City of Second Sight: Nineteenth-Century Boston and the Making of American Visual Culture

City of Second Sight: Nineteenth-Century Boston and the Making of American Visual Culture

City of Second Sight: Nineteenth-Century Boston and the Making of American Visual Culture

City of Second Sight: Nineteenth-Century Boston and the Making of American Visual Culture

Synopsis

In the decades before the U.S. Civil War, the city of Boston evolved from a dilapidated, haphazardly planned, and architecturally stagnant provincial town into a booming and visually impressive metropolis. In an effort to remake Boston into the "Athens of America," neighborhoods were leveled, streets straightened, and an ambitious set of architectural ordinances enacted. However, even as residents reveled in a vibrant new landscape of landmark buildings, art galleries, parks, and bustling streets, the social and sensory upheaval of city life also gave rise to a widespread fascination with the unseen. Focusing his analysis between 1820 and 1860, Justin T. Clark traces how the effort to impose moral and social order on the city also inspired many--from Transcendentalists to clairvoyants and amateur artists--to seek out more ethereal visions of the infinite and ideal beyond the gilded paintings and glimmering storefronts.
By elucidating the reciprocal influence of two of the most important developments in nineteenth-century American culture--the spectacular city and visionary culture--Clark demonstrates how the nineteenth-century city is not only the birthplace of modern spectacle but also a battleground for the freedom and autonomy of the spectator.

Excerpt

A merchant admires a statue in the Boston Athenæum art gallery, straining to hear the sounds a critic claims to have heard whispering from it. a Harvard student strolls the Charles, contemplating infinity in the passing current. a clairvoyant travels in spirit from a Boston drawing room to the streets of New York City, describing what she sees hundreds of miles away. a graduate of the Perkins School for the Blind boasts in his autobiography of spiritual visions that the sighted can only envy. the spirit of a dead New England boy contacts a Unitarian minister, demanding that the minister find an artist to paint the boy’s portrait. An audience at a theatrical “fairy spectacle” learns that invisible and benevolent little creatures float everywhere in their midst, but only the pure of heart may see them.

Beginning in the 1830s, the recently incorporated city of Boston, styled by its elite as the “Athens of America,” became known as something else: a hotbed of visions. Local artists, animal magnetists, clairvoyants, blind autobiographers, Spiritualists, and, most famously, Transcendentalists, developed a sudden urge to glimpse the ideal, the infinite, and the invisible in the world around them. But why then and there? Scholars have found a plausible but bewildering range of explanations for the explosion of visionary subcultures in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s: Protestant revivalism, commercialism, industrial capitalism, democratization, urbanization, social and geographical mobility, scientific discovery, and war, among others. Resisting the tyranny of the rational, visible, disenchanted world of the Enlightenment, and seeking a more au then tic, harmonious and liberating relationship with God, nature, and their fellow human beings, antebellum Americans forged a new relationship with the invisible, the ideal, and the infinite. Exploring a wide source base of sermons, popular periodicals, diaries, autobiographies of the blind, maps, city records, artwork, and novels, this study attempts to understand the contradictory impulse of the urban onlooker to both gaze upon and away from the city’s increasingly dazzling and disorienting environment.

If the objects, practices, and conceptions of looking collectively constitute what scholars call “visual culture,” we might similarly label their . . .

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