Thoughts On The Reading For This Week: Picturing The Past by Gregory Pfitzer

I have not finished the book yet, but these are some preliminary thoughts relating to the reading that is due this week in class:

In the essay “Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday: Comic art in the 1880’s” historian Peter Bailey uses cartoons as the primary focus of his research.  Moreover, fro Bailey, these images formulate the basis of his argument.  While he does use written documents, these are mostly employed as means of supporting the overall argument that he is trying to make.

The book, Picturing The Past Illustrated Histories and the American Imagination, 1840-1900 by Gregory Pfitzer is another example of a historian using images as the main focus of his argument.  The primary focus of Pfitzer’s research are the pictorial books that appear in the United States during the latter half of the twentieth century.  Much like Bailey’s work on the Sloper cartoons, Pfitzer is trying to argue that these books are a vital part of the historical record.  Viewing these images can tell a historian much about the intended audience the publishers of these materials were aiming for.  For example, Pfitzer suggests that many of these images were aimed at immigrants arriving from over seas, individuals whose minds are particularly vulnerable to the use of print material.  Many of these people could not read, yet they were still able, through the use of pictures, to participate in the nation building process. Similar to what Benedict Anderson argues in the book Imagined Communities, relating to newsprint and the creation of a print culture, the publishers of these pictorials were molding a culture of their own, inculcating these people with an American sense of nationalism.  Although there was a stress on literacy during this period, the inability to read was still fairly common.  The use of pictures enabled publishers to get their message to a wider audience.

As I stated above, I have not finished reading the book yet.  This does not mean that I can not formulate questions relating to its subject matter.  For example, one of the questions that I have, in relation to this book is what type of audience were the publishers trying to address?  I know that one of their intended targets were poor immigrants arriving from Europe, but were there others?  Moreover, one of the interesting things that comes out of Bailey’s work with Ally Sloper is that there are mixed messages within the cartoons.  For example, Ally Sloper’s images convey several meanings to its audience.  The poor and laboring classes interpreted the adventures depicted by the images in one way, while those of the middle and upper classes viewed the cartoons in a much different light.  What I am curious is, is the same thing going on in relation to the pictorials published in the United States?  What is exactly was the message that these individuals were trying to convey?

I am hoping that as I continue to read some of these questions will be addressed.  If they are not, well than it just means that I will need to do more digging.  In any event, the one definite that can be taken from Pfitzer’s book is the value of cartoons as a subject of historical inquiry.  A valuable tool long used by historians as a means of supporting the primary source documents they have employed in their research, they can also be valuable as a primary means of research and argument.

One of the things that I am looking forward to is when I begin my research for my Graduate Thesis and this class as certainly taught me that when I begin my research I may need to think out of the box a bit.  Using cartoons as a primary focus of research is most certainly, one of the ways to do so.

About civil1863

My name is Richard Smith and I am a Graduate Student at George Mason University. An aspiring historian, I am currently working on my Master's with the hopes that upon graduation I will be able to being my pursuit of a PhD. My areas of concentration lie in American History and are: The Early Republic, Jacksonian and antebellum America, early to mid-nineteenth century politics, territorial expansion and their disputes, the relationship between slavery and the Federal Government, republican ideology and its relation to the American Civil War. I am an avid fan of the American Civil War and have completed internships at both Gettysburg National Military Park and Fredericksburg and Spotsylvainia National Military Park.

3 responses to “Thoughts On The Reading For This Week: Picturing The Past by Gregory Pfitzer”

  1. meganbv says :

    The use of drawings to reach a broader audience is how many immigrants learned English in America or even learned about the stories of the Bible. With photos, the art of capturing moments in history began to change from simple drawings to more complex images. Connecting people from various backgrounds and nationalities created a new American image and sense of community.

  2. Drew Earnest says :

    It almost seemed to me that Pfitzer was making a case for the golden age of pictorial histories. He also argues that this golden age came to an end with the advent of photography. The ubiquity of photography undermined images as a historical source. It is also the case the the shift of professional historians towards text based evidence also accounts for this downfall.

    • civil1863 says :

      I agree. This becomes clearly evident in the chapters detailing the backlash against pictorial histories from the organizations of professional historians.

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