the disciplines and industries these books both belong to and assist in creating" (15). Thus, the first half of the book surveys the feeling for progress evoked by illustrated travel guidebooks and business directories (a surprising turn for a chapter focused on "railroad narratives"), and the appealing feelings of historicity legible in both Luminist and more local, commercial landscape imagery—particularly the way such temporal framing maps onto social class.
In shifting from tourism to science, and engaging more conventionally western landscapes and texts, chapter 3 offers a study of the ethnological work of George Catlin and Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, framing a shift from "ahistoric nature to past monument" (107) in their representations of American Indians. The book's final chapter [End Page 110] focuses upon geologic surveys produced between 1867 and 1879, considering the ways that emerging scientific theories informed the pictorial and narrative projects of familiar figures such as John Wesley Powell, Clarence King, Thomas Moran, and Timothy O'Sullivan.
With the exception of some passing references to Paul Ricoeur and Gérard Genette in the book's introduction, Johnston opts not to engage in a meaningful way with established narratology, instead grounding the studies in engaging close readings of text and image positioned in respect to other scholarly work on nineteenth-century landscape art. This minor quibble aside, this book provides adept interpretations of illustrated texts with an eye to their significance for concepts such as mobility and settler colonialism. In reading the ways that image and text interact to produce temporal narratives informing frontier and expansionist culture, Johnston amasses an insightful collection of noncanonical print artifacts that offer insight into emerging cultures of aesthetics, travel, and science in the nineteenth-century West.