Trachtenberg, Alan 1932–

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Trachtenberg, Alan 1932–


Born March 22, 1932, in Philadelphia, PA; son of Isadore and Norma Trachtenberg; married Betty Glassman, December 21, 1952; children: Zev, Elissa, Julia. Education: Temple University, A.B., 1954; University of Connecticut, M.A., 1956; University of Minnesota—Twin Cities, Ph.D., 1962.


Home—Hamden, CT. Office—c/o American Studies Program, Yale University, P.O. Box 208302, New Haven, CT 06520-8302.


University of Minnesota—Twin Cities, Minneapolis, instructor in English, 1956-61; Pennsylvania State University, University Park, 1961-69, began as instructor, became associate professor, professor of English, 1969; Yale University, New Haven, CT, visiting professor, 1969-70, associate professor, 1970-72, professor then Neil Gray, Jr., Professor of English and American Studies then professor emeritus, 1972—, director of graduate studies in American Studies, 1970-72 and 1974-75, chair of American Studies, 1971-73.


American Studies Association, Modern Language Association of America.


Fellow of American Council of Learned Societies and of Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Sciences, Palo Alto, CA, both 1968-69; fellowships from National Endowment for the Humanities, Rockefeller Foundation, and Guggenheim Foundation.


Brooklyn Bridge: Fact and Symbol, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1965.

The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age, Hill & Wang (New York, NY), 1982, 25th anniversary edition, Hill & Wang (New York, NY), 2007.

Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Matthew Brady to Walker Evans, Hill & Wang (New York, NY), 1989.

(With Douglas Dreishpoon and Nancy Weinstock) The Tumultuous Fifties: A View from the New York Times Photo Archives, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 2001.

(With Ralph Lieberman) Distinctly American: The Photography of Wright Morris, Rizzoli (New York, NY), 2002.

Shades of Hiawatha: Staging Indians, Making Americans, 1880-1930, Hill & Wang (New York, NY), 2004.

Lincoln's Smile and Other Enigmas (essays), Hill & Wang (New York, NY), 2007.

Also author of American Culture between the Civil War and World War I, 1985; contributor of text to books, including America and Lewis Hine: Photographs, 1904-1940, Aperture (New York, NY), 1977; Jerome Liebling Photographs, University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, MA), 1982; American Daguerreotypes: From the Matthew R. Isenburg Collection, edited by Richard S. Field and Robin Jaffee Frank, Art Gallery, Yale University (New Haven, CT), 1989; Photography in Nineteenth-Century America, edited by Martha A. Sandweiss, Amon Carter Museum (Fort Worth, TX), 1991; and Dream Street: W. Eugene Smith's Pittsburgh Project, 1955-1958, W.W. Norton (New York, NY), 2001. Contributor of articles to periodicals, including Massachusetts Review, Southern Review, and Yale Review.


Man and City in America, Center for Continuing Liberal Education, Pennsylvania State University (University Park, PA), 1966.

Democratic Vistas, 1860-1880, Braziller (New York, NY), 1970.

(With Peter Neill and Peter C. Bunnell) The City: American Experience, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1971.

Memoirs of Waldo Frank, University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, MA), 1973.

Critics of Culture: Literature and Society in the Early Twentieth Century, Wiley (New York, NY), 1976.

Classic Essays on Photography, Leete's Island Books (New Haven, CT), 1980.

Hart Crane: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1982.


Alan Trachtenberg has written and edited numerous books, but he has apparently gained the most critical attention for his books Brooklyn Bridge: Fact and Symbol, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age, and Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Matthew Brady to Walker Evans.

The first of these three, Brooklyn Bridge, is a history of the famous New York suspension bridge, a monument of wire rope, steel, and Gothic towers that spans New York harbor and joins the city to its islands. Built in the nineteenth century, the Brooklyn Bridge was conceived by German immigrant and designer John Roebling, a pioneer in suspension bridge design whose invention of wire rope transformed bridge building in America. As detailed in Trachtenberg's book, Roebling never lived to see his design erected; while studying the harbor and his design, he was injured by an errant ferry. Roebling later died from lockjaw, and his son, Washington Roebling, stepped in to oversee the construction of his father's dream. Unfortunately, the younger Roebling was paralyzed by caisson disease (now known as decompression sickness) as a result of his work on the bridge's foundations, but he nevertheless continued directing the project.

Trachtenberg relates the Roeblings' dedication to the bridge in his book, but, as the subtitle suggests, also discusses the Brooklyn Bridge as an American symbol. Frequently seen as a background in motion pictures, reproduced as a backdrop in plays, and honored in literature, the bridge represents the transition from Old World ways to a prosperous new way of life in America. Trachtenberg explores the ways various writers and artists have portrayed the bridge, giving particular attention to the writings of poet Hart Crane and the art of painter Joseph Stella.

Reviewers responded favorably to the book, among them a Times Literary Supplement contributor who deemed Brooklyn Bridge a "brilliant" book, and also commented that "Mr. Trachtenberg is always exciting and illuminating." Writing in the Yale Review, A.N. Kaul noted that Trachtenberg is more effective in his historical analysis of the bridge than in his literary analysis, but he nevertheless described Brooklyn Bridge as "a work of historical synthesis," noting that "each of its parts benefits from the whole." New York Review of Books contributor Alfred Kazin also praised Trachtenberg's effort: "Alan Trachtenberg has written a good little book about [the Brooklyn Bridge], sensitively intelligent, which in the end reflects the anxious and rhetorical will-to-meaning that is its real subject."

Trachtenberg examines American society during the thirty years after the Civil War in The Incorporation of America, which documents the impact of corporate organization on the traditional values prevalent in that day. Considered a valuable work on the history of corporate organization, The Incorporation of America, according to H.L. Horowitz in the Journal of American History, "redirects American Studies to fundamental problems and suggests to new social historians the rich possibilities of cultural analysis."

Reading American Photographs is a study of American photography from 1839 to 1938. Trachtenberg focuses on the stories that photographs tell about the society and economics of the era and examines five phases in the history of photography: the daguerreotype, which produced photographs on silver or silver-covered copper plates; the Civil War portraits captured by Matthew Brady; post-Civil War photographs, typically of Western landscapes; the social commentary photographs from the late 1800s to World War I; and, finally, the work of photographer Walker Evans, whose photographs remain as poignant reminders of the Great Depression. Reading American Photographs is illustrated with numerous examples of the photographic work the author covers, and Trachtenberg encourages his audience to "read" the photographs—to apply the rules of literary criticism and interpretation to the illustrations in order to analyze them as one would study literature, seeing beyond the obvious to grasp a deeper understanding of each photograph's meaning.

Reading American Photographs elicited commentary from reviewers such as Peter Bacon Hales, who wrote in the Journal of American History: "Trachtenberg treats his readers as workers deserving of dignity and reward, and he gives them not simply examples of the interpenetration of photography and American life but something richer and more useful: a model for the way American culture constructed (and constructs) itself, presented through the analysis of one mode of cultural construction—American photography." Hales added: "Trachtenberg's Reading American Photographs offers heady rewards indeed." Also expressing his appreciation of Trachtenberg's study, New York Times Book Review contributor William S. McFeely noted: "As Mr. Trachtenberg concludes, ‘It is not so much a new but a clarifying light American photographs shed upon American reality.’ That light, as he has richly demonstrated, now illuminates our past in inescapable and powerful ways." Writing in Tikkun, Miles Orvell reported: "Reading American Photographs combines the virtues of the concentrated subject with that of the broad cultural perspective, and it results in the most sustained and rigorous study of American photography yet produced."

Shades of Hiawatha: Staging Indians, Making Americans, 1880-1930 looks at the Native Americans' and Eastern Europeans' experiences in America to examine the idea of what it means to be American. The author writes of ways in which these two groups were both marginalized and then accepted into modern America society as long as they met certain social criteria, such as buying into the middle-class American lifestyle. A Publishers Weekly contributor noted that the author's "historical depth and lively prose make … [his ideas] extremely vivid." Writing in the Historian, Bruce E. Johansen noted: "This is a richly rewarding explication of American myth and racial politics that speaks to our time as well as to the century-old record it examines."

In his book Lincoln's Smile and Other Enigmas, Trachtenberg presents selected essays from his writings of the past forty years. In the title essay, the author takes his interest in photography and writes about his theory that the photos of Lincoln's face reveal much about the inner man. In a related vein, the author looks at the photos of Walker Evans focusing on the Depression and how these pictures have impacted views of the South. "This book is episodic, and highlighted with many moments of brilliance," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor. Writing in Kirkus Reviews, a contributor called the book "a work that will be best enjoyed by readers eager to read slowly and think deeply." An updated version of The Incorporation of America was also published in 2007. An Internet Bookwatch contributor called the book a "key to understanding … capitalist efforts."



Historian, spring, 2006, Bruce E. Johansen, review of Shades of Hiawatha: Staging Indians, Making Americans, 1880-1930.

Internet Bookwatch, April 1, 2007, review of Lincoln's Smile and Other Enigmas; April 1, 2007, review of The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age.

Journal of American History, December, 1982, H.L. Horowitz, review of The Incorporation of America; June, 1990, Peter Bacon Hales, review of Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Matthew Brady to Walker Evans, p. 268.

Journal of Social History, winter, 2005, Shepard Krech, review of Shades of Hiawatha.

Kirkus Reviews, November 1, 2006, review of Lincoln's Smile and Other Enigmas, p. 1120.

Library Journal, February 1, 2003, Raymond Bial, review of Distinctly American: The Photography of Wright Morris, p. 85; October 1, 2004, John Burch, review of Shades of Hiawatha, p. 96; January 1, 2007, Morris Hounion, review of Lincoln's Smile and Other Enigmas, p. 125.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 24, 1989, p. 6.

New York Review of Books, July 15, 1965, Alfred Kazin, review of Brooklyn Bridge: Fact and Symbol.

New York Times Book Review, August 20, 1989, William S. McFeely, review of Reading American Photographs, p. 15.

Philadelphia Inquirer, March 21, 2007, Glenn C. Altschuler, "Essayist Alan Trachtenberg Explores Act, Art of Seeing in ‘Lincoln's Smile.’"

Publishers Weekly, August 30, 2004, review of Shades of Hiawatha, p. 43; November 6, 2006, review of Lincoln's Smile and Other Enigmas, p. 46.

Tikkun, November-December, 1990, Miles Orvell, review of Reading American Photographs, pp. 88-91.

Times Literary Supplement, November 25, 1965, review of Brooklyn Bridge.

Yale Review, October, 1965, A.N. Kaul, review of Brooklyn Bridge.

ONLINE, (June 21, 2007), Glenn C. Altschuler, review of Lincoln's Smile and Other Enigmas.