In our current climate of visual saturation, it may be salutary for students and scholars of American culture to be made more mindful of the peculiar powers of the image, especially the portrait, in the books of the early republic. In The Portrait and the Book, Megan Walsh does a very effective and engaging job of exploring both how different eighteenth-century American visual culture was from what followed it and how vibrant and complexly meaningful it was on its own terms.

In the first chapter, Walsh analyzes what amounts to a kind of primal scene in the history of the American illustrated book, Benjamin Franklin’s account in his Autobiography (1791) of his encounter as a runaway teenager with a “Drunken Dutchman” who had fallen overboard and whom Franklin had rescued. Before collapsing from exhaustion, the man extracts a book from his...

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