ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance
Joseph J. Moldenhauer
"Thoreau, Hawthorne, and the 'Seven-Mile Panorama'"
References in A Yankee in Canadato a panorama that had made the Saguenay River (a tributary of the lower St. Lawrence) "known to New England," and in The House of the Seven Gablesto Phoebe's attending a "seven-mile panorama," point to a single panoramic painting, William Burr's Moving Mirror of the Lakes, the Niagara, St. Lawrence and Saguenay Rivers. In broadsides and newspaper ads it was called the Seven Mile Mirror;its businessman-proprietor, Burr, wrote a descriptive booklet for sale to viewers. Painted by a team of artists from sketches drawn in 1848 en route, from Buffalo on Lake Erie to the head of the Saguenay, the Mirrorwas exhibited to large crowds in New York City between mid-September 1849 and early January 1850. Subsequently in Boston, where Thoreau and Hawthorne remarked it, the panorama "unrolled" seven or more times weekly over seventeen months. It was attended at Amory Hall and later the Melodeon by an estimated million spectators. Patronage was augmented by Burr's innovative arrangements with the railroads for day excursions of parties from various New England towns to visit Boston and see the panorama, at group fares. The booklet, together with newspaper puffs and ads, reveals the panorama's content and suggests the rhetoric of the narration accompanying its two-hour-long display.
This essay contextualizes Burr's Mirrorwithin Hawthorne's and Thoreau's lives and relevant writings, and within the midcentury fad of "moving panoramas." These were a form of public entertainment combining education (typically geographic and historical) with visual spectacle. Burr's painting enjoyed a contemporary celebrity almost equal to Banvard's better-remembered Mississippi. During the last three weeks of Burr's Amory Hall run, May 1850, Hawthorne lodged in an adjacent boardinghouse; the panorama is one of many popular culture phenomena he noted during the Boston sojourn and incorporated into Seven Gablesand The Blithedale Romance. Thoreau and his friend Ellery Channing took advantage of a cheap rail and steamer tour from Boston to Quebec that Burr promoted in late 1850, exploiting both his experience with group travel schemes and the widespread interest in Canada the Mirrorhad aroused. (This study provides many new particulars about their trip.) Thoreau called his ensuing lecture and the incomplete Putnam's Monthlyserialization "An Excursion to Canada," the entire piece being published posthumously as A Yankee in Canada.
While attracted to river panoramas, Champney's Rhineand Stockwell's Mississippias well as Burr's St. Lawrence and Saguenay, Thoreau was generally dismissive of popular arts and entertainments. Hawthorne, by contrast, was fascinated by mass culture and contemporary technologies of visual display, including daguerreotypes, dioramas, and moving panoramas. He uses these phenomena to good purpose in Seven Gablesfor contrasting Maule (Holgrave) populism and modernity with Pyncheon elitism and traditionalism. Phoebe's panorama visit is one of many details dissociating her from the morbid inwardness of Hepzibah and Clifford and anticipating her middle-class union with the reformed radical Holgrave.