Review of Chromographia: American Literature and the Modernization of Color

Chromographia: American Literature and the Modernization of Color
by Nicholas Gaskill

The University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2018
320 pp., illus. 30 b/w, 12 col. Trade, $100; paper, $25
ISBN: 978-1517903480; ISBN: 978-1517903497.

Reviewed by
Jan Baetens
July 2019

Certain cultural artefacts have become so ubiquitous that we don’t pay any special attention to them any longer. Color is a good example of such a phenomenon: It is anything but invisible, no pun intended, but in spite of our permanent awareness of chromatic aspects, features, fashions and, in short, the dramatic power of color in our daily lives, academic research in the field is not really flourishing, except in very specialized areas such as interior design or art history. In comparison with the color craze in what Nicholas Gaskill calls the “mauve era” (1880-1930), when virtually everybody, from philosophers to consumers and from artists to businessmen seemed obsessed with debates on color, general studies on color are quite rare today. Chromographia is therefore a more than welcome publication. It is a fascinating and very broad rereading (the subtitle of the book should not make you think that Gaskill is only interested in the use of color words in literary texts) of a cultural phenomenon which will hopefully contribute to a rediscovery on the seminal role of color in modernism and, why not, beyond, for the current lack of attention for color in contemporary culture hints definitely at a great lack in cultural theory and criticism.

Color for Gaskill is modern in two senses of the word. First of all, it is modern because it is the result of new technological inventions: During the nineteenth century, the advances of chemistry gave birth to new colors, often never thought of but now easy and cheap to produce. A key moment was 1856, the year of the discovery of a special aniline, “mauveine”, which its inventor, William Henry Perkin, took to industry in order to produce the first commercial synthetic dye. Very soon, countless others were to appear, all of them showing new colors and all of them in need of new words or, better, new formalized ways of description and classification. But color is also modern, secondly, because the technological broadening of the traditional spectrum had a dramatic impact on our ways of seeing, feeling, experiencing and, more generally, of thinking and living.

This is also the double story that Gaskill tells in Chromographia, with literature serving as the main thread of his argumentation that actually leads the reader from optical and chemical experiments in the late nineteenth century to broad philosophical and political issues, the issue of color raising questions that have as much to do with ideology than with aesthetics and perception theory. In that sense, Gaskill’s very convincing line of thinking brings to the fore the fundamental relationship between two elements: on the one hand the material observation that the meaning of color is “relative”, that is dependent on more than just the dye of a given item, and on the other hand the social and democratic claim for “democracy”, that is the permanent negotiation of the way we accept to live not just next to other people but really with them. The both moral and political lesson of the book, which contains an explicit praise of John Dewey, one of the masterminds behind the Black Mountain College pedagogy where Joseph Albers was to develop his color pedagogy (see his book Interaction of Color, 1963), is then summarized in the following quote: “Thinking in situations is a way of reading relativity without falling into mere relativism. This is a hard task –sometimes I think it is the hard task, the one that postmodernism got wrong and pragmatism get right” (p. 246).

Gaskill develops his historical reconstruction of the “meaning” of color in American culture and literature (in that order, for literature is more a testing ground than a starting point) around five major moments and works, starting in the 1880s and ending in the 1930s: 1) the attempts of authors such as Hamlin Garland, nowadays incorrectly discarded as an example of regionalism, to transfer impressionist ideas on color to the domain of writing, more precisely to invent new ways of writing inspired by impressionist techniques of manipulating colors in order to obtain a sharper and increased perception of “local colors”, that is of colors localized on specific parts of the canvas; 2) the color descriptions of Charlotte Perker Gilliams that explored the value and impact of tones and dyes regardless of the objects that made them appear and the subsequent tension between figuration and abstraction as well as the growing awareness of the importance of the perceiving body; 3) the spread of colorfully printed children’s books, such as Frank Baum’s 1903 The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (with illustrations by Denslow), with their contradictory mix of liberation of the child’s imagination and heavily racialized representations of savages and primitives; 4) the nonrepresentative use of chromatic vocabularies to artificially produce chromatic feelings and experiences that further distinguish between colors as abstract qualities (as “firsts”, in the terminology of C.S. Peirce) capable of being manipulated outside their materialization in specific objects (in “seconds”), in realist as well as radically avant-garde texts (the respective examples being Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage and Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives and other writings); and finally 5) the Harlem Renaissance writers blurring the boundaries between color and body, perception and experience, sight and movement, and even more generally art and life.

The fundamental idea that unifies all these often remarkable and always very clever analyses is the belief in and progressive critique of the teleological relationship between color perception and sensibility on the one hand and the growth and construction of the modern subject on the other hand (Gaskill also develops the Darwinist aspects, pro and contra, that contemporary thinkers used to link with this kind of beliefs). Color does not mean the same for children and adults, and whatever one’s color preferences may be (I will come back on the controversy on “primitivism”), it is generally accepted that the color-sense has to be trained in order to achieve a better use of color in all phases of life. Gaskill scrupulously examines the explicit and implicit aspects of this conviction as well as its impact on education, business, culture and art, while reading no less carefully first the growing unease with the ideological underpinnings of this belief and second the emergence of models of thinking of color that explicitly rejected the refusal of less rational aspects of the color experience such as the body, emotion, affect, and more in general the preference given to chromatic and existential “riot” (a metaphor of the blending what traditional Western thinking tries to keep apart).

Chromographia is an essential publication, which I think will have a lasting impact on the cultural and interdisciplinary study of literature. It is an exceptionally well-crafted study that demonstrates the possibility of a merger between literary studies and cultural studies. It contains important rereadings of classic topics such as primitivism (Gaskill clearly shows for instance that the leap into abstraction is not necessarily a praise of primitivism, but on the contrary the proof of the capacity of “advanced” practitioners and viewers to enjoy colors in themselves, a capacity they simultaneously deny to “savages”). The book proposes extremely stimulating interpretations of many forgotten or somewhat neglected works such as The Red Badge of Courage. Finally, it also offers an overarching interpretive scheme that should encourage new readers to pick up the story where Chromography ends.