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 technological sublime, which invested canals, bridges, railroads, and other human constructions with transcendent significance, played a central role in forming American social and cultural identity.
Each new notion of sublimity constitutes a “new Niagara,” in Irwin’s phrasing. While he focuses on the nineteenth century, his conclusion brings us up to a present when Niagaran sublimity has faded from American spiritual life and become a ghost, like working-stiff socialism and the lonesome whistle that made farm boys say, “Train, someday I’m going someplace on you.”
In an epitaph of the sort that has anchored other meditations on America’s soul—Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden, for instance—Irwin says: “As we look on our wayward technologies, hokey tourist attractions, and off-putting urban-industrial landscapes today, the happy synthesis of nature and technology that the New Niagara formerly promised to the nation seems elusive indeed.”
Indeed. But whatever we feel, the Falls is still there, and “elusive” is not the word that comes to mind when you first see it. When I arrived as a college kid in the 1960s, long after the quest for the sublime had gone the way of transcendentalism, progressivism, antimodernism, aestheticism, or any of the other millenarianisms that appear with such poignant regularity on the American horizon, I was struck merely by the terrible heft of the water as viewed from a wonderfully flimsy guard rail on the Canadian side. The speed and depth of it (twenty feet as it goes over the edge) seemed to boost its specific gravity until it had the thick, smug quality of the toy called a Slinky, a six-inch stack of thin, coiled steel that children set to flipping itself downstairs from riser to riser in an eerie concatenation of Christmas-morning mass and gravity.
Niagara had none of the drawn, attenuated quality you find in the Yellowstone River’s Lower Falls, 308 feet high. There was no sense of a causal tryst with gravity turning into a lifelong romance, like Angel Falls in Venezuela at 3,200 feet. Instead, Niagara seemed to pour, dump, and discharge with industrial necessity, endlessly draining Lake Erie into Lake Ontario.
Such was the sublime-brute experience left behind like a pile of tailings after 150 years of myth-mining. Still, the sublimity of Niagara’s power remained. I don’t recall the presence of Eros, but its cousin Thanatos was there in one word, as it tends to be in the minds of visitors to the Grand Canyon: “Jump.” It was hard to imagine that engineers once proposed shutting down the entire Falls to divert it through electrical turbines, or even to conceive the Canadian-American agreement that lets power companies halve the flow to 50,000 feet in the winter, the tourists’ off-season. Niagara seemed too big for that—capable of overruling both technology and romance, the tamings-down and tartings-up that have been going on since a Franciscan explorer and missionary, Father Louis Hennepin, reported the existence of the Falls to Europe in 1678.
By the mid-eighteenth century it was legend, a Shangri-La, a sort of spiritual equivalent of the Northwest Passage. In 1796, the Duke de La Rochefoucauld Liancourt complained that Great Britain had done nothing to ease the wilderness pilgrimage to “the greatest curiosity in the known world.”
How democratic! But this sort of thinking began the destruction of Niagara’s Burkean sublimity. Two years after the Erie Canal reached nearby Buffalo in 1825, bringing in pilgrims by the barge-load, promoters realized that something had been lost. The Falls needed something…else. One imaginative consortium loaded dogs, cats, wild animals, and a caged eagle aboard a condemned Great Lakes steamer named The Michigan, and lured 30,000 spectators to the banks of the upper rapids by asking the scientific question of whether ship and animals could survive the plunge over the cataract. The ship broke up in the rapids before it ever went over the edge, but spectators had a good time gathering souvenirs from the wreckage. A cat and a goose were reported to have made it to shore.
Along with Thanatos, a preacher named Horatio Parsons described Eros as a criterion of the Niagaran sublime. In a handy, pocket-sized Book of Niagara Falls in 1836, Parsons wrote of performing a moonlit, midnight wedding on Goat Island, below the Falls: “The rapids at such a time sparkle with phosphoric splendor.” He then took “a romantic excursion with the party around the island. This was poetry indeed.” In a more religious vein, Parsons ran the old pulpit routine of taking us from the depths of sin to somewhere over the rainbow—rising from “His indignation, which shall beat upon the wicked…till from the midst of this darkness and these mighty thunderings, the bow, brilliant type of mercy, arises, and spreads its broad arch over the agitated waters, proclaiming that the Omnipotence which rolls the stream is associated with mercy as well as with justice.”
Oh the lovers come a thousand miles
They leave their home and mother
Yet when they reach Niagara Falls
They only see each other.
—popular song of 1841
Though the notion of Niagara as wedding-night site lingered into the mid-twentieth century, it was already fading in 1883, when William Dean Howells wrote “Niagara Revisited, Twelve Years After Their Wedding Journey.” His Basil and Isabel sense something missing: honeymooners basking in the sublimity they had known and remembered. The standard joke, sometimes attributed to Mark Twain, came to be that the second biggest disappointment for an American bride was Niagara Falls, a line that may have been a corruption of Oscar Wilde’s line that “Niagara will survive any criticism of mine. I must say, however, that it is the first disappointment in the married life of many Americans who spend their honeymoon there.”
As late as 1953, when the Falls had been reduced to a polluted clichÌ©, its honeymoon allure was still enough to provide Marilyn Monroe with her first big hit when she grappled with Joseph Cotten in Niagara. Embracing a lover by the cataract after her impotent war-hero husband (Cotten) fails to provide honeymoon sublimity, she teeters, she gasps, hounded and hounding toward The Edge, as she would afterward in both life and film.
At Niagara, as anywhere else, the quest for the erotic sublime tends to create the honky-tonk thrills beloved by filmmakers. Already in the 1820s, Niagara was turning into a clamor of hustlers extracting money from tourists. It would become oddly similar to Las Vegas, which also sanctifies sex, nature, technology, and Omnipotence, though it does it with its famous wedding chapels (where ministers have been known to wear sunglasses and beepers), its outdoor desert vastness, and its artificial indoor dinner-theater thunderstorms, along with the roaring, non-stop enforcement of the Law of Averages. Perhaps American sublimity always decays to smarminess through a series of half-lives that can be measured by escaping particles of romance, morbidity, and finally crime.
During the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, Irwin writes, even “Niagara’s most insistent boosters decried the pestilential convergence of pickpockets, bunco men, gamblers, dope fiends, prostitutes, strippers and ruffians…. Niagara still had its reputation as a disappointing and vulgar resort.” During his visit to the exposition, President McKinley signed the guest book of the Niagara Falls Power Company, an hour before he was shot to death in Buffalo.
The power company was one of the culminating monuments of the technological sublime that gradually took over from the natural and spiritual sublimes sought by earlier visitors. This new manifestation got off to a splendid start in 1855 when John Roebling’s suspension bridge carried a steam locomotive 800 feet from shore to shore, 250 feet above the rapids in the gorge. The view from the bridge was said to be “probably the most sublime of all.” Furthermore, it incorporated the sublimity of both monumentalism and the Egyptian revival of the day in its tapering columns. A British visitor named Charles Mackay said: “Niagara is a handsome thing, but what is it to the bridge! The bridge! why, I hold that to be the finest thing in all God’s universe.”
Electricity leapt from the waters with the first power station in 1882. Thomas Edison and Nicola Tesla vied to get their names linked with Niagara, the place that McClure’s magazine called the “electrical Mecca of the world.”
The technological sublime came to displace the natural sublime among the fickle public. Cosmopolitan magazine recognized that the Falls itself was no longer enough to prompt much rapture, but it reassured its readers that “the new dignity conferred upon Niagara by the engineer will…help to dispel the feeling of disappointment that comes to almost every imaginative person at first view of the Falls.”
Technology led to a turn-of-the-century moment when Niagara seemed to exemplify the progressive sublime as a vision of model factories, cities, workers, and so on. Photographs from back then show power plant control rooms with the unpopulated vastness that persists as a motif in space drama—in Star Trek or 2001, for instance. (How odd this is, seeing that real space travel is done in wildly cramped quarters.) Visionary industrialists such as Henry Perky, founder of the Shredded Wheat Company, built not a factory but the “Natural Food Conservatory.” It drew 100,000 tourists a year with lectures in diet and homemaking, doses of choral singing, and tours of libraries and the company housing of “the happiest industrial organization” in the world, as ads put it. William T. Love, a real estate developer, proposed channeling water from the upper to the lower Niagara River, and generating cheap electricity for factories that would support his 700,000-person “Model City,” which would be a “monument to the progressive spirit of the age—to the genius, goodness and greatness of the American people.” Love would be memorialized by Love Canal, now a synonym for toxic waste, cancer, and populist revolt against corporate greed.
From God’s universe to hygiene lessons—this is the story of so much American spiritual endeavor. By way of analogy, we might note that the same thing would happen to the orgasm in the twentieth century, as it passed from the blood-shouts of Lawrence to the clipboards of Masters and Johnson noting dankness and rankness with a grimness that verged on the lurid.
The Buffalo Electric Show of 1919 tried to domesticate the sublime, as if it were moving Ozzie and Harriet breakfast scenes to Niagara: “The most majestic of all cataracts was giving of its power to the humblest of tasks, for in Buffalo each morning, thousands sat down to Niagara boiled eggs, Niagara broiled bacon, Niagara toasted bread and Niagara percolated coffee. And when breakfast was completed, many of the breakfast dishes were washed by Niagara energized dish washers.” But Niagara was already a clichÌ© by then.
Finally, in this casualty list of Niagaran sublimities, there’s the aesthetic. William Cole, the same man who declared Niagara a benchmark of sublimity, changed his mind, and joined other aesthetes in casting it out of their canon of quietism in its Victorian incarnation. Strange. Not long after crowds cheered shiploads of animals to their deaths, Cole had celebrated Niagara’s “impetuosity and uncontrollable power.” Fifteen years later he wrote: “Not in action, but in repose, is the loftiest element of the sublime.” There was little repose to be found at Niagara, but happily, Cole’s new definition was just right for the tiny knights and pilgrims traversing the twilights of his Voyage of Life series.
In 1869, a reviewer for putnam’s magazine wrote off Frederick Church, the greatest of the painters of the Falls in its thundering majesty, as “sensational rather than poetic.” Burke’s “difficulty of traversal” vanished utterly when tightrope walkers began traversing the Falls. In 1876, according to a photograph provided by Irwin, Signorina Maria Spelterina crossed the Niagara rapids in a scandalously fetching little skirt matched with equally daring buckets for shoes. Tightropists went across with children on their backs, and with wheelbarrows. Toward the end of Buffalo’s 1901 Pan-American Exposition, Mrs. Anna Edson Taylor, a Midwestern schoolteacher, went over the Falls in a barrel. Irwin writes, “Thus Niagara, which a century earlier was too wild, too uncivilized, and too unassailable even for visits by female tourists, had been conquered by a frumpy, middle-aged schoolmarm.”
Meanwhile, true devotees of the sublime were delighted to discover that even with the help of the railroads, it was much harder and more expensive—therefore more conducive to the sublime—to go out West to see Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons, Old Faithful, and the Grand Canyon, which took over from Niagara as exemplars of the natural and aesthetic sublime, at least until environmentalists began complaining that the millions of tourists were destroying the very sublimity they’d come thousands of miles to savor.
Irwin has caution, the hallmark of a good cultural historian, and a quality that verges on the aesthetic in the hands of a master like Leo Marx, Jackson Lears in No Place of Grace, or Warren Susman in Culture as History. This sort of caution protects one from vagueness and quackery, which are the temptations of this new and unsettling business of cultural history. But caution isn’t much good for describing the sublime. Hence the flatness of this book. A little flatter, and it would have been ironic, but Irwin resists this temptation too.
If Irwin’s book were the only record, we’d never suspect that Niagara isn’t a bad place to take the kids nowadays. Astonishment and freakery—which is to say the sublimity of the masses—are still big: the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum, the Spanish Aero Car, the John F. Kennedy assassination exhibit, the Whirlpool Jet boat, and the Magical Houdini Hall of Fame help draw ten million people a year, and make Niagara one of the top five tour-bus destinations in America. The Canadians are building a casino on their side, filling a need prefigured by Guys and Dolls. Adelaide once more gets her horseplaying and ever-delaying fiancÌ© on a train to Niagara, where the “church bells chime/the compartment is air-conditioned and the mood sublime/then they get off at Saratoga for the fourteenth time.”
Asians like the Falls—a tourist park in Shenzen, China, features a model of Niagara 80 meters long and 10 meters high. In Japan, home of the greatest fireworks displays in the world, a standard display is called “Niagara Falls.” The Falls is one of the sites where the Internet Cremation Society offers to scatter your ashes. Didn’t the Three Stooges have a routine where one of them would go berserk, attacking everyone in sight if anyone said the words “Niagara Falls”?
But somehow, unlike Disneyland or Yellowstone, Niagara Falls is dead as a transforming force in American life. Have we poisoned the water by dumping too many natural, erotic, technological, and progressive theories into it? In the same way that a million reproductions have made it difficult for us to see the Mona Lisa, too many new Niagaras have made it hard to think about Niagara at all. As Archilochus said, the problem with maintaining one’s awe before nature, be it Niagara or sexual ecstasy, is that “no event can be beyond expectations.”
Irwin’s book is an epitaph, like other cultural histories in recent years: Patrick McGreevy’s Imagining America: The Making and Meaning of Niagara Falls; John F. Sears’s Sacred Places: American Tourist Attractions in the Nineteenth Century; and Elizabeth McKinsey’s Niagara Falls:Icon of the American Sublime. On the other hand, with ten million visitors a year, there must be something lively still going on, a cultural event whose history has yet to be written. The Falls keeps on falling, in the manner of a vast, empty billboard for lease in the landscape of the American psyche, bearing the words: PUT YOUR MESSAGE HERE.
January 9, 1997