Fall of the Falls

The New Niagara: Tourism, Technology, and the Landscape of Niagara Falls, 1776-1917

by William Irwin
Pennsylvania State University Press, 276 pp., $17.95 (paper)


Niagara Falls was the orgasm of the nineteenth century, an exaltation celebrated the same way the Big O has been celebrated in the twentieth, and with the same cringe-making heartiness, too—from D.H. Lawrence’s Jesus shouting “I am risen!” in the 1920s to the video-porn wet shots now playing in VCRs everywhere.

In 1836, the landscape painter Thomas Cole erupted:

Niagara! that wonder of the world!—where the sublime and beautiful are bound together in an indissoluble chain…. We become a part of what we behold! At our feet the floods of a thousand rivers are poured out—the contents of vast inland seas. In its volume we conceive immensity; in its course, everlasting duration; in its impetuosity, uncontrollable power.

A century later, when sex had far surpassed Niagara as the pre-eminent example of the sublime, Hemingway would go into the same sort of rhapsody, summed up in his famous post-coital query: “But did thee feel the earth move?” He thereby suggested to several decades of college kids a standard for orgasm that could make sex as disappointing as Niagara had already become by 1883, when Oscar Wilde complained that it was “a melancholy place filled with melancholy people, who wandered about trying to get up that feeling of sublimity which the guide books assured them they could do without extra charge.”

Subsuming both cataract and Eros is the once-revered and much-pursued “sublime,” a species of experience whose habitat had shrunk to English departments until it began to be sighted again in the intellectual wetlands of cultural history. In 1757, Edmund Burke laid out the criteria for sublime landscape: obscurity (darkness or mist); power; privation; vastness (the sense of infinity or eternity or duration); difficulty of access or traversal; and magnificence. John Quincy Adams said that Niagara filled that bill as the chief “icon of the American sublime…vast, unmeasurable, unconquerable, inexplicable….” He couldn’t have imagined how utterly wrong he’d seem a century later.

“Sublime objects cut to the onlooker’s psyche inspiring sentiments that were both intensely embracing and repelling,” writes William Irwin in The New Niagara, the latest of a number of cultural histories in the last decade or so grappling with the meaning of Niagara as spiritual, national, and natural symbol. “Niagara Falls was frequently held up as the quintessential example of sublime nature, and it became an important national symbol for America, embodying purity, abundance, and purpose, although the real juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane in the Niagara landscape revealed complex cultural values and tensions.”

Amid the complexities and profanities of honky-tonkery, exploitation, and failed dreams of technological utopias, the Falls itself has stayed much the same to the tourist’s eye—100,000 cubic feet of water falling about 165 feet every second from 4,000 feet of precipice on the American and Canadian sides combined. What has changed is our notion of sublimity. This change is the heart of Irwin’s account. “By mid-century,” he writes,

the symbolism of the technological sublime increasingly supplanted Niagara’s natural sublimity. Throughout nineteenth-century America…the…

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