Alan C. Braddock


On his book Thomas Eakins and the Cultures of Modernity

Cover Interview of June 17, 2009

The wide angle

I was born in 1961 and raised in Iowa City, Iowa, the youngest of three children.  My father was an English professor from New Jersey and my mother, a homemaker and university administrator, grew up on a farm in rural northwest Iowa.  In their youth, my parents struggled economically through the Great Depression, an experience which very much shaped their worldviews in the direction of Democratic populism and liberal-humanism.  As adults, my parents inculcated in all their children a version of those liberal, New Deal social values, along with the pluralist “cultural” attitudes outlined above, which had been popularized by the first generation of modern anthropologists in the early twentieth century.  Having grown up near New York City in the 1920s and 30s and having studied American literature and education at Columbia University in the 1940s with help from the GI Bill, my father belonged to that generation of liberal-humanist intellectuals in an extended sense.  My mother, whose father had emigrated to the U.S. from the Netherlands in 1921, was well-acquainted with both cultural difference and the forces of American assimilation.  Despite the homogeneity of my own largely “white,” middle-class, Midwest university-town upbringing, I encountered some cultural diversity through regular family travels and through my parents’ supportive interactions with foreign and minority students and colleagues during my childhood, a period that coincided with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Indirectly, I think, Thomas Eakins and the Cultures of Modernity attempts to honor that family legacy while grappling with its limitations, which personal and professional experience have revealed to me over time.  The limitations became apparent to me especially in graduate school.  During the 1980s and the 1990s, at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Delaware, I encountered a host of new theoretical and political paradigms that challenged my received liberal-humanist worldview.  In particular, European poststructuralism (or “Continental” philosophy) and postcolonial theory provided pretty strong medicine, forcing me to reckon with human difference in new ways that were far more critical and global in scope.  I began to realize that cultural pluralism and civil rights were part of an ongoing international struggle against racism, imperialism, gender inequity, and the deleterious effects of extreme free-market capitalism.

Thomas Eakins and the Cultures of Modernity grew out of my doctoral dissertation at the University of Delaware.  I basically argued that Eakins re-mapped the European orientalist-ethnographic approach of his French master, Jean-Léon Gérôme, a leading conservative painter at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, by applying it to American subjects around Philadelphia.  Thus Eakins’s images of American black minstrels and white middle-class chess players became transposed versions of Gérôme’s pictures of Parisian street musicians and chess-playing Ottoman Turkish soldiers, confirming the American artist’s lifelong admiration for his French master as a kind of pictorial father figure.  My dissertation drew inspiration from psychoanalytic theories about “displacement” and oedipal relations, which were current in academic poststructuralism and identity politics of the 1990s.

My dissertation project now seems narrow to me.  In hindsight, it only scratched at the surface of a much deeper and more far-reaching historical phenomenon – the modern concept of “cultures” and its watershed emergence during the early twentieth century.  To situate Eakins in relation to that epochal development eventually struck me as something much more consequential than psychological inquiry into his artistic relationship with a teacher/father figure.  By reading more extensively in the history of anthropology, I came to realize that the African-American minstrels, Anglo-American chess players, and other domestic pictorial analogues that Eakins found for European orientalist types belonged to a much larger period discourse of human comparisons and social evolutionary thinking.

Then I read two recent books that had a galvanizing effect on me: Brad Evans’s Before Cultures: The Ethnographic Imagination in American Literature, 1865-1920 (published by the University of Chicago in 2005) and Kwame Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (W. W. Norton, 2006).  Appiah confirmed for me the urgency of understanding a figure like Eakins in a global context; Evans solidified my understanding of the subtle – but nonetheless palpable – relationship between art (or literature) and anthropology during that watershed period.