- Chromographia: American Literature and the Modernization of Color by Nicholas Gaskill
Accounts of literary modernism and the experience of modernity more broadly typically emphasize the Poundian directive to “Make it new” in response to the [End Page 325] rapid technological, global, and cultural changes of the turn of the twentieth century. Yet as Nicholas Gaskill points out in Chromographia: American Literature and the Modernization of Color, our understanding of these disruptive changes is incomplete if we do not take into account the importance of color as “a sign of modernity” (37). Bright colors, particularly those made possible through the development of aniline dyes in the latter half of the nineteenth century, “transformed the visual landscape and remade the very meanings and materials of color” (14). These shifts provoked both anxiety and excitement in many quarters, as Gaskill demonstrates.
Gaskill uses the term “chromographia” to describe “inscriptions of color in writing,” and the book focuses primarily on literature as a form that reflects both “the social worlds within which chromatic technologies emerged and the ideas about perception, language, and the sensory environment that accompanied their proliferation” (7). It is a commonplace to note the ways that the explosion of mass culture around the turn of the twentieth century played out in literary responses, and such approaches have sometimes offered binary distinctions between so-called high and low cultures. Gaskill wisely avoids these simplifications while nevertheless attending to the kinds of anxieties the explosion of color stoked in some quarters. He provides a rich history of “color education” programs, like those started by Milton Bradley and Louis Prang in the nineteenth century, which were initially intended to train designers to make use of the new industrially produced dyes but were quickly expanded for use in various scientific and pseudoscientific inquiries, particularly in the fields of psychology and anthropology.
As Gaskill convincingly demonstrates in the third chapter, turn-of-the-twentieth-century children’s books made much of the new color technologies, stoking the public’s taste for bright colors and lining the publishers’ and authors’ pockets. Even as they capitalized on those interests, publishers sought “to instruct readers young and old in how to see the saturated hues decorating the page, to teach them how to balance the thrill of color with the restrained postures of white civilization” (119). Gaskill’s sensitive close readings of these images, many of which are reproduced in the study, some in full-color plates, show how these books worked to teach readers how to respond to new color technologies. While the bright colors of illustrations whetted readers’ appetites, Gaskill argues, the language on the page offered lessons on how to manage those appetites.
That double structure—learning to take pleasure in color while also learning to manage that appetite—is central to modernity, according to Gaskill. In chapters covering Hamlin Garland and “local color” writing, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s aesthetics, Stephen Crane’s “lurid realism” and Gertrude Stein’s early [End Page 326] work, and the Harlem Renaissance’s reframing of colorism, Gaskill charts the ways that pleasure and power inhere in attitudes toward color. In his chapter on Garland, Gaskill tracks the shift from the original meaning of local color—a term designating “the painterly relation between image and object”—to “a term for the literary relation between writing and place” (43). Because of the ways Garland sought to link location and color (taking the term “local color” both empirically and literally), his writing offers an index to the ways local colorists saw color as central to their ability to represent “particular perspectives and the cultural forces that dimmed them, either through backbreaking labor or through the cultural homogenization bred by economic centralization” (75). From his discussion of Garland, Gaskill turns to Gilman’s writing, reading the protagonist of “The Yellow Wall-Paper” as “increasingly vivid and unhinged descriptions of color experience” through contemporaneous attitudes connecting color perception to race and sex (84). In these chapters, as in the chapter on children’s literature...