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EYES OF THE NATION: A Visual History of the United States.<i> By Vincent Virga</i> .<i> Alfred A. Knopf: 400 pp., $75</i>

<i> Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University</i>

Of the numerous illustrated books released at this time of year in hopes of gracing American coffee tables at Christmas, few will be as visually compelling as “Eyes of the Nation,” a showcase of the vast holdings of the Library of Congress. This collection of engravings, posters, prints, photographs, cartoons, maps, movie stills and the like contains a few images so familiar that they ought to be retired--King Kong atop the Empire State Building, for example. Far more, however, are rarely seen treasures.

Although the book is arranged chronologically, most readers will probably open it at random and begin browsing. At nearly every turn, they will encounter striking images, such as a map of Mexico City drawn by the conquistador Cortes and first printed in 1524 or a rare color “photochrom” of New York City’s Mulberry Street in 1900. There are panoramic vistas of the American landscape and intimate portraits of quiet dignity, such as Aaron Siskind’s marvelous photograph of the owner standing outside his Harlem grocery store in 1940.

Vincent Virga, who compiled the book, is fascinated by the nation’s natural environment as well as its people. He has included engravings and paintings of birds, snakes, fish and flowers and panoramas of the land. One grouping offers images of the Mississippi River and the society that grew up along it: from a 19th century map of slave plantations bordering the Father of Waters to a modern satellite photograph of the flood of 1993.

A compelling visual potpourri, “Eyes of the Nation,” however, leaves much to be desired as history. To be sure, Alan Brinkley’s essays introducing each chapter are models of lucidity and insight. From there, however, the text rapidly deteriorates. The book opens with a paean to American exceptionalism by James Billington, the librarian of Congress, who avers that the nation’s uniqueness lies in an ability “to remedy our mistakes,” something other countries are evidently unable to do. The captions accompanying the visual images, of unattributed authorship, are often unhelpful and sometimes inaccurate: The Constitution, for example, did not “ignore” slavery--it in fact strengthened the institution’s hold on the South and the nation. In addition, the book’s minimalist index makes it almost impossible to search for images relating to a particular subject. Sometimes, a word can be worth a thousand pictures.

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Virga also offers no explanation of the premises that guided the choice of images. Thus, the reader is left to wonder why certain themes were emphasized and others slighted. The book is curiously thin on politics--the iconography of presidential campaigns, for example, or the visual record of the events leading to the American Revolution or Civil War. There is very little chronicling the history of dissenting movements in the American past. The labor movement, which produced a rich iconography, is all but ignored, as are the wonderfully evocative cartoons, posters and other images produced by the women’s suffrage movement around the turn of the century or by the protests of the 1960s.

The most glaring omission, however, is any significant visual record of American fine arts. A few weeks ago, the National Endowment for the Arts released a self-deprecating report in which lawyers, businessmen and other tribunes of the common man complained of the arts’ “elitism.” Such fashionable pseudo-populism seems to have influenced the selection process for “Eyes of the Nation”: Popular culture is represented in abundance; “high” culture is conspicuous by its absence.

The book contains very few paintings by American artists, but Virga has chosen to reproduce movie posters and film stills galore. The rather unimaginative selections include photographs of Mae West, Bette Davis, James Dean, Astaire and Rogers and an obligatory image from “The Wizard of Oz.” There is little from the theatrical stage. Striking photographs of Charlotte Cushman and Edwin Forrest, prominent 19th century actors, are here, but not their more recent counterparts. Similarly, Duke Ellington is included, but Aaron Copland and Philip Glass are missing.

Frequently, what seems to code artistic works as worthy of inclusion is a racial or ethnic connection: a poster from the Yiddish theater, for example, or a broadside for a minstrel show. “Eyes of the Nation” contains Edward Curtis’ haunting 1904 photograph of a Navaho dancer but nothing representing American Ballet Theater or the New York City Ballet.

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It may well be that the Library of Congress does not possess a complete record of the nation’s artistic history. This is doubtful, however, because in instances in which the library does not possess originals, Virga has reproduced images from books in its collections. The problem, I suspect, lies not in lack of material but in the basis of selection. In the end, “Eyes of the Nation” falls short of fulfilling its claim; this is not a “visual history of the United States.” That task awaits.


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