Alan Trachtenberg, Pioneered New Ways of Understanding American Culture

Historians in the News
tags: obituaries, photography, cultural history, American studies, primary sources, visual culture

Alan Trachtenberg, the Neil Gray Jr. Professor of English and professor of American studies emeritus, scholar of the cultural history of the 19th and 20th centuries, and one of the leaders in establishing the pre-eminence of American studies at Yale, died at his home in Hamden on Aug. 18. He was 88.

“In a remarkable career that spanned five decades at Yale, Alan Trachtenberg pioneered new ways of understanding history and culture, exploring artifacts and areas of study that others had overlooked,” said Peter Salovey, president of Yale and the Chris Argyris Professor of Psychology. “His discoveries influenced students and thinkers from across disciplines and opened up a new field of scholarship. Yale has lost a towering figure, but Alan’s legacy — as a scholar of the American experience, as a teacher, and as a valued colleague and member of this community — will endure.”

Trachtenberg is best known as one of the most distinguished and authoritative interpreters of what photographers have shown about history through the camera lens. His landmark book, “Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Mathew Brady to Walker Evans, a study of American Photography from 1839 to 1938,” which won the Charles C. Eldredge Prize for outstanding scholarship in the field of American art, was the first to elaborate the argument that historians should treat photographs as historical evidence. In this and in others of his books, including “Brooklyn Bridge: Fact and Symbol” and “Lincoln’s Smile and Other Enigmas,” and in dozens of essays in leading journals on a wide range of figures and topics, his writings demonstrated how photographs, literary works, and other cultural objects illuminate the world, and frame our national identity. The books are not merely analyses, but captivating stories, which help the reader understand how culture both records and shapes the society and economics of an era. Taken as a whole, they are a fundamental contribution to the historiography of the United States.

Kai Erikson, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor Emeritus of Sociology and American Studies, noted that “what Trachtenberg taught us is that the study of history should not be confined to what the written word can convey or what the reader's mind can absorb but should also include what the eye can see. To him, photography was not only a very special art form — he was a gifted photographer himself — but an essential source of historical knowledge on what the past looked like — and, in that sense, felt like.”

Read entire article at Yale News