‘Expanding the limits of what can be imagined’: Multiple Photographies as Catalysts of Literary Perception

‘Expanding the limits of what can be imagined’: Multiple Photographies as Catalysts of... In 1905, the American realist writer William Dean Howells wrote in his travel book on Britain, the prophetically titled London Films, that he intended to capture his experiences by ‘carr[ying] a mental Kodak with him’ (118) that would ‘take’ images of Britain for his compatriots to re-imagine from across the Atlantic (118). Believing that he was a servant and innovator of a new progressive realism that fused interior and exterior experience, Howells unwittingly ended up straying perilously close to the birth of Modernism and its concern with the subjectivity of perception through his alignment of a supposedly indexical vision with the new ‘instant photography’. Howells’s ambiguous travelogue is an emblematic example of Owen Clayton’s study of the manifestations of multiple ‘photographies’ in literary works from 1850 to 1915. Clayton sets out to map literary texts onto a flexible continuum of photographic innovation that cannot be neatly divided into a succession of pure forms. Instead, he emphasizes the way in which these technologies, including daguerreotypes, ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ collodion, gelatin prints and early film itself, overlapped both in practice and in intellectual consciousness. He argues that for certain writers cogent with developments in visual technology, these material forms came to symbolize different ways of perceiving the world that map onto a dialogue about literary representation, and about the definition of the self. Clayton’s choice of writers benefits from being transatlantic and covering fictional and non-fictional prose. It is chiefly masculine, featuring Henry Mayhew, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Dean Howells and Jack London, although he does include one female writer, Amy Levy, noting awkwardly that not many women were photographers in this period. He also, perhaps with more justification, eschews poetry, explaining that it has an entirely different relationship with photography. Indeed, the book is as its best in exploring the connection between ‘photographies’ and concepts of literary realism in prose writing, posing a fascinating link between manifestations of materiality and textuality in this ‘transitional’ period. Clayton initially sets out an alternative fluid timeline of photographic development, whereby visual technologies overlapped and competed with each other, complicating cultural understandings of perception. He contrasts this with previous periodizations of photographic media that tended to artificially separate technologies which in fact were contemporaneous and mutually influential. Clayton claims that the nineteenth century saw a rapid and constant redrawing of visual boundaries that produced ideological complexities that were less prominent in the more visually stable twentieth century. In terms of periodization, his chief innovation is to blend discussion of the literary representation of photographic development into literature reflecting the advent of film, which might hitherto have been considered distinctive academic concerns. Indeed, Clayton is emphatic in his desire to connect pre-Modernists with both photographic and filmic media. Proceeding through a selection of visual transition points, Clayton begins with an analysis of engraved illustrations in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1850–1862). He emphasizes that engravings of the ‘London Poor’ in Mayhew’s book were based on a series of daguerreotypes that have since been lost, thus producing a hybrid form whose fidelity to the originals can no longer be ascertained. Selecting a series of significant illustrations, Clayton discerns in Mayhew’s orchestration of the images a simultaneous commitment to scientific representation of truth, individual specificity and a form of ‘noble picturesque’ (43), which aestheticized the long-suffering of the poor and their ability to withstand appalling conditions. Interestingly, Clayton ends this chapter by analysing Mayhew’s changing view of photography, in which he came to see its more popular collodion form as a cheapening of the value of the daguerreotype, horrifyingly, appropriated by the poor themselves. Clayton’s research into the ever-changing photographic views of his chosen writers, the way in which they fall in and out of love with different ‘photographies’ and their literary potentials, is one of the most appealing areas of the book, setting the subjects into temporal motion. The third chapter compares the visual and textual disintegration of male identity in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) with the possible breakdown of female identity presented in Amy Levy’s The Romance of a Shop (1888). Again, Clayton’s thorough research fascinatingly reveals Stevenson’s deep interest in developments of visual technology such as Eadweard Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope, as well as the hallucinatory effects of composite photography. He outlines how this is manifested in the flickering of multiple identities in the novel as well as in Stevenson’s dizzyingly composite presentation of reality itself. Clayton compares this with Amy Levy’s novel of four sisters running a photography shop, and posits the idea of photography as a ‘feminist utopia’ of new identities (82), although this is less borne out in the text’s representation of reality than in Clayton’s reading of the protagonists’ unruly desires. This leads him to argue that in Levy’s novel, not only an expansion, but a potential breakdown of female identity results from women’s entry into the workplace. This section is perhaps the least interesting in the book as it moves away from the relationship between visual mediums and textual representation, although it does provide a useful dovetail with Stevenson’s ideas on male identity. Clayton then turns to several works by the relatively forgotten late nineteenth-century writer, William Dean Howells, known in his time as the Dean of American Letters. Clayton opens up a fascinating window into a lifetime of negotiating the strained relation between realism and photography in writing. Twain called Howells’ writing ‘photographs with feeling in them’ (101), a suggestive combination that resonates with Howells’ somewhat tortured attempt to make realism operate in conjunction with subjective perception, and in dialogue with new ‘instant’ photographic technologies. In a particularly relevant segment, Clayton outlines how, in Howells’ novels A Modern Instance (1881) and The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), the writer stages a contrast between photography as depicting the nineteenth-century American idea of ‘character’ borne out in hard work, and its replacement with ‘the cult of personality’ in which photographic subjects were bestowed with an empty glamour independent of their actions (103). This new attitude to photography allowed superficial ‘snapshots’ to be unduly romanticized and exchanged in a way that Howells associated with moral laxity in both personal relations and politics, leading to a state in which ‘the country is increasingly run by talented, charming and amoral crooks’ (111). I found the discussion of Howells’ London Films, which ends this chapter, to be the most intriguing in the book. Clayton argues that writing this impressionistic travelogue caused Howells to experience a ‘technologically mediated crisis of perception’ (125) through his attempt to produce a superior realist form that, like the ‘instant’ photograph, admitted of the reality of subjective perception. Yet this endeavour to realize William James’ theories of ‘radical empiricism’ (124) in literary form ended up pushing Howells’ precious realism to the brink of collapse, or into Modernism itself. In fact, a passage of London Films quoted by Clayton, in which Howells recalls ‘the swelling and towering omnibuses, the huge trucks and wagons and carriages [which] give the effect of a single monstrous organism, which writhes swiftly along the channel where it had run in the figure of a flood’ (119) seems to prefigure Virginia Woolf’s writing on London street life. Clayton rightly calls our attention to these pre-Modernists who represent a neglected bridge between modes of writing that seem incompatible, implicitly suggesting that technology was the catalyst in this fundamental change in literary perception. The book’s final subject is Jack London, whose spectacular fiction, Clayton suggests, was heavily influenced by early film. By divorcing early film from its long literary attachment to Modernism, Clayton claims that London was an exponent of an earlier ‘literature of attractions’ based around ‘spectacle as an organising principle’ (133), thus resembling the ‘cinema of attractions’ commonly diagnosed in pre-narrative cinema (132). Clayton develops this argument in line with three of London’s novels of varied genres – slum narrative, boxing novel and pastoral fantasy. He explains how the narrative of each is conditioned by London’s ‘showman’ style (136), whereby sequences of spectacular images are designed to dazzle and overwhelm the reader. Particularly of interest is a section where he identifies influences of Georges Méliès’ classic film, A Trip to the Moon (1902), in London’s The Valley of the Moon (1914). Clayton rounds up with an afterword that includes a rather short survey of twentieth-century and neo-Victorian representations of early photography, although his examples are well chosen. Within this discussion of post-Victorian representations, he makes the electrifying observation that photography ‘expands the limits of what can be imagined’ (169) in fiction, a statement that, in my view, sums up the ethos of the book as a whole. Clayton reveals how it was the transitional points of visual technology, the overlaps and the crossroads in styles of perception, which expanded what could be imagined in literature, and contributed to the negotiation of new literary modes. This book is a welcome and important contribution to the growing field analysing the relation between photography and literature in the nineteenth century, even more so as it addresses authors whose work has not been previously regarded according to this paradigm, as well as re-igniting interest in some neglected works.1 It differs from some previous studies which regard photography as the paragon of indexical realism such as Nancy Armstrong’s Fiction in the Age of Photography (1999), by considering photography as an inherently transitional and even subversive literary medium, thus having more in common with Daniel A. Novak’s 2008 work on the grotesque potentials of the composite body implied by realism and photography. Surprisingly, Clayton’s book does not specifically address theories of intermediality, although this could be said to be the book’s central mode of analysis. It is also somewhat dismissive of female writers’ engagement with early photography. Daniel Novak, for example, devotes a whole section of his text to George Eliot, although the subjects chosen by Clayton all prove to have interesting relations to visual technology. Clayton’s monograph both transcends the chronological boundaries of Victorian Studies and makes a deliberate attempt to break down the borders of medium specificity that isolate the cultural analysis of photography and film as separate academic fields. By connecting photographic to filmic literature, the book emphasizes the continuous ideological and perceptional flow between literature and visual technology that was sparked in the 1830s and crossed into the twentieth century. In doing so, it consciously, though cautiously, contributes to the development of a field of ‘Victorian Modernism’ (175). Footnotes 1 Major texts in this field include Nancy Armstrong’s Fiction in the Age of Photography: The Legacy of British Realism (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1999); Jennifer Green-Lewis’s Framing the Victorians: Photography and the Culture of Realism (Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 1996); Helen Groth’s Victorian Photography and Literary Nostalgia (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2003); Daniel A. Novak’s Realism, Photography and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) and Lindsay Smith’s Victorian Photography, Painting and Poetry: The Enigma of Visibility in Ruskin, Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1995). © 2018 Leeds Trinity University This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices) http://www.deepdyve.com/assets/images/DeepDyve-Logo-lg.png Journal of Victorian Culture Oxford University Press

‘Expanding the limits of what can be imagined’: Multiple Photographies as Catalysts of Literary Perception

Journal of Victorian Culture , Volume Advance Article – Apr 18, 2018

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Publisher
Leeds Trinity University
Copyright
© 2018 Leeds Trinity University
ISSN
1355-5502
eISSN
1750-0133
D.O.I.
10.1093/jvcult/vcy026
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Abstract

In 1905, the American realist writer William Dean Howells wrote in his travel book on Britain, the prophetically titled London Films, that he intended to capture his experiences by ‘carr[ying] a mental Kodak with him’ (118) that would ‘take’ images of Britain for his compatriots to re-imagine from across the Atlantic (118). Believing that he was a servant and innovator of a new progressive realism that fused interior and exterior experience, Howells unwittingly ended up straying perilously close to the birth of Modernism and its concern with the subjectivity of perception through his alignment of a supposedly indexical vision with the new ‘instant photography’. Howells’s ambiguous travelogue is an emblematic example of Owen Clayton’s study of the manifestations of multiple ‘photographies’ in literary works from 1850 to 1915. Clayton sets out to map literary texts onto a flexible continuum of photographic innovation that cannot be neatly divided into a succession of pure forms. Instead, he emphasizes the way in which these technologies, including daguerreotypes, ‘wet’ and ‘dry’ collodion, gelatin prints and early film itself, overlapped both in practice and in intellectual consciousness. He argues that for certain writers cogent with developments in visual technology, these material forms came to symbolize different ways of perceiving the world that map onto a dialogue about literary representation, and about the definition of the self. Clayton’s choice of writers benefits from being transatlantic and covering fictional and non-fictional prose. It is chiefly masculine, featuring Henry Mayhew, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Dean Howells and Jack London, although he does include one female writer, Amy Levy, noting awkwardly that not many women were photographers in this period. He also, perhaps with more justification, eschews poetry, explaining that it has an entirely different relationship with photography. Indeed, the book is as its best in exploring the connection between ‘photographies’ and concepts of literary realism in prose writing, posing a fascinating link between manifestations of materiality and textuality in this ‘transitional’ period. Clayton initially sets out an alternative fluid timeline of photographic development, whereby visual technologies overlapped and competed with each other, complicating cultural understandings of perception. He contrasts this with previous periodizations of photographic media that tended to artificially separate technologies which in fact were contemporaneous and mutually influential. Clayton claims that the nineteenth century saw a rapid and constant redrawing of visual boundaries that produced ideological complexities that were less prominent in the more visually stable twentieth century. In terms of periodization, his chief innovation is to blend discussion of the literary representation of photographic development into literature reflecting the advent of film, which might hitherto have been considered distinctive academic concerns. Indeed, Clayton is emphatic in his desire to connect pre-Modernists with both photographic and filmic media. Proceeding through a selection of visual transition points, Clayton begins with an analysis of engraved illustrations in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor (1850–1862). He emphasizes that engravings of the ‘London Poor’ in Mayhew’s book were based on a series of daguerreotypes that have since been lost, thus producing a hybrid form whose fidelity to the originals can no longer be ascertained. Selecting a series of significant illustrations, Clayton discerns in Mayhew’s orchestration of the images a simultaneous commitment to scientific representation of truth, individual specificity and a form of ‘noble picturesque’ (43), which aestheticized the long-suffering of the poor and their ability to withstand appalling conditions. Interestingly, Clayton ends this chapter by analysing Mayhew’s changing view of photography, in which he came to see its more popular collodion form as a cheapening of the value of the daguerreotype, horrifyingly, appropriated by the poor themselves. Clayton’s research into the ever-changing photographic views of his chosen writers, the way in which they fall in and out of love with different ‘photographies’ and their literary potentials, is one of the most appealing areas of the book, setting the subjects into temporal motion. The third chapter compares the visual and textual disintegration of male identity in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) with the possible breakdown of female identity presented in Amy Levy’s The Romance of a Shop (1888). Again, Clayton’s thorough research fascinatingly reveals Stevenson’s deep interest in developments of visual technology such as Eadweard Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope, as well as the hallucinatory effects of composite photography. He outlines how this is manifested in the flickering of multiple identities in the novel as well as in Stevenson’s dizzyingly composite presentation of reality itself. Clayton compares this with Amy Levy’s novel of four sisters running a photography shop, and posits the idea of photography as a ‘feminist utopia’ of new identities (82), although this is less borne out in the text’s representation of reality than in Clayton’s reading of the protagonists’ unruly desires. This leads him to argue that in Levy’s novel, not only an expansion, but a potential breakdown of female identity results from women’s entry into the workplace. This section is perhaps the least interesting in the book as it moves away from the relationship between visual mediums and textual representation, although it does provide a useful dovetail with Stevenson’s ideas on male identity. Clayton then turns to several works by the relatively forgotten late nineteenth-century writer, William Dean Howells, known in his time as the Dean of American Letters. Clayton opens up a fascinating window into a lifetime of negotiating the strained relation between realism and photography in writing. Twain called Howells’ writing ‘photographs with feeling in them’ (101), a suggestive combination that resonates with Howells’ somewhat tortured attempt to make realism operate in conjunction with subjective perception, and in dialogue with new ‘instant’ photographic technologies. In a particularly relevant segment, Clayton outlines how, in Howells’ novels A Modern Instance (1881) and The Rise of Silas Lapham (1885), the writer stages a contrast between photography as depicting the nineteenth-century American idea of ‘character’ borne out in hard work, and its replacement with ‘the cult of personality’ in which photographic subjects were bestowed with an empty glamour independent of their actions (103). This new attitude to photography allowed superficial ‘snapshots’ to be unduly romanticized and exchanged in a way that Howells associated with moral laxity in both personal relations and politics, leading to a state in which ‘the country is increasingly run by talented, charming and amoral crooks’ (111). I found the discussion of Howells’ London Films, which ends this chapter, to be the most intriguing in the book. Clayton argues that writing this impressionistic travelogue caused Howells to experience a ‘technologically mediated crisis of perception’ (125) through his attempt to produce a superior realist form that, like the ‘instant’ photograph, admitted of the reality of subjective perception. Yet this endeavour to realize William James’ theories of ‘radical empiricism’ (124) in literary form ended up pushing Howells’ precious realism to the brink of collapse, or into Modernism itself. In fact, a passage of London Films quoted by Clayton, in which Howells recalls ‘the swelling and towering omnibuses, the huge trucks and wagons and carriages [which] give the effect of a single monstrous organism, which writhes swiftly along the channel where it had run in the figure of a flood’ (119) seems to prefigure Virginia Woolf’s writing on London street life. Clayton rightly calls our attention to these pre-Modernists who represent a neglected bridge between modes of writing that seem incompatible, implicitly suggesting that technology was the catalyst in this fundamental change in literary perception. The book’s final subject is Jack London, whose spectacular fiction, Clayton suggests, was heavily influenced by early film. By divorcing early film from its long literary attachment to Modernism, Clayton claims that London was an exponent of an earlier ‘literature of attractions’ based around ‘spectacle as an organising principle’ (133), thus resembling the ‘cinema of attractions’ commonly diagnosed in pre-narrative cinema (132). Clayton develops this argument in line with three of London’s novels of varied genres – slum narrative, boxing novel and pastoral fantasy. He explains how the narrative of each is conditioned by London’s ‘showman’ style (136), whereby sequences of spectacular images are designed to dazzle and overwhelm the reader. Particularly of interest is a section where he identifies influences of Georges Méliès’ classic film, A Trip to the Moon (1902), in London’s The Valley of the Moon (1914). Clayton rounds up with an afterword that includes a rather short survey of twentieth-century and neo-Victorian representations of early photography, although his examples are well chosen. Within this discussion of post-Victorian representations, he makes the electrifying observation that photography ‘expands the limits of what can be imagined’ (169) in fiction, a statement that, in my view, sums up the ethos of the book as a whole. Clayton reveals how it was the transitional points of visual technology, the overlaps and the crossroads in styles of perception, which expanded what could be imagined in literature, and contributed to the negotiation of new literary modes. This book is a welcome and important contribution to the growing field analysing the relation between photography and literature in the nineteenth century, even more so as it addresses authors whose work has not been previously regarded according to this paradigm, as well as re-igniting interest in some neglected works.1 It differs from some previous studies which regard photography as the paragon of indexical realism such as Nancy Armstrong’s Fiction in the Age of Photography (1999), by considering photography as an inherently transitional and even subversive literary medium, thus having more in common with Daniel A. Novak’s 2008 work on the grotesque potentials of the composite body implied by realism and photography. Surprisingly, Clayton’s book does not specifically address theories of intermediality, although this could be said to be the book’s central mode of analysis. It is also somewhat dismissive of female writers’ engagement with early photography. Daniel Novak, for example, devotes a whole section of his text to George Eliot, although the subjects chosen by Clayton all prove to have interesting relations to visual technology. Clayton’s monograph both transcends the chronological boundaries of Victorian Studies and makes a deliberate attempt to break down the borders of medium specificity that isolate the cultural analysis of photography and film as separate academic fields. By connecting photographic to filmic literature, the book emphasizes the continuous ideological and perceptional flow between literature and visual technology that was sparked in the 1830s and crossed into the twentieth century. In doing so, it consciously, though cautiously, contributes to the development of a field of ‘Victorian Modernism’ (175). Footnotes 1 Major texts in this field include Nancy Armstrong’s Fiction in the Age of Photography: The Legacy of British Realism (Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard University Press, 1999); Jennifer Green-Lewis’s Framing the Victorians: Photography and the Culture of Realism (Ithaca, NY and London: Cornell University Press, 1996); Helen Groth’s Victorian Photography and Literary Nostalgia (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2003); Daniel A. Novak’s Realism, Photography and Nineteenth-Century Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) and Lindsay Smith’s Victorian Photography, Painting and Poetry: The Enigma of Visibility in Ruskin, Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1995). © 2018 Leeds Trinity University This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)

Journal

Journal of Victorian CultureOxford University Press

Published: Apr 18, 2018

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