My dissertation, "'A Most Terrible Spectacle': Visualizing Racial Science in American Literature and Culture, 1839--1929," uses a wide range of visual artifacts---books, cartes-de-visite , and photographs---to chart how an emerging nineteenth-century visual culture develops and disseminates scientific accounts of race. Taking seriously Robyn Wiegman's contention that any broad analysis of race must analyze "the visual moment as itself a complicated and historically contingent production" (American Anatomies  24), my project explores how developing nineteenth-century scientific accounts of race depend on the often-overlooked interdependencies between visual and literary cultures in order to solidify the idea of essential racial difference. More particularly, I analyze how literary depictions of race by Anglo-American writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe and African American writers like Pauline Hopkins and Martin R. Delany engage with contemporary visual media in their literary depictions of race. A wealth of critical commentary on nineteenth-century visual culture by scholars such as Laura Wexler and Shawn Michelle Smith has attended to visual culture's myriad representations of racial difference, but has tended to overlook, first, the complex interplay between nineteenth-century visual forms like photography and literary forms like the novel, and second, how this dialogue helps to disseminate popular scientific theories of race. By analyzing such diverse texts as Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Truth's cartes-de-visite, Delany's African American ethnology, and Hopkins' Contending Forces, I show how evolving visualizations of race circulate through and shape nineteenth- and early twentieth-century U.S. culture.
As my chapters collectively suggest, we cannot fully understand nineteenth-century literary texts without recognizing their vital engagement with visual culture. This engagement, as I have shown, is one integrally involved in disseminating to a popular audience shifting scientific models of race. Recognizing literary reliance on the visual enables us to recognize the full extent to which literary texts engage in debates about race.