Professor Examines Impact of Illustrations on Colonial Literature

Dr. Megan Walsh’s newest book takes a look at literature in Colonial America — and the focus isn’t just on words.
In “The Portrait and the Book: Illustration and Literary Culture in Early America” (University of Iowa Press), the St. Bonaventure University English professor argues that colonial-era author portraits shaped readers’ conceptions of American literature. In the 19th century, new image-making methods like steel engraving and lithography caused a surge in the publication of illustrated books in the United States. Yet even before the widespread use of these technologies, Walsh says early Americans had already established the illustrated book format as central to the nation’s literary culture. Through an examination of readers’ portrait-collecting habits, writers’ employment of ekphrasis (a vivid, often dramatic, verbal description of a visual work of art), printers’ efforts to secure American-made illustrations for periodicals, and engravers’ reproductions of British book illustrations, Walsh uncovers in late 18th century America a dynamic but forgotten visual culture that was inextricably tied to the printing industry and to the early U.S. literary imagination. “Many of the arguments I make in ‘The Portrait and the Book’ are central to the material I teach here at Bonaventure,” Walsh said. “For example, when I teach Benjamin Franklin’s ‘Autobiography,’ a text I examine at length in the book, I bring in slides with portraits of Franklin, many of which he commissioned, owned, or remarked on in his letters.” Walsh asks students to think about the “Autobiography,” an example of what some scholars have called “literary self-portraiture,” next to these visual artifacts.

“As adept users of images to create personal self-representations in online media, students are keen readers of visual depictions of Franklin,” said Walsh, who has taught English at the university since 2011. “They are particularly skilled in drawing parallels between Franklin’s beloved portraits of himself and the stories he tells about himself in his ‘Autobiography.’”

A student of Walsh’s noted that Franklin was a master of the “humble-brag.”

“This astute comment perfectly described both the visual and verbal aspects of Franklin’s self-representation,” she said. “Moreover, I’d like to believe that the application of that term to Franklin’s work gave students in that class a richer appreciation not only of early American literature, but also of their own everyday use of English.”

University of Chicago professor Eric Slauter, an expert in American cultural, intellectual and literary history, praised Walsh’s work.

“Walsh taps a diverse archive of verbal and visual materials in order to generate a new perspective on the imaginations of early Americans,” Slauter said.

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