Stuart Burrows's book makes a strangely familiar claim. Its premise traces an arc in literary history and understandings of vision and epistemology that we think we know but which, in Burrows' hands, in fact turns toward a different idea about American prose realism than one with which we're familiar (that is, that writers responded to the daguerreotype by emulating its representational fidelity). Realist writers like Hawthorne, Stephen Crane, and the early James, Burrows shows, were hardly naïve about the changes in perception wrought by a then-new technology of vision like photography. For their realism is not a version of fiction that, camera-like, seeks to reproduce the authentic surface aspect of people, objects, and places. Nor do these writers' narratives and descriptions traffic in the also common nineteenth-century assumption that the daguerreotype plumbed the interiors of such surfaces—the premise of physiognomy, which, as Burrows indicates, nineteenth-century thinking saw as proof that the photographic subject revealed an inner nature. Rather, what Burrows shows is that such writers demonstrated an uncannily early awareness of developments we ordinarily attribute to modernist, postmodern, and even twenty-first-century writers and sensibilities: the pervasive sense in modernity, and especially in American cultural life and social reality, of the simulacrum.

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Copyright © 2013 The Johns Hopkins University Press. This article first appeared in Modern Fiction Studies 59:4 (2013), 866-868.

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