In 1848, U.S. Navy Lieutenant William F. Lynch traveled to Ottoman Palestine to lead a bold expedition down the Jordan River and around the Dead Sea. This expedition's stated objectives were to demonstrate American one-upmanship, solve some scientific questions regarding the region's geographical anomalies, and find the remains of the biblical Sodom and Gomorrah. None of these objectives were more than partially met. The present essay looks for this episode's meaning and value within a different realm: that of the rapidly-expanding print marketplace. Beyond fulfilling particular national, religious, or scientific interests, it argues, Lynch's expedition was promoted by reporters, editors, and authors as interesting. The essay thus proposes a different view of the role of knowledge in nineteenth-century culture, not in terms of its usefulness, but in its appealing uselessness. Paradoxically, it shows, Lynch's expedition was most useful precisely where it failed to obtain the knowledge it promoted as its goal, a failure that insured continued public curiosity about the Dead Sea and its religious significance.


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pp. 475-499
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