Modernity, Gender, and the Panorama in Early Republican Literature

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In his novel The Pioneers; or, The Sources of the Susquehanna (1823), James Fenimore Cooper introduces his heroic frontiersman Natty Bumppo to American literature. Bumppo voices a critical perspective on the increasing extent and complexity of American social organization and infrastructure. He attacks virtually all of the modern improvements—from net fishing to civil law—that his antagonist, Marmaduke Temple, introduces to the western New York settlement of Templeton. According to Bumppo, these innovations are either wasteful or invasions of individual freedom and he longs for a past, mythic wilderness untouched by human technology and commercial markets. Bumppo presents his alternative perspective in terms of the traditional landscape painting, which constructs an idealized view of rural scenery around a single vanishing point for a fixed, external viewer. Using this visual framework, Bumppo instructs Oliver Edwards, who will inherit Temple’s land, to contemplate his future property as though it is a priceless picture in an art gallery. Bumppo is an unlikely tutor for landscape vision because, as he repeatedly asserts, he has no formal education. But Cooper uses Bumppo’s improbable literacy in the conventions of landscape art to argue that this vision constitutes a natural, intuitive response to American territory.1

Five years later, in his farce A Trip to Niagara, Cooper’s friend the artist William Dunlap sets Bumppo up for visual reeducation.2 In place of the idealized, static landscapes cherished by hereditary aristocrats like Edwards and natural aristocrats like Bumppo, the play features a moving panorama of a steamboat journey up the Hudson River. Where traditional landscape paintings demand a cultivated sensibility to appreciate their aesthetic construction, the panorama’s multiperspectival and mechanical form of mimetic [End Page 425] representation requires only the basic capacity to observe the passing scenes of everyday life. Dunlap’s heroine, an English tourist named Amelia Wentworth, undertakes Bumppo’s reeducation from antimodern critic to sponsor of modern mobility and its immersive visual technologies. Bumppo’s conversion demonstrates that novel, kinesthetic ways of seeing, filtered through the reception of stationary and moving panoramas, play a critical role in the advent of modernity in the United States.3 The panorama’s multiperspectival and mobile vision is progressively gendered so that modernity becomes a distinctively female experience.

Cooper and Dunlap’s two versions of Natty Bumppo exemplify contending efforts to script the cultural meaning of the panorama in early republican literature. Yet the limited scholarly literature on panoramas in the United States tends to treat them only as sources on which textual descriptions and paintings are based.4 Landscape visions of rural scenery dominate this critical discussion, despite the fact that the earliest stationary panoramas feature cities. As a result of this focus on Americans’ relationship to territory in the panorama, scholars have assumed that panoramas do not have a significant presence until the mid-nineteenth century when they spur interest in westward expansion.5 This essay is the first to offer an alternative account of stationary and moving panoramas’ cultural repercussions in the early United States.6 Using a range of evidence, from newspapers, literary accounts, and theatrical productions to a rare extant schoolgirl panorama (Miniature Panorama), I show that panoramas prompt responses encompassing both anxieties about modern forms of kinesthetic vision and social mobility and comforting views of historical events. The fact that contemporaries tout the panorama as an ideal object for female viewers casts in relief how the form particularly seems to resolve tensions between white men’s increasing mobility and white women’s place in the home. Female artists themselves, however, note the limits of the freedom they receive in these opportunities for virtual travel. Clearly, a sustained examination of the panoramic form and its reception permits new insights into nineteenth-century modes of reckoning with social and infrastructural change.

To trace the panorama’s meaning in the early Republic, this study reconstructs and analyzes a set of interconnected responses to stationary and moving panoramas, emanating primarily from New York. These responses begin with the artist Edward Savage’s initial efforts to market the stationary [End Page 426] panorama to American audiences in Boston and New York. Benjamin Silliman, an early mentor to James Fenimore Cooper, sees his first panoramas in New York and then in London. In one of the earliest accounts of American panorama reception, Silliman uses the framing conventions of traditional landscape art to assert control over its multiperspectival form of representation. His determination to view the panorama from a fixed point, rather than to walk around and immerse himself in the experience, contrasts with the more kinesthetic experience of his contemporary the artist Charles Robert Leslie. Following Silliman’s mode of panorama viewing, Cooper’s The Pioneers advocates for the return of traditional landscape art and a landowning aristocracy. The novel briefly adopts the historical panorama, however, and uses an immersive experience of the past to produce a comforting resolution between Loyalist and Patriot political sympathies. Dunlap’s play, in turn, replaces Cooper’s heroic, male connoisseur of the traditional, fixed and framed landscape with a female heroine, Amelia, who takes delight in the modernizing American scene. Amelia’s embrace of mechanized travel, moving panoramas, and kinesthetic vision also plays out in a miniature, moving panorama,Scenes from a Seminary for Young Ladies (c. 1810–20). Like Cooper and Dunlap’s writings, Scenes from a Seminary links the panorama format to the development of American infrastructure by and for women. This vernacular panorama disrupts the assumption that technological progress aligns with a masculine vision of America. Instead, it supports Dunlap’s claim that the moving panorama’s mobile and distracted mode of visual experience is particularly appropriate for entertaining and containing the modern American women.


DOI: 10.1353/eal.2013.0025