- The Log Cabin: An American Icon by Alison K. Hoagland
In seven chapters, an introduction, and an epilogue, Alison K. Hoagland, the 2018 winner of the Vernacular Architecture Forum's Henry Glassie Award, has neatly summarized the iconic roles of the American log cabin. The seeming simplicity of the structure belies the complexity of its history, uses, and meanings. Drawing on the broad array of historiographical material on log buildings, including historical commentary, novels, scholarly analysis, and gray literature that includes all manner of structural documentation, Hoagland teases apart the many ways the log cabin has been viewed by Americans.
Before delving into the iconic qualities of the cabin, Hoagland in her first chapter defines log and cabin and explores the occurrence of the structure in time and place. The heart of this book, though, and perhaps its most intriguing aspect, is the author's discussion of the dual nature of the log cabin. Since at least the mid-nineteenth century, these structures have served simultaneously as practical, inexpensive shelter and as symbols of various American qualities (good and bad). Hoagland summarizes the multiple, contradictory log cabin narratives in her introduction: a democratic house form intended as a starter home but serving as a permanent dwelling for impoverished rural folk of all stripes and for the enslaved up to the Civil War; a masculine space defined by the women who had to keep house and raise children in it; an English house form introduced to the North American continent by non-English immigrants; a cozy abode when it was not "cold, wet, dark, and infested with vermin" (p. 5); an escape from civilization that represented the arrival of civilization; the birthplace of presidents, most of whom emerged from less humble origins; a building that harmonized with its surroundings while it consumed them; and a quintessential American dwelling that was built for centuries all over Europe and was just as common in Canadian woodlands as in U.S. forests. The wondrous thing about the log cabin is that it could be all of these things, even at the same time. Hoagland explores these contradictions throughout the book.
Some, or even most, of The Log Cabin: An American Icon's arguments will be very familiar to readers who have followed or participated in the research on American log buildings. But here the author has pulled together research that spans decades to present a coherent view of the numerous and contradictory claims that have been made about the log cabin's place in architectural history, U.S. history, and popular culture and imagination. Although it does not include a bibliography, the book provides a "Historiographical Note" and an "Essay on Sources." The first focuses on the scholarly debate over the origins of log building in the United States. Ultimately, Hoagland is more interested in [End Page 422] what these works say about the field of architectural history than in what the various authors conclude. Her "Essay on Sources" gives full credit to those who conducted the fieldwork and produced the myriad reports found throughout the archives and libraries of the National Park Service and other cultural institutions and organizations. These two sections and the endnotes reveal the breadth and depth of Hoagland's research, which, like her subject, is much more complex than it appears at first glance.
The Log Cabin is carefully organized and presents its ideas clearly. The book is well illustrated, with images from a wide array of sources and eras. Casual readers will enjoy the narrative, aspiring students of log buildings will have at hand an excellent introduction to the log cabin as fact and fantasy, and scholars of vernacular architecture or the built environment will relish the book's careful documentation.