From Liberation to Conquest: The Visual and Popular Cultures of the Spanish-American War of 1898

by Bonnie M. Miller. Boston, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011. 324 pp. $29.95 (paperback). ISBN 978-1-558489-924-9.

Chronologically arranged, Miller’s account takes readers through the period from 1896, prior to the beginning of the Spanish-American War and the sinking of the Maine in 1898, to the period following the end of the war, in 1901. In the first chapter, Miller provides an incisive analysis of how American culture makers, such as newspaper cartoonists, created a strong narrative depicting Spain as the Black Legend in its brutality against Cuba. By focusing on the ways in which Cuban subjects were treated as powerless agents, cartoonists and correspondents sought to appeal to American readers’ sense of morality and outrage. In addition to halftone photographs and graphic illustrations rendering Cubans as victims, Miller argues that images of Cuba in the popular press became feminized and sexualized, thus enabling the transmission of what Kristin Hoganson calls the “chivalric paradigm” (26). By questioning the established view that American culture makers were intent on supporting McKinley’s imperialist interests, she shows that graphic artists’ and playwrights’ effective portrayal of Cuba as a threatened female seeking liberation from Spain resonated with American audiences because the narratives featured feminized vulnerability and manly chivalry. From 1895 to 1898, the American media’s support of “Cuba Libre,” articulated in The New York Journal’s sensationalized account of Evangelina Cossio Cisneros’s imprisonment and the “Human Documents” campaign among others, played a decisive role in shaping readers’ understanding of the Cuban struggle for independence; but, as Miller contends, media outlets avoided making a case for war to the American people.

In the second chapter, Miller tracks how American culture makers’ initial reticence about entering into war with Spain, while maintaining support for the liberation of Cuba, shifted after the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine off the Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898. Miller discusses the Dallas News’s and the Boston Globe’s use of “word pictures,” in which graphic artists based their representations of the explosion on correspondents’ eye-witness accounts and shows how Americans were dependent on information about the ship’s explosion, despite conflicting visual renditions of the event. Photojournalism became a key development in the spread of information as the Maine disaster unfolded; this technique, according to Miller, enabled the yellow press to claim authentic news coverage while defending its credibility. The yellow press had commercial interests in its thorough and vivid coverage of the investigation into the Maine’s demise which Miller demonstrates through vivid accounts of the recovery operation. Furthermore, she offers insights into the far-reaching impact of the Maine disaster on popular consciousness by analyzing its portrayal in motion pictures, the development of which fueled intense competition among Smith and Blackton’s American Vitagraph Company, Biograph, and Edison Manufacturing Company. As Miller convincingly shows, the Maine affair not only had great commercial appeal for producers intent on generating patriotic feelings, but it also circulated in war plays and national performances aimed to entertain audiences, as evidenced by the popularity of Lincoln J. Carter’s Remember the “Maine.” In addition to vivid newspaper accounts and motion pictures, Miller comments on how the Omaha World’s Fairs in 1898 and 1899 enabled producers of culture to satiate the public’s lasting interest in the Maine through emotionally-charged daily re-enactments of the disaster.

In the third chapter, Miller continues her discussion of the American public’s consumption of the hostilities with Spain through re-enactments of the battles of Manila Bay, San Juan Hill, and Santiago Bay. She cogently argues that commercial entrepreneurs’ effective use of news stories, images, and cultural references enabled them to reproduce these key battles for mass consumption. For example, Henry J. Paine’s reproduction of the “Battle at Manila Bay,” complete with a fireworks display, not only provided visual entertainment for audiences, but it sought to capture the “spectacular reality” (93) of war through sensory stimulation. Furthermore, despite Richard Harding Davis’s scathing portrayal in the New York Herald of the Rough Riders’ ineptness on San Juan Hill, Blackton and Smith’s motion picture production showing a staged march offered audiences what they thought was an authentic portrayal of the actual battle. Echoing Amy Kaplan’s analysis of the extent to which turn-of-the-century theatrical performances sought to capture the reality of war, Miller suggests that, in theatre producers’ efforts to give audiences a realistic portrayal of the war, they failed to take into account the great loss of lives that accompanied these battles. Re-enactments of the battle at Santiago Bay, in which the U.S. won the war, were featured in the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in Omaha on July 4, 1898. Besides theatrical productions facilitated by press narratives, motion picture footage, and still photographs, culture makers effectively drew upon military iconography to fuel the American public’s patriotic consumption of the war.

As Miller provocatively suggests, in the fourth and fifth chapters, culture and news makers’ political representations of the 1898 war between the U.S. and Spain shifted in response to concerns about American foreign policy. Press coverage revealed complicated questions about the long-term effects of American imperialism which had heretofore largely been ignored. In addition to offering insights on the debates regarding the difference between “imperialism” and “expansionism” as well as the extent of acquisition of the Spanish colonies, Miller shows that members of the press were deeply divided on McKinley’s imperial aims. While the military scandal documenting the inhumane living conditions of soldiers did not ultimately corrode the public’s sense of patriotism, Miller notes the press’s awareness of the public’s short-lived patriotism and ambivalence regarding military exploits. Similar to the third chapter in which culture makers circulated military symbols in the media, the sixth chapter analyzes the impact of imperial iconography and how it shaped the public’s knowledge of Hawaiian and Filipino natives. The seventh chapter offers an intriguing discussion about the capture and display of the Filipino leader Emilio Aguinaldo. Miller’s study not only calls into question the view that the yellow press’s sensational portrayals of Spanish brutality in Cuba enabled the McKinley administration to foment popular support for the war; the study also offers a critical analysis of the media’s conflicted responses to nascent American imperialism.

Cecilia Bonnor, Houston, Texas