Blog Post #2: Connecting Visual and Literary Observations

February 22nd, 2011



Through his journal entries in, Complete Prose Works, Walt Whitman attempts to capture the memories of a historic moment through his writings; through his imagery, his literary techniques etc.  He describes in intimate details his time spent as a war nurse during the Civil War.  In correlation to the article, Albums of War: On Reading Civil War Photographs by Alan Trachtenberg, Whitman’s entries give off a very interesting debate tacking actual visual observation (i.e. a photograph, a stereograph) against observations through literary works – observations that one must create internally through their mind and imagination.  Whitman used his diary as a way to express his true and very personal views on the Civil War.  He was a supporter of the Union, but altogether believed the war itself was something that was inevitable.  He laughed at the naivety of the citizens – especially in the North – for they believed this infamous war would last merely months.  Whitman uses colorful metaphors and spiteful imagery to enhance the experience and assessments he racked up during this time.  In Trachtenberg’s article he discusses the significance of the photographic works like those of shutterbugs Mathew B. Brady, Alexander Gardner, and George P. Barnard.  Trachtenberg discusses the impact each picture had in truly expressing the atmosphere of the Civil War.  And while Brady seemed to be more of a “face” to Civil War photography than the true backbone and essence, Barnard and Gardner used their works in a way to show the raw emotions and feel of the bloodied battlefields.  These images were created in an attempt to influence and shape history; they were a way to elongate such a historical moment into the precursor of generations to come.  In the same way, that is what Whitman was trying to do as well – but instead of using actual visual representation to be observed – he wanted his audience to be able to envision and interpret the actuality of the scenes he witnessed however they wanted to see it.  He even goes as far as to set up the entire surroundings of his subject – but at the same time, leaves a bit of vagueness – that way the reader has a plethora of options in construing the situations at hand.  While he does divulge frequently into his own personal opinions, he is as well trying to create a world where history and literature are connected; almost as if literature can mend and shape history, at least the understandings of it through our own psyche.  Trachtenberg’s article takes more of a literal and clinical view than Whitman’s does, but he is in the same respect trying to determine how photography shapes our views and observations of the subjects at hand.  The photograph gives us a direct and realistic image; it is exactly what the person saw when they took the picture.  In the article Trachtenberg uses the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes to express an ideal view on photography: “Undeniably, Holmes writes, the photographs represent actuality; better than the hand of a fallible human artist the ‘honest sunshine’ provides at least ‘some conception of what a repulsive, brutal, sickening, hideous thing’ war is” (AT 295).  Here the debate is enhanced; does photography and its actuality to a particular moment give a more truthful and accurate historical lesson, or does the representation of a moment through the interpretations of someone else (in this case Whitman) give a better understanding to those who were there to partake in it?  Which method of vision allows the viewer to get the real story of a moment in time – like the true foul nature that defines war?  In my own personal opinion, I feel as though both the written word and the actuality of a photograph together create the true essence of retelling history.  Trachtenberg combines the ideas of abstract and objective imagery when discussing how the captions and explanations of photographs by Barnard and Gardner affected the core of the photograph.  When this combination is done correctly, Trachtenberg points out that, “The text weaves the image into its own narrative of the eye of the [Battle of Bull Run], a moment of light-hearted innocence, the laughing young soldiers ‘hardly realizing in the contagion of their patriotic ardor the grim meaning of real war’” (AT 301).  The combination of both theories truly gives the most accurate depiction of a scene.  While a photographer captures the reality of a group of soldiers laughing at any given moment, the writer throws in the insight that out there beyond the scope of the camera, the truth of war is staring them dead in the face.

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One Response to “Blog Post #2: Connecting Visual and Literary Observations”

  1. Dominique Zino on March 17, 2011 12:56 am

    Jackie,
    I’d like you to re-read two parts of this post. First:
    “Trachtenberg combines the ideas of abstract and objective imagery when discussing how the captions and explanations of photographs by Barnard and Gardner affected the core of the photograph. [what do you mean by “abstract imagery”?] When this combination is done correctly, Trachtenberg points out that, “The text weaves the image into its own narrative of the eye of the [Battle of Bull Run], a moment of light-hearted innocence, the laughing young soldiers ‘hardly realizing in the contagion of their patriotic ardor the grim meaning of real war’” (AT 301).”

    Then, later on,

    “In my own personal opinion, I feel as though both the written word and the actuality of a photograph together create the true essence of retelling history.”

    What does Trachtenberg imply are the goals of “retelling”? Do Brady, Gardener, and Barnard seem to have different narrative aims or similar ones?

    (4/4)

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