From the Editor

By Carol Berkin

Most of us rely on written sources in our teaching, but we know there are many mediums and genres through which the story of our nation can be told. In this issue, History Now focuses on one of these: reading our past through the visual arts. We have asked five scholars and artists to show the ways in which photographs, statuary, monuments, and paintings reveal critical events, eras, or controversies in our history.

In our first essay, "‘The Strange Spell That Dwells in Dead Men’s Eyes’: The Civil War, by Brady," Harold Holzer examines both the impact of the photographs of the horrors of war and the role of two men who brought these stark realities into the lives of millions far from the battlefield. Although these photographs bear the name of Mathew Brady, Holzer reveals to us the name of the actual photographer, Alexander Gardner, and provides fascinating portraits of both men. The photographs taken by Brady and Gardner not only preserved this tragic moment in our national history, they also changed forever the way Americans—and the world—looked at the cost of war.

Linda S. Ferber looks at the art produced during the first wave of nineteenth-century nationalism. In "‘Nature’s Nation’: The Hudson River School and American Landscape Painting, 1825–1876," Ferber brings to life the artists of New York whose "sketching expeditions" in the Hudson River Valley, the Catskills, the Adirondacks and the White Mountains, and later in the West, introduced the beauty and majesty of America’s natural landscape to both American citizens and to the world. As Ferber notes, American identity has always been rooted in the vast physical landscape of the United States. Borrowing from the visual traditions of Europe, the painters of the Hudson River School like Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, and Frederic Church captured the sense of unique destiny shared by many nineteenth-century Americans.

How did Confederate leaders come to be enshrined in the National Statuary Hall? Bess Beatty explains the politics behind their inclusion in "Why Are They There? The Confederate Statues in the National Statuary Hall Collection." The idea of a gallery of notables, originally conceived of in 1857 as a way to fill an available empty chamber in the Capitol, soon caught on. Men—and an occasional woman—were nominated by their home states to be immortalized in what came to be known as Statuary Hall. Until the twentieth century, however, no southern statesmen or women were proposed for the Hall. When Virginia nominated Robert E. Lee in 1903, both Union veterans and African Americans protested. Although the right of Virginia to select who it wished was upheld, the statue of Lee was added quietly and without fanfare. But when Mississippi nominated Jefferson Davis in 1931, the unveiling ceremony included a Marine band playing Confederate favorites. There were few Union veterans left to protest. To this day, Beatty notes, no state has chosen an African American for the Hall.

Photography returns as a medium for telling our history in Carol Quirke’s moving account of Dorothea Lange’s coverage of the Great Depression. In "‘Ditched, Stalled, and Stranded’: Dorothea Lange and the Great Depression," Quirke analyzes what Lange’s camera eye records: what Lange herself calls a record of how a person "stood in the world." Through photographs like "White Angel," and "Man Beside Wheelbarrow," Lange made visible the effects of an economic and social crisis that could not be captured by mere statistics or charts and graphs. Her photographs of southerners are especially arresting and serve, Quirke notes, as a visual comment on southern history, while her photos of dispossessed families on the road west are an ironic commentary on the nineteenth century’s optimism about manifest destiny. Quirke provides the background story for Lange’s prize-winning portrait "Migrant Mother," a photograph that is among the most reproduced in the world. For Lange, her photos were "ammunition" in the struggle to rescue the needy through social programs.

This issue contains a special contribution: Maya Lin’s own memory of creating the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that made her famous. In this essay, reprinted with her permission from her book Boundaries, published by Simon and Schuster in 2000, Lin discusses the models she drew upon, including the Memorial Rotunda at Yale and the monument to the missing soldiers of the World War I battle of the Somme. Lin also muses on the American attitude toward death, on the absence of rites of mourning, and on the challenge of creating a memorial that would bring back the memory of the people it honored. She then describes the process by which the design took shape and her struggle to see that the project was completed as she envisioned it. Finally, Lin considers why her Vietnam Veterans Memorial generated so much controversy. Interestingly, she describes the memorial as "analogous to a book in many ways."

As our interactive feature we have chosen a StoryMap analysis of Paul Revere’s engraving of the "Boston Massacre," which we believe will help students learn how to "read" a work of art. And as always, we have included lesson plans for teachers.

Our best wishes for an enjoyable summer whether you spend it at the beach or in the mountains, visiting historical sites at home or in foreign countries, catching up on reading on your porch or patio, or attending one of the many summer institutes available for history teachers. Whatever you do, we hope you return to the classroom refreshed and energized!

Carol Berkin

From the Archives


Photography in Nineteenth-Century America by Martha A. Sandweiss

Are Artists “Workers”?: Art and the New Deal by Elizabeth Broun

Featured Primary Sources

Paul Revere’s engraving of the Boston Massacre, 1770

Photograph of an abandoned farm in the Dust Bowl, 1938


Reflections on Civil War Art: A new exhibition in the Gilder Lehrman Gallery at the Gettysburg Museum of the Civil War, opening June 29, 2016. For more information, visit www.gettysburgfoundation.org/11/gettysburg-museum-exhibits.