City of Second Sight

Nineteenth-Century Boston and the Making of American Visual Culture

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Justin T. Clark
  • Durham, NC: 
    University of North Carolina Press
    , April
     2018.
     292 pages.
     $32.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781469638737.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Supersensory images, spirit-drawings, blind autobiographies, and fairy spectacles: from the 1830s to the 1850s, Boston was “a hotbed of visions” (1). Justin T. Clark’s City of Second Sight examines how and why Boston’s elite liberal Protestant visual culture gave way to a middle-class “visionary culture” more concerned with seeing the invisible than the visible. 

This book combines the study of visual culture and urban history to argue that the development of Boston and its middle class hinged on religious ways of seeing. According to Clark, “antebellum Boston proved the unrivaled capital of visionary culture” and its visitors and residents “proved uniquely determined to transcend the limits of ordinary sight” (6). Boston’s visionary culture developed as urban onlookers “gaze[d] upon and away from the city’s increasingly dazzling and disorienting environment” (1). Bostonians desired to “physically participate in the city’s visual environment” while remaining “spiritually untainted” by its cramped sights, smells, and sinners (4). By the 1830s, “visionary art viewers and artists resolved this conundrum by tearing down the recognized boundaries between physical and spiritual vision” (4). Boston transformed into the city of second sight to see beyond the limits of the urban environment and liberal Protestant visual culture. 

City of Second Sight is significant for its treatment of the relationship between religion, visual culture, and the emergence of the middle class. It argues that 19th-century class, gender, and race were constructed by and against a liberal Protestant visual culture in Boston. Clark’s discussion of “moral landmarks” (52) is particularly useful. It urges scholars to consider how the act of viewing landscapes and monuments was constructed as a religious practice in early America, and how some middle-class Bostonians reacted to this way of seeing. 

Despite these insights, the book left me with more questions than answers as a scholar of religious visual culture. First, the book argues that there is a difference between visual culture and visionary culture. According to Clark, visionary culture is the extension of visual culture into the “occult domain” (2). This suggests that the difference between the two hinges on the nebulous boundaries between visible and invisible, sensory and supersensory, and natural and supernatural. For scholars of religious visual culture, these are often distinctions without a great difference. In Spiritual Spectacles (Indiana University Press, 1993), for example, Sally M. Promey examines the intricate relationship between 19th-century Shaker visions and images. The images made visible Shakers’ visions of the dead and allowed the living to see the content of the visions. City of Second Sight would benefit from a more prolonged discussion of how visionary culture departs from visual culture, if at all.   

Second, the book treats Puritans as foils to liberal Protestants. In this account, liberal Protestants alone introduce Boston to visual culture. Clark describes Boston’s past as one of “iconoclastic Puritan heritage” (84) with a “logocentric history” (99), suggesting that “from English settlement until the nineteenth century, most New Englanders retained a puritanical suspicion of images” (7). 

To be sure, Puritans relied heavily on the Bible and Bible reading. Recent works, however, have demonstrated that Puritans also engaged in robust visual and material practices as part of their religion. For example, they scrutinized intricately carved gravestones as a practice of self-examination (Sally M. Promey, “Seeing the Self ‘in Frame’,” Material Religion: The Journal of Objects, Art, and Belief. 1, 2005). Thus, this book does not offer a satisfactory explanation of what Clark considers “a key element of the American past: how the Puritanical logocentrism of some of North America’s first English settlers yielded to the democratic ocularcentrism of today” (7). The book’s central argument relies on a caricature of Puritan attitudes toward visual culture which recent scholarship has proven to be inaccurate. Without its foil, the book’s argument about the uniqueness of liberal Protestant visual culture and reactions to it becomes much less convincing. 

Third, the book presents Boston’s liberal Protestants as the only religious inheritors of the Enlightenment. Clark convincingly demonstrates that Unitarians inherited Enlightenment ideals from Scottish Common Sense Realism, which influenced their practice of visual culture. Unitarians, however, were not the only Protestants shaped by the Enlightenment. Scholars of religion have demonstrated that 17th-century Congregationalists, as well as later evangelicals, adopted and adapted Enlightenment ideals to their religious practices. There is a vast body of literature on this subject, including: Sarah Rivett’s The Science of the Soul in Colonial New England (University of North Carolina Press, 2011); Catherine A. Brekus’s “Sarah Osborn’s Enlightenment” (The Religious History of American Women, ed. Catherine A. Brekus, University of North Carolina Press, 2007, 108-141); and Mark Noll’s Princeton and the Republic, 1768-1822 (Regent College Publishing, 2004). Even so, this book suggests that “the most credible threat to Protestant rationalism was the evangelical movement” (29), given their internal revelations and visions. As a result, this book excludes evangelical visionaries and evangelical visual culture from its consideration of enlightened Protestant visual culture. 

Assuming that liberal Protestants were the only religious inheritors of the Enlightenment allows the book to dismiss the visual and material cultures of other Protestants inside and outside of Boston. It ignores evangelicals like Joseph Smith, who experienced supersensory visions in New York in the 1820s; Quakers in Pennsylvania who spoke to their dead through gravestones before the advent of Spiritualism; Shakers who drew visionary images in New York and Massachusetts in the 1830s and 1840s; and Protestants of all stripes across the eastern United States who debated the religious significance of erecting a monument to George Washington’s corpse in 1800. Given this range of visual evidence from other Protestants in other places and other times, it is unlikely that Boston “liberals were the first New England Protestants to fully embrace the spiritual potential of spectatorship” (31).

These points beg the question: Was Boston the capital of an American visionary culture? More likely, it was one of many cities, towns, and villages where American Protestants (liberal, conservative, evangelical, and others) defined and redefined themselves and others according to religious visual culture, class, gender, race, and ability.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jamie L Brummitt is Assistant Professor of American Religions at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington.

Date of Review: 
August 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Justin T. Clark is Assistant Professor of History at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.

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