Date Awarded


Document Type

Dissertation -- Access Restricted On-Campus Only

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Studies


Charles McGovern


This dissertation explores images of urban disaster and related events produced from the Civil War to the dawn of the 20th century, seeking to understand the role such visual media played in the formation of American identity and racial perceptions. Images of disasters that appeared throughout this period demonstrate a desire on the part of a largely white, native-born consumer class to share in a collective grieving process, one that initially recalled the comforts found in the communal suffering of the Civil War, but habitually eschewed the most tragic elements in favor of an optimistic, nationalistic narrative free of lasting trauma. Out of this desire for mutual grieving and recovery emerged a market for tokens of palatable tragedy in the final decades of the nineteenth century. This market was fed by a growing industry of disaster commodification that co-opted urban destruction in the service of an ultimately white supremacist formulation of American identity.;These images gave consumers the ability to experience disaster and loss remotely, in more immediate and vivid ways than news reports or letters. Yet a line of acceptability was drawn in the process of commodifying these disasters, and resulted in a wealth of imagery that tells a far different -- and far more hopeful -- story of each disaster than the death tolls and oft ignored tales of costly human error could ever have crafted. The images instead create a fantasy narrative of disasters and aftermaths firmly under human control, and a racist, ultranationalistic view of the world in which white Americans are challenged by adversity, but always persevere to construct a new and better world -- often in spite of the efforts of the racialized monsters in their midst.



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