Lincoln's Smile and Other Enigmas

Alan Trachtenberg

Hill and Wang

A new assemblage of masterly essays from a foremost scholar of American history and culture Alan Trachtenberg has always been interested in cultural artifacts that register meanings and feelings that Americans share even when they disagree about them. Some of the most beloved ones--like the famous last photograph of Abraham Lincoln, taken at the time of his second inaugural--are downright puzzling, and it is their obscure, riddlelike aspects that draw his attention in the scintillating essays of Lincoln's Smile and Other Enigmas.

With matchless authority, Trachtenberg moves from the daguerreotypes that entranced Americans from the start (and that Hawthorne made much of in The House of Seven Gables) to literary texts of which he is a peerless interpreter: Howell's novels, Horatio Alger's stories, Huckleberry Finn, the cityscapes of Walt Whitman and Stephen Crane. In his exploration of the ways that nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century writers tried to make sense of the modern American city he also addresses subjects as diverse as Louis Sullivan's Auditorium Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the early works of Lewis Mumford. The celebrated author of Reading American Photographs concludes his important new book with "readings" not only of the photographs of Walker Evans, Wright Morris, and Eugene Smith, but of the city images of film noir.


Read an Excerpt

Lincoln's Smile and Other Enigmas
PART ONEONEMIRROR IN THE MARKETPLACEAmerican Responses to the Daguerreotype, 1839-51 
First published in The Daguerreotype: A Sesquicentennial Celebration, edited by John Wood (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989), pp. 60-71. 
IIN the salon of a Broadway hotel on December 4, 1839, the first French daguerreotypes made their initial New World appearance. In the preceding months American examples of the fledgling art of picturing had already been seen in New York shop windows, but


Praise for Lincoln's Smile and Other Enigmas

"After you read Lincoln's Smile, certain pictures and poetry and prose you took for granted are gone, for they are not the same after Alan Trachtenberg has had a good look at them. He has been teaching us--over many years and in many idioms--how to see our world anew without letting vision stand in for all our senses. These essays remind us of how good a teacher he has been."  --James Livingston, Rutgers University

"For forty years, Alan Trachtenberg has been writing some of the most thoughtful cultural history and criticism on either side of the Atlantic. He has been especially adept at melding expressive forms too often kept apart--photography, imaginative literature, the urban built environment. It is a boon to our self-understanding to have these fine essays between two covers at last."  --Jackson Lears, author of Something for Nothing: Luck in America
"Lincoln's Smile demonstrates why Alan Trachtenberg has been the leading scholar in American studies for more than four decades. His work is not only cultural history but cultural criticism of the highest order. In his essays on literature, photography, and architecture, he builds a bridge from the prophetic writings of Walt Whitman, Van Wyck Brooks, Lewis Mumford, and Constance Rourke to our own perilous moment, daring us to imagine a more democratic horizon in the future."      --Casey Nelson Blake, Columbia University

"Alan Trachtenberg is an eminent survivor of the now-dying discipline of American Studies. Lincoln's Smile and Other Enigmas movingly links Trachtenberg to the tradition that goes from Walt Whitman to Hart Crane and Walker Evans. That tradition is vital to whatever cultural eminence our nation may yet hope to retain."
--Harold Bloom

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Alan Trachtenberg

  • Alan Trachtenberg is the Neil Gray, Jr. Professor Emeritus of English and American studies at Yale University, where he taught for thirty-five years. His books include Shades of Hiawatha (H&W, 2004).


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Lincoln's Smile and Other Enigmas

Alan Trachtenberg