River of Shadows – Rebecca Solnit


I came to this book for two reasons
–one that I am interested in Eadweard Muybridge, as he is considered the grandfather of motion pictures (and a character in a story I am/was writing), two that I’ve read Rebecca Solnit’s writing on Tom Dispatch, where she usually writes hopeful essays of an ecological nature. So when I heard that she had written this book on Muybridge and the birth of the modern world, I needed to check it out. And damn, can this woman write! This is the kind of history book I love, one that takes in disparate elements and demonstrates how they all snap together. The previous history of Muybridge I have read was straight hagiography and focused on his motion studies and his time in Stanford and Philadelphia. But Solnit is more interested in the years that went into creating a man who would change history–stopping time, in essence; making people aware of themselves as an image–and the society that surrounded him. Solnit brings in the railroads, San Francisco history, the emancipation of women, the last stands of the Native Americans, the birthing of educational and artistic institutions, and much more. Here is a sample paragraph which demonstrates Solnit’s command of the language and of juggling several ideas:

Those great landscapists Russel, Hart, and Savage photographed the physical process of the building of the railroads, and when the line was open, Mybridge and Watkins both made extensive stereoscope series of the scenery along the route. Most accounts of the building of the railroad concentrate on just that: the heroic and unprecedented toils of the laborers and engineers that drew a line in wood and iron across the continent. But less visible webs were being spun. The transcontinental railroad was far vaster than any of the manufactorites of the East. It required unprecedented strata of bureaucracy, unprecedented degrees of managerial coordination, and it reached as far into the political and economic systems of the United States as it did into the landscape. The Central Pacific and the Union Pacific were the biggest corporations of their time and the first to have such extensive dealing with the federal, state, and local governments. The modern corporation’s complex synchronizations first appeared there, and so did the penetration into the world on such a scale. First the railroads, then the networks for distributing energy, food, and basic goods, drew people further and further into a system; and more and more of them became employees of such systems. The independence of the frontier and the subsistence farmer retreated further and further. This was the moment in which many Americans first began to feel like cogs in the machine.

And so here we are today. One of Solnit’s points is that the “Wild West” was the last gasp of a mythologized frontier that was about to become less wild and more regimented, just as authors were romanticizing the Native Americans while the Feds were busy killing the last “insurgents” off.
Muybridge comes across and driven, but private, only partly aware of the changes he is making to the world, and maybe not as honored in his time as he should be. The ultimate American success story, he retired to England where he was born, and died ten years later in 1904, the graveyard slab misspelling his name as Maybridge. Whoops.

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