Journal of American Studies

Research Article

Panoramic Vision, Telegraphic Language: Selling the American West, 1869–1884



Along with Appleton and Rand McNally, George A. Crofutt helped to establish and popularize the genre of the general traveller's guidebook in the United States. From 1869 to 1884, Crofutt would sell millions of his guides to the American West, which he distinguished from the competition by including copious illustrations. Although the guidebooks claim to arrange and order the West for easy, and almost passive, consumption – to “tell you what is worth seeing” – this article argues that there are two different yet also complimentary modes of representation operating in these popular works. While the images express a “panoramic” mode of vision, evoking the mythology of the endless frontier and a divinely inspired manifest destiny, the text exemplifies a “telegraphic” language based on instantaneity, fragmentation, and velocity – the thrilling, and disorienting, compression of time and space made possible by the railroad and the telegraph. Crofutt's railroad guidebooks mark a double transition: a historical shift in the concept of the West as a limitless, undefined frontier to a region of commerce and culture, and a corresponding aesthetic shift from a mode of representation based upon mythic expansiveness to one that mimics discrete aspects of modernity.

(Online publication November 27 2012)

Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. Email: