An appetite for the real, the pragmatic and the scientifically verifiable had long been resident in 19th century America. But it was brought to a peak in the wake of the Civil War. The journalistic eye was equal, as a transmitter of (sometimes unbearable) reality, to that of the novelist or poet; the camera replaced the draftsman in reportage. This was new. American public culture was now driven by technique--the skills that built bridges and docks and railroads, the scientific laws that underwrote Americans' conquest of their environment. There was no ghost in the machine, only the machine itself.

As the...

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