Remediating Reconstruction: Picturing Productive Property

Dominique Zino, English

Remediating Reconstruction: Picturing Productive Property

The project I am pursuing in the New Media Lab comes out of the broader argument I take up in my dissertation, where I describe the ways that American aesthetic theories adjusted to the many changes that followed the Civil War. The responsibility of publicizing aesthetic ideals fell, in part, on publishers who were producing illustrated viewbooks, which presented the American landscape as a site onto which new ideological values could be grafted. Earlier in the century, American wilderness scenes had been widely praised by artists and writers as uniquely “picturesque,” a term used broadly to describe varied and rugged terrain that suggested a “feeling of wholeness” and a “unity amid multiplicity.” As the social and industrial landscape of the nation changed during Reconstruction, ways of characterizing the physical landscape shifted as well.

I am turning to a digital platform –Omeka– in order to illustrate more fully than I can in my dissertation the ways in which the discourse of the picturesque in America is linked to perceptions of and struggles over property (both land and objects). At the same time, I also hope that building an Omeka database of images from the Reconstruction era will help me to conceptualize further an argument I only scratched the surface of in my dissertation. While doing research for the dissertation, I became interested in the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial as a site to investigate national displays of property, from raw materials to manufactured goods. These displays of the property/ies of nations at the Centennial and the narrative of unrivaled progress they supported become even more interesting when read against the ways state and federal governments were trying to define “productive property” in the years leading up to the Centennial.

In the long term, my aim is to present two collections of images on my Omeka site that depict two distinct relationships to property during American Reconstruction in order to juxtapose them and create a narrative around them:

  1. images from 1865-1870 that show new property owners working their land and
  2. images of exhibits from the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial that present property in the form of things.

In the short term (February-May 2014), I will focus on creating a shell for only the second collection. I am in the process of compiling engravings from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Register of the Centennial Exhibition as well as stereographs that present views of the Centennial fairgrounds, buildings, and displays.

Note: As my collection evolves, I would like to use it as a teaching tool in courses on 19th-century American literature and culture. I am keeping an eye out for platforms beyond Omeka that would allow students to interact with these images.