Dissertation Abstract

The Diorama and the Book in the Romantic Era and Nineteenth Century (1780-1860): “Still Craving Combinations of New Forms”

Dissertation Committee: Jeff Cox, Lori Emerson, Jillian Heydt-Stevenson (Director), Laura Mandell, Paul Youngquist

(Defense completed July 2014, degree conferred August 2014)

This media archaeology project draws critical attention to the diorama as a Romantic-era mixed-media art form that included an important print component—an accompanying booklet—in each show, and that also had long-lasting intermedial effects on book history in the nineteenth century that have not yet been studied. The diorama’s early life in print contributes to its identity as an enigmatic media miscellany as well as its varied influences on authors throughout the nineteenth century. I show that whether writers like Rodolphe Töpffer reacted negatively toward the diorama, or those like James Hogg incorporated textual dioramas into their work, they used the diorama to innovate new forms of the book and to subvert established narrative formats and techniques. I also suggest that we can use the dioramic as a lens to better understand the delicacy and illusory qualities of romantic book collections and related heterotopic spaces, such as Walter Scott’s library in Abbotsford.

The traits that made the diorama desirable for authors to adopt include its relationships to the genre of the miscellany and to picturesque travel writing and drawing. That is, the diorama participates and contributes to a widespread culture of artistic creation and authorship by collecting and recombining material or media in such a way that they do, indeed, generate something new. However, the dioramists’ illusions and their re-expression in books often hide the precise recipe of media and technologies behind the rhetoric of magic. This is one indication of how Romantic-era authors coped with profound changes in book production similar to those occurring now, in the twenty-first century, as technological advances have drastically increased the number and kinds of texts and platforms available for consumers. Due to the superfluity of books in circulation in the Romantic era, authors felt empowered to create by combining previously published texts or by incorporating existing media, like the diorama, in new ways—a mode of authorship we know as remixing. The diorama’s re-expression in books in the Romantic era, as I uncover in this dissertation, marks a moment of innovation as well as anxiety about the value of new artistic technologies and authorial methods.

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