In Immersive Words, Michelle Jarenski demonstrates that the contemporary challenge that visual images and virtual environments in cinema and photography, on the web, and in video games pose to reading and writing are not uniquely contemporary developments but equally exercised the imaginations, anxieties, and works of nineteenth-century authors.
The middle of the nineteenth century witnessed the emergence of numerous visual technologies and techniques: the daguerreotype, immersive exhibition spaces such as cycloramas and panoramas, mechanized tourism, and large-scale exhibitions and spectacles such as the World’s Fair. In closely argued chapters devoted to these four visual forms, Jarenski demonstrates that the popularity of these novelties catalyzed a shift by authors of the period beyond narratives that merely described images to ones that invoked aesthetic experiences.
Jarenski describes how Herman Melville adapts the aesthetic of the daguerreotype through his use of dramatic point-of-view and unexpected shifts that disorient readers. Frederick Douglass is shown to appropriate a panoramic aesthetic that severs spatial and temporal narratives from standard expectations. Jarenski traces how Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun found success as a travel guide to Rome, though intended as a work of serious fiction. Finally, Sarah Orne Jewett is shown to simulate the interactivity of the World Columbian Exposition to promote racialized and gendered forms of aesthetic communication. These techniques and strategies drawn from visual forms blur the just-so boundary critics and theorists have traditionally drawn between text and image.
In the mid-nineteenth century, the national identity of the United States remained fluid and hinged upon matters of gender, sexuality, and, crucially, race. Authors both reflected that evolving identity and contributed to its ongoing evolution. In demonstrating how the aesthetic and visual technologies of the nineteenth century changed the fundamental aesthetics of American literature, the importance of Immersive Words goes far beyond literary criticism.