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The Portrait's Subject: Inventing Inner Life In The Nineteenth-Century United States

Sarah Blackwood
Associate Professor English, NYC

The Portrait's Subject: Inventing Inner Life In The Nineteenth-Century United States by Sarah Blackwood

What is the central theme of your book?

The Portrait’s Subject: Inventing Inner Life in the Nineteenth-Century United States is about how writers and artists used portraiture to imagine new ideas about selfhood between the invention of photography (1839) and the discovery of the X ray (1895). It’s a niche topic in some ways, but also conceptually relevant today (hello, selfies!). In the book, I found that many U.S. writers and artists across the century employed portraits to worry the beads of the modernizing self: in particular new ideas of selfhood as deep, inward, and disembodied (in contrast to earlier somatic conceptions of subjectivity and inner life). These new ideas about selfhood were also raced and gendered in important ways.

The book tells a story about how “selfhood” comes to be depicted in art and fiction as hidden and in need of revelation. It takes shape, I argue, across the century during which suddenly— really suddenly!— visual representations of human surfaces and likeness become super common and accessible. It feels natural today to consider your “self” as deep and full of secrets that it’s either desirable or necessary to bring to the surface. That we feel this way today is, I argue, at least partly produced by cultural and aesthetic fascination with portraiture.

In the book, I write about Lily Bart (the heroine of Edith Wharton’s 1905 novel The House of Mirth), and artists and writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Frederick Douglass, Thomas Eakins, William and Henry James, Harriet Jacobs, Hannah Crafts, S. Weir Mitchell, Frank J. Webb, and a bunch of semi-anonymous 19th century book critics and early psychologists. I’m interested in daguerreotypes and haunted portraits and X-ray imagery, art restoration, mastheads and camera obscures, stories about portraits, and the wild landscape of early psychology. I found that Black writers, in particular, were skeptical of the promise of the visual to “reveal” or penetrate into some hidden interior and wrote a lot of remarkably prescient visual theory in the nineteenth century (centering around the power of visual stereotypes to mischaracterize and harm Black people).

What inspired you to write this book?

No one moment but an accrual of experiences and insights. I worked for a time in my twenties at an art museum in Chicago (the no-longer-existing Terra Museum of American Art) and my job as rights and reproductions manager required me to spend a fair amount of time in the vault looking closely at the various stored works of art to ensure that our photography of them was color accurate so that when researchers asked to reproduce the image, we had good images to pass along. Shortly after that job, I enrolled in my PhD program in English at Northwestern University and read Nathanial Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables (1851) for the first time— a novel that has a haunted/haunting portrait at its center. After that I started noticing how very many stories about portraits popped up in literature between 1840 and the end of the century, and then I was off, wondering how and why that came to be.

Why is this book important in your field? What does it contribute to the current body of knowledge on its topic?

There are other scholars who work on portraiture and literature specifically, and literature and visual culture more generally. For a long time the scholarship on the latter often posed the two art forms as in opposition, or competition with one another; there was a theory of a “hierarchy of genres” that critics often used to argue that one form of art is somehow “better” or should have a higher status than another. The more recent work has abandoned this framework, and my work does as well. What I hope my book contributes to the field is a sense of the aesthetic as deeply integral to the production of really central ideas that shape everyone’s sense of living as a person in the world. I think this is more important today than ever, where many of the most popular explanations of daily life and experiences of selfhood are drawn from popular science and behavioral economics. I personally find these kinds of explanations (think Malcolm Gladwell) often cynical and mostly shallow; what I’ve found in the course of my research is that artists and writers shape the world and what we come to experience as “common sense” more than people usually realize.

Were students involved in any research related to your book?

The students in my spring 2018 seminar LIT 342 SELFIES: Selfhood, Literature, and the Visual were spectacular. I taught this seminar the last semester before my big push to finish revisions on the manuscript. They helped me see the complexities that all the various forms of visual self-representation engender in contemporary culture. This course runs the gamut—in it students read Henry James and Edith Wharton, as well as a ton of 1840s newspaper descriptions of the invention of photography, but also produce their own Andy Warhol-esque screen tests, and read postmodern fiction like Alexandra Kleeman’s You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine and visual theory like Walter Benjamin’s "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" and Jean Baudrillard’s "Simulacra and Simulation." One mind-blowing moment in class was when they described how, when they were in high school, girls used Facebook groups to “claim” a prom dress and ensure nobody else buys the same one. They also discussed and analyzed with great intellectual insight how they interact with their own selfies: some of them said they take them a lot but never share them publicly, some discussed the racist construction of photographic technology itself in its inability to capture dark skinned faces in rich detail, and more. Throughout, the students were on pointexploring how the visual impacts and is impacted by gender and race in particular.

Can you share a special moment when writing this book?

I worked a lot in archives and with primary sources in writing this book. A few particularly special moments were discovering a visually interesting masthead illustration that Frederick Douglass used for his anti-slavery newspaper, The North Star, for a few short months in the 1850s. No scholar had really ever discussed what the significance of the image might have been— it depicts an image of a black man running toward the North Star, the iconography of the figure clearly in dialogue with (and critiquing) the stereotyped image of the runaway slave that circulated in the era. I found it the old-fashioned research way: scrolling endlessly through micofiche! Another moment came when I got a chance to see a remarkable watercolor by the troubling nineteenth-century artist Thomas Eakins in person. The watercolor is at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, but is rarely shown because it’s fragile. It depicts a Black male figure at the center of a hunting scene holding a gun nearly pointed at the viewer. It’s an amazing postbellum cultural document.

What is the one thing you hope readers take away from your book?

I’ll cheat and say two things: 1) that the nineteenth century was a wild time and 2) that art and fiction have powerfully shaped our sense of what selfhood even is— how it’s shaped, how its experienced, its affordances and its limits.

What other books have you had published?

I’m editor of a new book series published by NYU Press. The series stems from the web magazine of cultural criticism that I co-founded and co-edit, Avidly. The book series is titled Avidly Reads and consists of short books about how culture makes us feel. So far we’ve published volumes on: Theory, Making Out, and Board Games. Forthcoming are books about Boyfriends and Traveling While Black.
I also wrote the Introduction to a new Penguin Classics edition of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence (1920).

The book tells a story about how “selfhood” comes to be depicted in art and fiction as hidden and in need of revelation.

Fun Facts

When did you join Dyson College?

2009— so this year marks a decade at Pace for me!

What motivates you as a teacher?

I often teach excerpts from C.L.R. James Mariners, Renegades and Castaways (1953)— a book about Moby-Dick written by a Trinidadian socialist, historian, and journalist. He wrote the book while in detention on Ellis Island for having overstayed his visa. In it, there’s a small passage where he asks “What are the conditions of our survival?” In all my classes I try to hold space for my students to consider this searching question. So many aspects of life in the U.S. seem to be devolving— from the highest political cultures to my students’ daily lives: balancing full time work with a full course load, often food insecure and/or deeply involved in carework at home, and often taught by adjunct instructors who are, like all adjunct instructors nationwide, not compensated fairly. College today is not like it was when I went— we are all overworked, undersupported by any kind of social safety net, and mentally strung out! But through all of this, my students are the most insightful, the most creative and passionate. And I find when I hold open a space for them to understand that, for example, reading Moby-Dick is not a check-the-boxes credentialing exercise in polishing their social capital but rather an opportunity for them to consider: how can I best, not only survive, but thrive— well, the classroom gets interesting then!

What do you do in your spare time; to relax/unwind?

Not enough! Lol. I have two small kids and an absolute compulsion to write, so time to relax/unwind is hard to find. I scroll the internet way too much (radical honesty!), and watch a ton of bad-great television (my recent favorite is the Netflix documentary CHEER, about competitive cheerleading, a legitimately searching work of art!). In the summer, I garden in our small Brooklyn backyard plot and love to go to Riis Beach. Also, I maintain a time-demanding schedule of group texting and gossiping with my friends, especially my fellow academic lady friends.

What are you reading right now?

I’ve just finished Lydia Davis’s The End of the Story (1995) which narrates of the aftermath of a (romantic) break-up— but more expansively, is an excellent and deeply strange novel that tracks the tiniest shifts in thinking and feeling that accompany the slow coming to terms with the fact that a person you used to think was a part of you, no longer is. Next up is Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals (2019), which is a genre-bending book about the lives of the young black women in the early twentieth-century.