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  • In the Looking Glass: Mirrors & Identity in Early America by Rebecca Shrum
  • Erika Piola (bio)
In the Looking Glass: Mirrors & Identity in Early America. By Rebecca Shrum. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017 Pp. 221. $54.95 cloth; $52.20 e-book)

Material and visual culture continue to come into their own as [End Page 385] disciplines and not just methods for historical study. The mirror quintessentially represents an intersection of both of these fields of knowledge. Its cultural role in America compels an interdisciplinary examination. Rebecca Shrum undertakes this approach in In the Looking Glass as she explores the historical process of this object, instrument, and useful item in "identity formation among and between early Americans" of European, African American, and Native American descent (p. 11).

Shrum traces this process over six thematic chapters documenting the production, distribution, and use of this article of everyday life as a means to cultural assimilation and exclusion. She judiciously uses primary source material of archival records, narrative accounts, and archaeological evidence over a wide range of geographic regions from the colonial period through the nineteenth century to construct the "story" of the mirror. Shrum presents a historical narrative where American white men culturally co-opted the mirror to display a "mastery over the world and in which they could see the inferiority of those they desired to subjugate" (p. 164).

A historian who specializes in public history, Shrum prudently begins her analysis of this quotidian article as one that was not always common in American daily life. Her opening chapters focus on the materiality of the mirror. The literal and figurative reflective device is explained in the context of its manufacture, first in Europe and then North America; influence and infiltration in the colonies through the transatlantic trade; and etymology as an object in an increasingly industrialized, yet faith-based society.

Following chapters focus on the mirror's role in American visual culture, particularly in the Victorian era when the veracity of human sight was challenged ideologically and technologically. To ground this core argument, Shrum compellingly uses the analytical trope of the "mirror self." Interweaving anecdotes about well- and lesser-known historical figures (e.g., Abraham Lincoln, Mary Rowlandson, and Yellow Dog), period ethnographies, Work Progress Administration Slave Narratives (1936–1938), and references from popular media, [End Page 386] the author showcases the looking glass as a means for mediated self-knowledge. Using seminal theories of white and male gaze, she historically contextualizes how African American, Native American, and white women and men's private and public identities were seen, unseen, misread, stereotyped, and bifurcated in response to their reflections. The instrument solidified racial and gender categories, while it continued to be associated with superstitions, rituals, and sacred use.

This interpretive thread ties the early chapters together as a dialectical foundation for the penultimate chapter five "Fashioning Whiteness." Buttressed by literary scholar Bridget Heneghan's concept of a "piecemeal wall" of whiteness "built from everyday things," Shrum traces a social hierarchy where white society and particularly white men internalized that they experienced mirrors in the most modern, practical, and correct fashion (p. 136). They did not use them as judges of their appearance, as personal adornments, or to "pass" in society. Shrum rounds out her thesis in her final chapter "Mirrors in Black and Red" and her epilogue. She deconstructs Native American, African American, and women's challenges to white male society's rhetoric of their "incorrect" mirror use by examining their rituals, traditional burial and healing practices, and visual satires in popular media.

Based on a wide range of well-referenced and diverse sources (literary, historical, and ethnographic), In the Looking Glass is a timely examination of identity formation in America. Shrum's shrewd interdisciplinary approach to it through the multiple cultural uses and roles of the mirror provides the rich, confounding, and variable narrative she aimed to provide. Yet, a corollary effect of this dense framework is that the dialogue between Shrum's material and visual culture perspectives becomes juxtaposition periodically and can be read as disjointed. The answers, among her multiple racial, gender, and class contexts, to the questions of how can obscure those of why the...


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pp. 385-388
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