Young Americans

The "Reverend Rollin Heber Neale" and "Unknown Woman in 9 Views" (both c. 1850) are from the magnificent book Young America, the Daguerreotypes of Southworth and Hawes. S&H were a daguerreotype studio "of the highest order" in Boston from the 1840s to early 60s and produced some of the finest examples of the process. In 10 to 30 second exposures, daguerreotypists attempted to represent the best likeness-- the 'inner soul'-- of the sitter. The daguerreotype fixed, on a highly polished silvered metal plate, a single unique image that, though exquisitely almost unnervingly detailed, would dissolve into an evanescent, shimmering mirror depending on the angle at which it was viewed. The French invention took hold in the US to such an extent that by 1851 the Americans took home all the gold medals in 'Works of Industry' at the Crystal Palace exposition and daguerreotypy became known as the "American process." About the same time the daguerreian mania hit US shores the Young America movement gained prominence -- a radical democratic/utopian spirit in the arts, and political thinking--bringing together a preening sense of superiority, idealism and expansionist fervor. Daguerreian process and product seemed to reflect, both literally and figuratively, the energy and nationalist and individualist spirit of the 1840s and 50s. At that time, America, and a good portion of Europe, really thought the "Great Experiment" would work. As Alan Trachtenberg relates in Young America:
Envisioning a continental "empire of liberty" Young America saw the American nationalist mission as the "hope of mankind." The prospects of the country seemed without parallel in human history
Looking at the many portraits in this book I feel oddly emotional. That type of boundless optimism, the sense that anything could be achieved, and anyone, anywhere, improved, with a little American Know-How is inconceivable... The earlier simplistic adolescent vigor, overreaching but potent and impressive, is now still-naive, still-overreaching (with a sense of entitlement to boot) but in its bloated Late Middle Age is not so "Great" anymore.
I came across a haunting latin phrase: Vis consili expers mole ruit sua ("Strength without wisdom falls by its own weight")...

The portrait of the Reverend Neale, shown at about age 42, is riveting. If it is possible to be swept off one's feet by someone who has been dead for 127 years, I have succumbed.

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