Category Archives: Comps

The Road To Comps Part 11: Representative Studies of American Culture and Society in the 19th Century Part 1

As this starts the downhill side of the list it is only appropriate for things to get weird. Since many of these literary, print, American culture books are from interlibrary loans, the reading order is currently being structured by when the books are due back to their respected libraries. The other somewhat bizarre occurrence is that the books are starting to all say the same thing. I would like to think this is due to some achievement of enlightenment  on my part and not simply due to the fact that the only people publishing on this topic are the ones on this list. That being said it is getting harder to figure out how these books fit together in the sense that many of them use the same early secondary source and then interpret it slightly differently. I want to keep up the series here until I am finished with the readings and then I can go back and study through here and my notes, but I can see the usefulness starting to drop off at this point. Maybe it is just a lull, maybe not. Either way, I am keeping on keeping on.

Empire and Slavery

Working honestly, when I saw the title Empire and Slavery in American Literature, 1820-1865  I was less than thrilled to undertake it. Make no mistake I know how important it is to student slavery in context, women and gender studies, under representative cultures, etc., but I have a hard time making sure I check each box on things that I write. I refuse to shoehorn asides of race and gender into a narrative if they are not part of what I am researching. Eric Sundquist’s book is delightfully not what I was expecting. I was expecting it to be this dry,  matter-of-fact, treatise on representation of race and slavery within Literature and how imperialism was a misdirection of fools in power.

The greatest strength of Sundquist’s work is his dive into the primary sources. Something that seems to be lacking in many history seminar (and even some research methods) courses. He starts the book out by looking at letters, journals, and autobiographical accounts of individuals to construct a more personal view of the antebellum period with feelings, thoughts, logical interpolations on either side of these enormous but delicate issues. Many of these are the basis (according to Sundquist) for the development of chicano and Mexican literature in the American Southwest. The second part looks at American expansion as it roared over the American Indian and the outcomes of those dispossessed in the form of myths, tales, and songs transcribed by ethnologist, treaty and war orations transcribed by first hand witnesses, and “prose fiction by Indians or their amanuenses” (89). In the final section Sundquist turns to African American literature as well as works by abolitionist and those who were pro-slavery. The book is filled with little known, or unknown works that provide a more even scope of the literature that was circulating in the antebellum period and through the civil war.

History's Shadow

I have had History’s Shadow: Native Americans and Historical Consciousness in the Nineteenth Century for a couple years not since stumbling across it during an art history course. The book is centered on the idea that the Native American question in general, and Native Americans in particular, focused American national historical consciousness during the 19th century. That analysis ends up (many times) revolving around the interplay between popular culture and the professionalization and specialization of academic disciplines.  Moving from the art that allowed for the continued acceptance of the native peoples as all parts of a larger “vanishing race”  Steven Conn follows the main theme of developing anthropology. Linguistics, and especially “objects-based epistemology” had evolved along with the artist’s brush and the archaeologist’s spade. By placing Native Americans into 19th century history instead of just (or only) 19th century anthropology, Conn breaks with longstandign traditions that kept native peoples aligned with their own history (prehistory) and thus vanishing in the face of modernity, and more importantly not being part of their own present. One important point was drawn for anthropologists by Regna Darnell in her review of the book. Her closing line reads, “For anthropologists, the moral may be that Native Americans had a history in American popular thought that preceded the discipline’s hegemony over them.”

Rise and Fall of the White Republic

The Rise and Fall of the White Republic: Class Politics and Mass Culture in Nineteenth Century America is a firm companion piece to a book we used in a undergraduate class sometime ago, and one I expected to show up in more places than this: The Wages of Whiteness. Alexander Saxton’s multidisciplinary approach to questions of race and white egalitarianism is ambition in method and scope. Beyond the politics of the developing political parties (and class) with the “soft racism” of the Whig party among the most interesting issues at hand, it is the mass culture that I found the most interesting. Specifically Saxton’s handling of the Irish use of blackface minstrelsy to establish themselves as white first and catholic second. By distinguishing themselves as something other than the other, they worked at become more of the same (from the ethnic white perspective). A simple take from the work could be that racism is far more than race relations. To expand on this a bit, the question of race specifically lies in the bedrock of the American (white) Republic and pervades through modern times with deeper roots, meanings, and expressions than any one perspective will ever unpack. Ignoring the other nonwhites the quasi-binary here is that nonwhites were incapable of taking part of republicanism because of the “natural” order of things.  To wit: black inhabitants of America were too subjugated into bondage to ever be true participants in a republic while those with Red skin were too free.

Intimate Frontiers

Intimate Frontiers: Sex, Gender, and Culture in Old California was the reverse side of the coin that I was expecting Empire and Slavery to be. It is a short book, and a quick read, but that belies the importance of the points that Albert Hurtado raises. Everything about this book boils down to mixing: mixed blood, mixed marriage, mixed cultures. For the most part it deals with the rations of men to women in California at any one time, specifically during the gold rush which caused more issues than it solved with throngs of men and only few of the “right” women to marry while Native, Mexican, and other “women of color” fell into prostitution in high numbers. Outside sex and gender, Intimate Frontiers is a strong, well written reminder that California is the best example to understand American frontier development. Those living in what becomes California were never a confederate band before it was infiltrated by Franciscans and then Spaniards en masse. From the earliest european involvement on the North American West Coast it was a mixed bag. With Mexican independence from Spain in 1821 the Spanish in California become Mexican, and then with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago they change again into Americans. All the while working within existing cultural hierarchies and patriarchies and things did not get any better when the discovery of gold brought in peoples from all corners of the globe. Areas like San Francisco were culturally diverese in people and architecture, it would take the a city demolishing fire to erase that footprint and see a more homogenous looking city in direct opposition to what the inhabitants exhibited.

American Sensations

American Sensations: Class, Empire, and the Production of Popular Culture (notice a pattern of these subtitles?) looks at popular fiction as a means of understanding the expansion of American culture. Shelley Streeby analyzes dime novels and popular fiction as it pertained to things like the Mexican War. Some may be surprised at the sex and violence that purveys the 19th century texts that she analyzes, but it is as true for then as now that sex and violence sells books. But Streeby’s analysis goes further than the materialistic and looks at publishers political bents. Specifically George Lippard and how his catholic paranoia and desire to fight industrialism by empire building led to his books being filled with blood, guts, and sex. Even Lippard’s non Mexican War related texts were heavily Gothic in tone and were brimming with scenes of massacres, rapes, naked women, and sided with the class struggles with a position of damn the rich and champion the poor.


Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America should be read by anyone with an opinion on what consists of learn-ed culture. Lawrence Levine follows the decline of a rich, largely shared culture (or even a common cultural consciousness) from 1840s into the 1890s. He starts by looking at the popularity of Shakespeare within the public and just how well known the bard’s work was. The impetus for this pursuit came from the realization that many of the blackface minstrel jokers were parodies of Shakespeare, and you can’t pardoy what isn’t popular (or unknown). This is something I have thought about since learning that the stagehands on the east coast were largely made up of sailors on shore leave since they had a working knowledge of ropes, knots, and rigging. The idea that these sailors would be quoting and/or performing the plays while at sea has always made me smile. Levine’s work is the strongest independent confirmation that those thoughts might indeed hold water. It seems that is is the bifurcation of culture follows the development of those class stuggles that Lippard would have been writing about. Serious, learned, high, art and culture opposed the popular, vulgar, and low forms of entertainment.  That Levine opened these doors and lines of questioning in 1988 it is sad that only a few scholars have attempted to follow up on them or go through them. Honestly I see more who are comfortable with their seat in “high” culture that would like to close the doors that Levine opened. This is the problems that Whitman and Poe were lamenting, that they never reached the people. Their work, Whitman’s especially, while about the common man were adopted by the quasi intellectuals and discussed out of sight of the public. Twain, on the other hand managed to tap into that popular mass with a loss of potency of his social criticism. There are reasons you won’t see a Norman Rockwell exhibit at the MET even though it would likely be one of the most attended in memory. The problem is, as Levine quotes in the end “The public is an ass” and it is exactly those asses the MET doesn’t care to have en masse at the sites of high art. This book is paired usefully with The Temple and the Forum from last week. To cite a modern example, what Levine is describing is exactly what happened to the music of Tracy Chapman in the 1990s. Her songs, mainly about lower class minorities, found its strongest fanbase in white middle class suburbia. The people that make culture define culture. As I have gotten back into comics since starting work towards a PhD, I recall several honors English courses at my undergrad alma mater that utilized graphic novels for literary criticism. Much to the chagrin of some members of the faculty, how can you waste time teaching with such aspects of popular culture. As  Levine implies, you always have to say “popular culture” with a sneer, because anything popular can’t possible be useful except in all the cases illustrated through the books in this section.

The Road to Comps Part 10: Literary and Print Culture Part 2

Welcome back to the “teach yourself literary criticism in 12 easy steps” portion of this endeavor.  This will actually (likely) be s shorter than average post as almost half of the readings subdivided here were companions or intros to Poe or Twain.  The differences in which are interesting themselves and something I will come back to at the end.

Temple and the Forum

The first at bat here (world series between the Indians and Cubs is currently underway)  is a holdover from when my rough lists included much more about the history of display and museum culture/theory. The Temple and the Forum: The American Museum and Cultural Authority in Hawthorne, Melville, Stowe, and Whitman will be one of those books I try to teach with in the rare event there are any tenure track positions available when and if I survive all this. Les Harrison looks back at the developments of three “American” museums: Peale’s, Barnum’s, and the Smithsonian.  The idea of democratic, or even public, discourse is shaped by the architecture of these buildings and the cities where they reside(d). The temple is filled with reverence for more than holy nature, but it is the paramount example of unidirectional authority. Specialist (or at least the initiated) were the ones dispensing and recollecting the order of nature. The forum on the other hand was (and is) the bustling arena for opinions, thoughts, private enterprise, and in some of the examples of Barnum: the popular, the bizarre, and the humbug.

But, it isn’t just about museums. The subtitle is your pocket-seized who’s who of American literature.  Hawthorne emerges as the showman shining the spotlight on the tensions between the temple of the official history and the forum of fiction. Interestingly, Harrison sets Melville’s Moby Dick up as a confrontation with both the temple and the forum for the manner in which both were being controlled and shaped by Ahab-esque showmen.  Stowe’s work seems to follow the same arc as the museums–from a Peale light narration through the stage plays and literal exhibition in the forum of theatre in not one, but two extremely popular forums in New York alone. Wrapping up with Whitman Harrison situated Specimen Days under the complete iron dome of the capital building finalizing the United States growth politically, scientifically, and through much personal exertion on Whitman’s part, culturally.

A Fictive People

A Fictive People could follow a few paths, but its subtitle Economic Development and the American Reading Public set out from the cover to explain the impact of such things as high literacy rates, improved printing technology, new schooling systems, and the “cult of domesticity” had on the “golden age of reading.”  This isn’t a cause an effect history. It is almost the opposite. Ronald Zboray moves from the earlier travel records of Europeans visiting America through the merchant travels of booksellers and increased publishing all to show that far from democratizing the populace, economic development actually exacerbated the regional differences within the country, and not just in literary tastes.

Even after the development of a book trade, distribution networks were still differentiated by region, tastes and consumption (of potable and non potable goods) remained stratified by class, colonial preferences still remained (even if dress in new post colonial clothes). On the other side of the analysis Zboray reveals that reader’s tastes were not as radically divided aling gender lines. It would appear, to paraphrase someone we will be talking about later, that the arrival of a “mass literary marketplace” in the 1850s have been greatly exaggerated.

American Literature and Science

Understanding American literature in the antebellum, and most of the post-bellum period means understanding the entire cultural context of the United States. This is true for American Science, American religion, American art, and American Apparel. The collection of essays in American Literature and Science (ed. Robert Scholnick) cuts a cross-section through the period with a host of well-known American men of letters. During the early republic science and literature could be pursued together in the cases of Franklin and Jefferson. The growing schism between the two towards separate specialties and professions are chronicled by Thoreau, Poe, and Emerson among others.  The essays fall short of the modern period, although Scholnick does mention modern essayist such as Stephen J Gould, Lewis Thomas, and John McPhee at varioud times in the introduction. The later chapters highlight how science and literature still speak to each other, sometimes subliminally, across the rift that is modernism. In the closing essay N. Katherine Hayles discussions (airs her justified annoyance) that most of the science and literature literature focuses on how science influences (or influenced) literature. In the end science, like literature, is a cultural construct and both of them need to be considered (and understood) as two sites within a complex cultural field” (229).

Walt Whitman

Walt. Whitman.  I have never especially cared for poetry. Sometimes I still have a bit of an issue with the fact that it is perfectly okay for it to not rhyme. So, coming to Whitman as a cultural icon instead of an iconoclast probably sets me at a disadvantage when considering his mark on American Culture. Luckily David Reynolds (we’ve discussed some of his other work before) has a giant horse pill of a book to help reposition Whitman within a broader cultural context (sometimes created by Whitman).  Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography  I think is less about Whitman’s life regarding Whitman and more a biography of cultural told through the development of Whitman. This is like thinking that Anne Rice just wanted to write books about world history and decided that the immortal undead is the best vehicle for such.

Reynolds takes down this notion that Whitman is America and American is Whitman. I was unaware that this was the case. This was my first exposure to Whitman’s bohemian ways endearing him as America’s native son. Good thing, because it turns out that such a notion isn’t entirely true.  The overall arc of Whitman’s life fits with the arc of American culture. His best plan was living longer than many of his contemporaries. For many of the cultural monoliths we do not have baselines for comparison pre and post civil war. Reynolds begins and ends the book with Whitman’s 70th birthday to show that the zenith of the American Cultural celebration for Whitman coincided with the author’s largest absorption of capitalism and self promotion.

The middle bit of this nearly 700 page handbook to the 19th century is filled, sometimes to overflowing, of analysis or art, literature, and science. Similar to Reynolds other work Waking Giant it borders on sensory overload for the reader but provides a familiar avenue to access Whitman for nearly anyone.  Reynolds also uses the same high school yearbook type run of portraits in the center of the book. He also includes some of the art discussed as corresponding (in most  cases 1:1) with lines of Whitman’s poems. The Alfred Jacob Miller piece is striking because I blogged about it for an art history course and I will be taking up studies of Miller in a few weeks. Maybe this means I am on the right track. When Whitman’s likeness is used for cigars it is more or less proof that he has become American culture. Reynolds, and perhaps Whitman himself, believes that this was less than what Whitman was hoping for. Even at the end of his life Whitman lamented not getting through to the “people” and being a more powerful agent of social change in the the world, especially after the  Civil War. As I stated earlier, I think that to follow Whitman through the 19th century is to follow American Culture through the same.

The cigars were called "blades o' grass"
The cigars were called “blades o’ grass”

Poe and Twain. I am not sure this isn’t akin to that Beatles or Elvis question from Pulp Fiction. That is to say that you are one or the other. You may be an Elvis person that likes some Beatles stuff, but you can’t be booth. (Man, there is a lot of italics emphasis in this post). Is it the same for Poe and Twain. It seems that way, but then you can break it down farther with Poe. Do you prefer Poe’s poetry or prose? I have always preferred the prose with the exception of The Raven and Annabelle Lee. Again this is how I came to Poe first, so reading in these companions that it is only recently his fiction has become mainstream, is a bit of a shock.

The introductions are the same, but the companion to the works are markedly different. What if Poe had lived as long as Twain?
The introductions are the same, but the companion to the works are markedly different. What if Poe had lived as long as Twain?

Poe, whatever his faults, seems to have always had his finger on the pulse of American Culture. Like Whitman’s lament Poe never really reached the “people” either, save the immense popularity of The Raven. (he even wrote that the bird outdid the bug, in response to the poem overshadowing his most popular prose The Gold-Bug).  He is seen as a hoaxer with Hanns Phaal and Balloons, or MS found in a bottle. He was also an astute critic in the press, much to the detriment of his personal amicability. His science work may arguably be ancestral to science fiction. With Eureka, which was dedicated to Alexander von Humboldt,  among others being prescient into the 20th century. His satire of Egyptomania and deferment to science in “Some Words with a Mummy” is one of my personal favorites.

Cambridge Companion to Poe

Back in American Literature and Science the Poe chapter looks at his use of Newtonian and Platonic theories of optics. Looking and seeing is a lasting distinguishing theme in my own work, probably only second to authenticity and authority. The work here allows for both Newton and Plato to argue the same case. Newtonian optics for the actual mechanical process of looking, and more or less sight, while the older “untrue” system is where the seat of imagination and actual “seeing” comes into play. This is the type of thing that give examples to Poe’s brilliance. There is almost no escaping tragedy in Poe’s life, some self-inflicted, most beyond his own control. Poe, defining, or defiling genres is at his best and the most tragic thing for American literary culture is that he died in the middle of it. Better known, if not better appreciated in Europe it seems fitting to end with the modern cliché that he was known as a genius in France.

Introduction to Poe

Mark Twain. Use this in its actual working context and know that the waters are dangerous and shallow here. Twain is one of those people that are eminently miss-quotable for any occasion. Think of him as an American Oscar Wilde. God, he would hate that. You can’t get out of the American school system without getting Twain on you. Unfortunately it is always the same stuff and it is getting harder to wash off. I will stop here to say that to a certain extent I love Twain and have fond memories of reading things that aren’t Tom or Huck related.

Introduction to Twain

Twain was a humorist. He was funny, and that is exactly why he has endured this long. He is still funny. The reason that he is have less to do with his prophetic ability and more to do with the stagnation of culture. I think Twain remains popular because of the massive amounts of anti-intellectualism that is injected into his work. We still have a culture divided over book-learnin’. On one side, it doesn’t teach common sense, but on the other it doesn’t elevate to the levels of pretense that some like to subscribe. If Poe was the pulse of culture Twain is the pulse of class. The companions and introductions all  treat Mark Twain as more than a pseudonym. Samuel Clemens needs a vehicle to travel through the frequently disunited states in order to make reports back to the reader and it not be a personal affiliation. This adds great strength to the ideas brought forth in Fictive People. 

Oxford companion to Twain

Twain’s “hoaxes,” humor, or satire always tend to attack the establishment from the outside. Always the outsider, similar to that honed identity of Whitman and practiced nature of Poe are the hallmarks of Americana. Twain reached the people that Poe and Whitman missed. This seems mainly due to the popular press, and the reading public’s penchant for fiction. In the end Twain spins a good yarn, even if they follow the same model and employ many of the same tropes.

Cambridge companion to Twain
I didn’t read this one, just making you aware that Cambridge has a companion volume too.

There were others writing satirical humor against science and culture, but it was done from a different background, most notably George Derby. Derby was West Point stock from the immortal class of 1846 with Grant, McClellan, Pickett, and Stonewall Jackson. A student of science, Derby, under the name John Phoenix, skewered the plethora of “official report” literature coming in from the American West. Derby makes fun of the scientists Twain makes fun of the science. Derby’s surveyors serve the same purpose as Poe’s (and Locke’s) hoaxes: they are warnings against uncritical acceptance of “facts.” Twain makes fun of the science, and uses that to later launch personal attacks on the likes of O.C. Marsh for mishandling federal funds finding birds with teeth.  More attacks on science (specifically paleontology and the “fossil craze”) in Twain’s “Petrified Man” are hard social commentary. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court presents and even more dire portait of the unstoppable juggernaut of American technology. These aren’t just stories for stories sake, even if they do get absorbed separately from their social warnings.

I don't think Goofy has the same effect on the warning of unfettered American Industry.
I don’t think Goofy has the same effect on the warning of unfettered American Industry.

Understanding more about Twain has led me to realize why I only like some of his work now. Like Poe it is usually his lesser studied (or assigned) works. A Tramp Abroad is one that comes to mind immediately. Although I have a full collection of Twain’s work, I always find myself skipping over Tom, Huck, and Pudd’n Head  for some of the more entertaining collection of essays. The best analogy I can find for moving beyond the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn is when you finally outgrow Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama.  Even with their works tilt the same way their methods and means are still markedly different. Twain’s Yankee modernizes (and ultimately destroys) King Arthur’s Court, while Poe’s mummy offers a retort for every piece of ‘modern’ life, save on. The ultimate production of American society, industrial, economical culture is the cough drop. That is probably why I like that story so much.

The Road to Comps Part 9: Literary and Print Culture Part 1

This literary and print culture is one of the longer subsections and for means of brevity, sanity, and any semblance of understanding I have cut it close to half (8/7) in order to try and make sense of it.

The Sun and the Moon

One of my favorite books, and, incidentally, one of the most recent published in this menagerie is Matthew Goodman’s The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxes, Showmen, Dueling, Journalist and Lunar Man-Bats. The books over-arching cohesion comes in the form of the “Moon hoax” printed in the New York Sun newspaper in 1835. The rest of the subtitle is spread throughout the book with enough force that a hard-nosed editor would have required Goodman to make this three different books.

Other than struggling with competing narrative syndrome, the book is an excellent collection of newspaper and cultural American History in the 1830s. The main theme of the Moon Hoax is te discovery of living beings on the moon, reported as matter of fact in the same style as the scientific articles, in fact it was said to be reprinted from a science journal. that were gaining popularity with the new readers of the penny press.

Since Locke’s Moon story for the Sun was similar to one of Poe’s stories (Hans Pfaal) Poe remains a secondary character with a large footprint for the rest of the book. He serves as a kind of pivot point to look at other hoaxing (diddling) during the period from his exposing a chess playing automaton which was connected to Barnum enough for a Barnum chapter and the slave who was supposed to be a nurse of a young George Washington. You can see why it was easy to get carried away outside the moon hoax proper.

The rest of this is just a mess of literary criticism, scholars talking across one another to establish methodologies to “save” novels from obscurity, or to argued against the structured canon of distinctly “American” Literature.  It really doesn’t matter where we start there will be some broad brushing from here on.

Lay of the Land

The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters can be wholly summed up as a discussion of works in which nature is described, regarded, treated, vilified, etc as feminine.  The box that Annette Kolodny is unpacking (in 1975) is the idea that to talk about land as being both motherly sustaining and virgin to be taken leads to some great cognitive dissonance within the rhetoric of nearly anything in print. Land as both mother and mistress is something that, according to Kolodny, leads to the destruction of the environment as the frontier gradually disappeared. The destruction was ultimately the result of frustration and disillusionment. Freud would be proud.

As I understand it this is one of the earliest attempts are drawing tools across disciplines, in this case psycho-linguisitics, cultural history, literary history, and the analysis of symbols, to understand and possibly recreate how certain instances of the past influenced certain ways of thinking, describing, or writing.  She claims that it would raise more questions than it provided answers (it does) and that is should start a conversation which I *think* is part of the impetus for some of the books that follow.

Beneath the American Renaissance

Beneath the American Renaissance is where I realized that I might be floundering more than a little out of my element, not being a trained student in American Literature. This was my first foray into the American Renaissance both as an idea and as a place in time. I understand the connotations (similar to the Harlem Renaissance a century later), but I can’t help but get hung up on the idea that there was nothing in the pre-colonial period close to this level of “pure cultural development” that could be “reborn” in the early 19th century. In that case it is more of an American naissance than anything resembling a re. 

That being said the idea (and subtitle) that it was The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville promises a way to understand what makes American literature distinctly American.  The book exists to expand (get beneath) ye olde F.O. Mathiesson’s American Renaissance. Reynolds work challenges the idea that the (now famous) American authors were not “marginal figures in a society that offered few literary materials.” This established notion rests on the idea of what constituted “literary materials.”

Buried within Reynolds’ genre collecting and labeling is the most useful parts of the book. The connections between “high” American authors–Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorn, Poe, Melville, Whitman, Dickinson–and the “low” popular literature are exactly what made them the standard syllabi for Am. Lit now. Far from being “ahead of their time” or “above the flow” each of these authors gleaned much (in content and even style) from the popular literature including sentimental fiction, sensational  novels, reform tracts with “anonymous” authors, penny papers (which included trial reports), and dark humor.

Lay of the Land

Whereas Reynolds wants to expand Matthiesson’s pantheon, Jane Tompkins’ Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction wishes to deconstruct it completely. She says as much near the end: “this present study and Mattheissen’s are competing attempts to constitute American Literature” (200).  This is in the final chapter entitled “But is it any good?” the question that dogs the inclusion of some of the popular works that Tompkins highlights including Wieland, Arthur Mervyn, and the standard-bearer Last of the Mohicans. This becomes and argument (with Matthiesson, I think) over the canon of American Literature. She even has a chapter called “The Other American Renaissance.”  What the book mostly covers is the work of Susan Warner compared to Hawthorne. Hawthorne was aided by “circumstances” and Warner was hindered by (literally) not being Hawthorn. Partly I believe Tompkin’s is right, may of these works need to be brought in and studied as canonical, or at least historical works within antebellum American, just as Reynolds suggests with his inclusion of Poe and Dickinson on Matthiesson’s pantheon, there is room for Tompkin’s inclusions, but (and I think this is probably due to it being the 80s) she seems to think that there are only a set number of spaces and some of Matthiesson’s hallmarks need to be removed before Warner can taker her place. Taken together, instead of one of the other, these three works–Matthiesson from 1941, Tompkins, 1986, and Reynolds in 1988–can serve to get a much more holistic picture of early 19th century American literature.

Carnival on the Page

Some of that dark humor and popular fiction comes to the front in Isabelle Lehuu’s Carnival on the Page: Popular Print Media in Antebellum American. This book did not go in any direction that I had figured. Lehuu’s model from literary criticism (Mikhail Bakhtim) and Anthropology (Victor Turner’s liminality work) make for a less than charming odd couple. The idea that the carnival atmosphere from open markets and feasts in the middle ages is reinvented in the fiction of Antebellum America. The book itself is a carnival of sorts looking at a vast sample of Antebellum print materials including those penny newspapers mentioned above, illustrated ladies magazines, giant newspapers and giftbooks.

Lehuu’s position is that these publications significantly changed the cultural landscape of America by challenging the definition of what constituted a “book.” American literature could be shaped (and was according to Lehuu) by printed artifacts that were “cheap, light, and grotesque.”  These may have led to a “rupture” in print culture that separated the Antebellum period from its past and its present. This perspective depends on the idea that Antebellum literature looked a lot like it is taught to sophomores–that is expensive, homogenous, and serious. As we’ve seen in the other cases not only is that not true, but it was many of the light, cheap, and grotesque sources that fed the “greats” that are taught as cementing Antebellum literature as expensive, homogenous, and serious. She also lumps penny press papers into the same genre as yellow journalism, which I find extremely problematic.

Science and Technology in the Age of Hawthorne

Sam Halliday’s Science and Technology in the Age of Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, and James: Thinking and Writing Electricity swerves a little more into the science lane. Sort of. The book looks at the literary appropriated of science and technology vocabulary, in this case electricity. This is a continued list of examples where electricity is either a thing to be written about or described, a thing used to describe, or varying operations of bother. The “spark” and various other electrical subtexts serve as model, metaphor, or substance for ideas. Electric communications led to new ways of miscommunication and misrepresentation (think of the modern equivalent being the impossibility of read tone or mood in text messages and spam emails). It also brought people across a growing nation together and allowed for the alienation of these nearby.  It was these social constructs and cultural changes that lead to not only the “low” accounts of the popular press expressing worry or more often cynicism, to the more lofty accounts of the age by those mentioned in the books title. It was things like electricity and the telegraph and others that influenced both thinking and writing. An interested note, one of the reviews for this book that I read mentioned early on that Halliday’s study was “grounded in scientific and technological developments.” I would like to think that this is another example of electrical metaphor (of course it could just mean that Halliday’s head isn’t in the clouds, but I will give the reviewer the benefit of appreciating the imagery).  It also reminds me of one of the more popular Schoolhouse Rock videos that compares your nervous system to a telegraph line:

Sins Against Science is an attempt to analyze the text and reader response to (subtitle) The Scientific Media Hoaxes of Poe, Twain, and Others. There are pieces of this book that are phenomenal. There are other pieces of this book that show a newly developed methodology for literature and reader analysis on historical texts in a way to make it quantifiable. That isn’t the benefit of the book.

Sins Against Science

The useful parts of the book help you understand why the people might have believed media hoaxes. She uses a couple of examples byTwain, a few from Poe, and old Twain employer and colleague Dan DeQuille (William Wright). The notion that these hoaxes were presented in the same manner as actual factual texts is the broadest basis for understanding why people could be taken it. Most were attempts to show the public that their unquestioning faith in the science bug could have dire consequences. In these instances the morals are more along the lines of “in this case, you just look foolish, but you could have lost money, life or limb in other instances.” Other times it was just Twain being annoyed with the latest scientific “fads”–fossils in the case of his “Petrified Man” stories or Poe’s annoyance at the public funding of science at the expense of the arts.

Poe was trained in science in Philadelphia, and Dan DeQuille had been a miner before becoming a journalist. These instances were not only instances of “copying” science writing, both had been science writers at some time during their careers. The problem for historians using this book is that when you jump over all the “I’ve harnessed SPSS to study the humanities” (that is unfairly critical I know) you are left with interesting instances that could easily be tied together for a better understanding of how they managed to continue to be successful (or not) in the face of contrary facts.  At best it is a proof of concept for Lynda Walsh’s approach to understanding historical readerships. At worst it is a disassociated set of essays with some interesting asides into print culture. Where she mentions Lyell’s work in a quasi-asside it is evident that she has either never read Rudwick, or did not take what he said to heart, or where Lyell’s work sat within the circles of the English Geologist (as conservative and falling back on the old “theories of the earth” stance). There are other glaring omissions as well. In a book about Media hoaxes by Poe one would expect an analysis of his work on diddling.  If you can manage to wade through the over abundance of theorectical vocabulary and situational ists and isms in the beginning the individual chapters may serve as a start towards a better understanding of the cultural association of hoaxes within American society as a whole, and not just historically. It is just going to take someone besides Walsh to make that happen. Walsh ends the book the the 1996 Sokal Hoax wherein a paper “liberally sprinkled with nonsense” appeared in a postmodern cultural studies journal in an attempt to show that it was the postmodernists (specifically, but maybe not entirely, the cultural studies folks) were the real sinners against science.

Women of Letters

Nina Baym’s book would be better suited if the title and the subtitle were switched: American Women of Letters and the Nineteenth Century Sciences: Styles of Affiliation.  It is the affiliations that drive the book to uncover the ways in which women writers responded to the sciences.  Women did not challenge the premises of the sciences and later its developing professionalization or that it was a male-dominated institution. The affiliations here are between the middle class woman and science. From science women (and I suppose more broadly Woman) could gain connections to reason, progress and modernity. On the other hand, women could provide science with popularizers, appreciators, and (more importantly) consumers. Nature writing, ladies magazines, and education promotion were just some of the topics that women of letters were publishing. Botany as we’ve seen in the earlier posts again rules supreme in the eye of these appreciators. Botany was hailed as the perfect hobby for a middle class wife living in the country in order to stave off boredom. Beyond the cadre of women popularizers Baym looks at the wives of men of note who were generating scientific knowledge. Either as illustrator or, in the case of Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, her husband’s “ghostwriter and publicist.” More than just bringing women out of obscurity Baym’s work provides a more complete image of the scientific writings that Walsh deemed so common to the laypeople on either side of the 1840s. In the end it provides readers with, among other catalogue lists, the outline for the strategies middle class women of letters used to associate themselves with science as well as the limitations of the same affiliations.

The Road to Comps Part 8: American Studies Background

This is an area of study I had no idea existed, wanted to pursue, and was then told there would be no jobs all in about 3 months time. Of course, the job field isn’t exactly a tyranny of choice these days for anything else either.

The background subsections are here to give me false hope about productivity and quick blog posts. The bulk of this section was collections, anthologies, and companions. In that sense they aren’t much for the reviewing process as they outline the state of the field and then offer the best (in their opinion) sources to understand why the field is in that shape it’s in. American Exceptionalism works to deconstruct the phrase in order to understand what it meant to those in the past and less about what it means to us. If there is anything that I have learned, either through study or life, it is that it doesn’t necessarily matter if something is true, what matters is how people react to the idea that it is (the corollary of this is also true). 946298

That being said all the relevant chapters include books that are on the list and will be included in future posts as well as books I am familiar with from my time as a graduate student is just “History.” Specifically mentioned were books The Shopkeeper’s Millennium and Wages of Whiteness both of which were part of an “Age of Jackson.” Other essays were written by authors that constituted most of my readings from Art History.

What do they say about American Studies? Some that it was inevitable others that is might by unfocused. “Practical dilettantes” I think was my favorite phrase. I still can not figure out why working across disciplines is either novel or revolutionary. How can you piece together any historical event without understand the people, places,  and things involved in its construction. It goes far beyond who was president and has much to do with what the public was reading, watching, gossiping, and more often then not, concern for their (and other’s) salvation.

American Studies

You can study American History, American Literature, Religion, Women and Gender, etc and you can become an expert on describing whatever part of the elephant you’ve chosen (been assigned). It isn’t even as if we have institutions in place to allow these people to talk to each other in order to provide a broader context. No. We allow them to talk amongst themselves at conferences setup for their specific work. From what I see and understand American Studies was the first semi-successful attempt to fight this mutual admiration society plague. It is also something that I have been employing in my own work as well. It doesn’t hurt that one of my professors is an American Studies PhD.

To visualize this process think of a round room with windows looking out into every conceivable direction. Each window has a shade (or a venetian blind, if that’s your thing). Going through straight history you have a chosen window to look through. If you work on fringe areas or across set “times” you may get to peak out either of the adjacent windows. History of Science folks get opposing windows (think of it like a color wheel) and might accidentally get to see out someone else’s window. American Studies folks get to move around the room in its entirety looking through any window they wish with the great privilege  of enjoying the view or closing the blinds again. The more ambitious might set up mirrors in the room so they can look out their window and the one behind them at the same time. I seem to have fallen into the arc of studying American Cultural History of Science. This means I have entered the room, ripped all the blinds down, left the door open, and raised all the windows so I can yell to other towers.

I wrote a paper on the American Circus once, it was brilliant but I almost failed because it was cultural history and not a Historiography (which I loathe)
I wrote a paper on the American Circus once, it was brilliant but I almost failed because it was cultural history and not a Historiography (which I loathe)

That Age of Jackson course I mentioned was one of the better courses I took in college. The arguments about what to call the period, while not entirely irrelevant, tend to miss the point about the importance of the “Era of Good Feeling.” Jackson was the president of the common man. This means the common white man. There is absolutely zero ambiguity here.  The problem seems to stem with the “marketing” of that period now to historians who aren’t white men.

Waking Giant

Some of the complaints I found about David Reynolds’ Waking Giant was that it simply retold everything that had been done to date by Schlesinger, Sellers (Charles, not Peter), and Watson, and he does, but it needs to remain part of the conversation. I don’t think any historian writing today believes the “Age of Jackson” as benign. But just because the period was more nuanced doesn’t mean you let the classic narrative stale while the rest of the facets get brought into more recent scholarship. You are swinging the pendulum to far in the other direction, and if it isn’t fair to ignore all the outliers then how can you structure a narrative without the major movers an shakers.

I still have the readings from that old Age of Jackson class and between reading this and What Hath God Wrought I pulled many of them out. I liked them specifically because they were assigned primary sources and we worked through what they meant, we didn’t argue about what other people thought they meant. This should *not* be a novel way to teach history. I distinctly remember reading through my binders during lunch at work when someone asked what I was reading. I showed them half of the paper and said ” These are documents sent to the American Government by Indians saying they have the right to exist, and these (showing the other half) are from Andrew Jackson and his representatives saying that they don’t.” Reynolds’ approach to his antebellum history follows the same lines with updated scholarship and it was fortuitous that I read it first to review what I understood about the period.

What Hath God Wrought

It wasn’t actually fortuitous it was practical because Waking Giant is half the size of What Hath God Wrought.  As I said this was a one or the other setup but since I was ahead of schedule on my readings and that invariable sets off my self-sabotage systems I wanted to tackle them both. And why not? This is one of the most interesting periods in American History.

David Howe’s What Hath God Wrought is summarily a bible for antebellum history. It, as we will come to see, is the epitome of American Studies crossing discilpine boundaries to look at culture, literature, art, politics, socio-economic, and more than a bit of biography. That being said it is a huge pro-whig book. This is why it serves to “balance” the standard Age of Jackson discussion by imbalancing in the opposite directions. I honestly think he wanted to write a biography of John Quincy Adams, but as a genre biography is frowned upon by the establishment, so he went with this behemouth. He spent a good deal of time talking about the Amistad case as well which seems like a good time to share this again.

The great strengths of the book are the arguments against the ideas of market or even solely technological revolution. Throughout he takes great pains to deconstruct ye olde theories and reveals that the market was constantly changing before the expansion and while railroads could count as either one of the above revolutions they were part of a larger whole. Think of it as “if everything was a revolution then nothing was.” Except Howe’s concluding chapter dealing with the women’s rights revolution being the most important of 1848.

Know that if you read either just Reynolds or Howe you will almost literally get half the story behind the massive amounts of change as American influence (and land ownership) stretch from Appalachia all the way to the Pacific. As someone who grew up in Tyler County, Texas that is next to Polk County, the chapters on Texas Annexation and expansionism were the most interesting. For a wide ranging book Howe was able to go surprisingly deep into the altercations in the Southwest that led to varying outcomes and war with Mexico. Seeing his comparison between a US Map of 1848 and a Map of the US “as Polk would have have it” was an incredible piece of visual aid. Additionally, many of the images chosen for the book (that weren’t political yearbook-esque) were paintings that I have blogged about from my art history courses.

The US through 1848 v. The US as Polk Wanted

This is the background for the next few weeks of reading and some of my favorite books and authors will be discussed. More literature than I have taken in a while and it will be interesting to see how some of these works tie together across the disciplines and across the dates they were published.


The Road to Comps Part 7: Scenic Turnout 1

I have finally finished the first section of the comps list. This marks the end of the first “question” in theory if not practice. Most of my work crosses the subdivision created to make the list make more sense. Before I start to work on the rest (I am almost finished with the background section on the American Studies portion at the moment) I wanted to share some of the things I have learned about this type of work and how I manage to stay sane throughout the attempts to synthesize everything in print.

Scheduling. This seems obvious and impossible. It isn’t so much of “I must read 173 pages every 2 hours in order to finish this” as much as it is setting aside chunks of time to work on the sources, but also (and sometimes more importantly) having chunks of time where you don’t. Through the first few weeks I would use the weekends to catchup on things I missed and would marathon through 2 or 3 books each day on Saturday and Sunday. While this allowed me to get our regular blog posts and keep ahead of where I thought I should be it became a doldrum of monotony after two weeks. After I finished the first section I revamped the schedule and took another look at the list.

First thing I did was stop marathoning the weekends. I started to treat Saturday and Sunday like the rest of the days of the week (in relation to prepping for comps anyway). This means I get up at the same time but instead of going to work I take care of things around the house until the time I would be off anyway. Then I fix something to eat, watch my dinner episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and set off to reading. This was less monotonous but wasn’t very different from the previous, and it wasn’t getting me any farther ahead on the readings.

Talking to a Troll on a Bridge
Talking to a Troll on a Bridge

I once was a boilermaker. I worked shutdowns in industrial maintenance. This means 7/12s (seven days a week, 12 hours each day) until the shutdown or turnaround was over. These typically lasted several weeks and then we would have time off until the next one. Turns out several weeks of the same thing is about all you can handle, especially when it is reading a normal size book a day (I saw “normal” to mean abound 350 pages  which is about what I can digest in a day’s reading). So I took another look at the list and pulled out the calendar.

By putting a book on the calendar and doubling for some of these anthology pieces (and the Walt Whitman biography beast) and by getting up an hour earlier, I manage to free a full day on the weekend to do nothing related to comps. That probably isn’t entirely true as almost everything I end up doing finds its way into my work. But, hey, a day off! It also serves as a buffer in case something comes up that would interfere with our regularly schedule program. In the most recent case it was attending the opening of our Picturing Indian Territory exhibit at the art museum.

Orko the magnificent
Orko the magnificent

With the current schedule running, I am actually at the time of writing this, a day and book ahead, I will read the final book on my list a few days after Christmas. That is if I continue to treat the days of break as workdays. The days for blogging have been built in as well. This one was supposed to be tomorrow and the next a couple days later, but I think I can get two out this weekend (don’t look for that to become a common occurrence anytime soon).

What do I do on the days I am not reading? I spend it painting and pastelling random bits of pop culture from 80s cartoons. At least that is what the last one consisted of.  It happened that the end of the first section and the second time I had a full day off hit together so I finished a prepared board and canvas in the morning and took a more ambitious project after lunch. In addition to arting it up, I have been utilizing my obsolete iPhone to try capture a time-lapse of the mess. Below are the time lapse creations of the fruits of a day off when I could have read at least two books:

The first was a prepared board for pastels for Egon talking to the King Troll from the episode Troll Bridge 

As you can see the capturing system (and the art) is far from a professional affair.  But I also had a small canvas for Orko, to celebrate the recent beginning of a 6 issue DC comics crossover of He-Man and the Thundercats.

The great thing about painting bits of cartoons from 30 years ago is they mainly use primary colors. This is extremely helpful for someone who is colorblind. In fact, since the pastels don’t have labels, I don’t do them unless my wife is here to double check skin tones or accessory colors. I suppose one day I will do something random as I see them or match them to what I see, but currently I would like them to be “right”

To that end, this one has been the most ambitious projects as far as size and content. I have done a couple ninja turtle acrylics before of Rocksteady and Bebop from the cartoons and then a panel from the new comics, but never have I situated them into actual art. It was actually a lot of fun, and I was surprised there there wasn’t a version of NightHawks with turtles somewhere on the internet. There isn’t one of the Ghostbusters (or the Real Ghostbusters) either so I might have to give that one a try some time.

This may seem like a waste of time, and I go back and forth on whether it is or not, but I do know that this small break in plowing through an enormous reading list has severed to make the workweek more tolerable. If you have made it this far and are wondering why you feel burned out over your work, you might try adjusting some things to give you a break. It doesn’t have to be painting, it could be bike riding, hiking, swimming, snow skiing, practicing the japanese noseflute, video games, something, anything, or even nothing. Comps (or generals) is one of those things that isn’t actually testing you for a “grade” in the sense that you have to remember a bunch of facts in an order in order to regurgitate them back for your professor. You are being “tested” in order to prove that you are suited and situated firmly enough into your discipline not to embarrass yourself in conversation with other people in your discipline. More than a few people will tell you that during preparations for comps “you will never know more about your field than you do now.” I know the sentiment and I am glad they share, but at the same time that isn’t really comforting to me.

A tribute to Edward Hopper's Nighthawks
A tribute to Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks

The next scenic turnout may be art, or something else entirely. It might be a conglomeration of the things done on the days off between now and when I finish the next section, or something in the middle that think is more clever than it probably is.

The Road to Comps Part 6: Different Approaches to the History of Natural History in the United States

The final section of the first portion of comps prep has the longest title, and the longest entry. These books are mainly a cross section of methodologies used in framing historical accounts of Natural History in America.  The best part about looking at these different approaches is that the content was generally useful as well.  They also criss cross the same time periods, geographies and often the same people.

The Poetics of Natural History

This history of Natural History in the Unites States starts with botany. In fact, most histories of Natural History start with Botany. Irmsher’s The Poetics of Natural History opens with two Quaker botanista, or rather plant enthusiasts, and their lasting exchanges of letters and botanical specimens. Moving chronologically Irmscher turns then to the museum collections of both Charles Wilson Peale and P.T. Barnum (some specimens being the same ones as Barnum purchased the last remnants of Peale’s museum to create his own).

Rattlesnakes and woodpeckers fill the ways, but it is descriptions obtained from the field and from people in the field. Of Course Audubon’s work is described as the “pinnacle of the poetics of natural history ” with his expert renderings of birds in something of a suggested habitat. That is not to saw that everything was 100% correct and this is where Irmscher offers another method of gleaning truth from facts.

What Irmscher’s work does it provide an avenue for information to disperse that does not necessarily require structured education, although it does require literacy, at least for the descriptions of Audubon’s birds of Holbrook’s snakes (North American Herpetology). It is the sources of information and not the information itself that is important to Irmscher’s analysis. The work goes well into his chosen project to expand the importance of storytelling and collecting beyond the “belles lettres” and to its beginnings in concrete experience.

A word about the rattlesnakes. Recently our natural history museum  hosted an Audubon exhibit filled with his amazing artwork, some sketches, and more ephemera. Of all the works and labels the one with the eagle and the rattlesnake stand out the most because the text belabored the fact that Audubon had gotten the snake wrong. This is what Irmscher and some of the following authors are working on: the idea that facts aren’t necessarily the only place to find truth. That is to say, that just representing the facts is something the least useful way to relate, or even understand history. This is also symptomatic of having the fully scientific collection curators serve as the exhibit curators. Nine and a half times of of 10 this comes off as condescending and doesn’t provide the visitor–reader or museum patron–with anything illuminating that they can take away and keep or use in their lives. Turns out historians, museum curators, and people in general could learn a lot from filmmakers in this sense:

Since we are not being pedantic as Werner Herzog advised above, looking at The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes may be one of the best examples of the academic establishment cutting off its nose to spite its face. Again we are looking at sources, and where knowledge is created and how it is traded. The greatest geological event in North American recorded history is forgotten to history and is only reintroduced as seismic scientists attempt to reconstruct the earthquakes to answer questions unrelated to settlement of the Mississippi River Valley in the early 19th century.

Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquake

Conevery Valencius’s research runs the gamut of personal letters and as many newspaper reports as she could kick up in the archives.  The biggest revelation is that the earthquakes were part of everyday life and for a while were on everyone’s lips and at the end of everyone’s pens.  The synthesis of these common sources provide a glimpse into the largest issue of the professionalization of the sciences in the late 19th century–that is, not trusting anyone outside of the profession.

By the time civilization had roared past New Madrid, the impact of the once ubiquitous earthquakes had been relegated to the annals of tall tales of westward expansion and were taken with the same mount of salt as stories of blue oxen and giant lumberjacks.  As it happens, I first read about the earthquakes in high school in a Wild West Magazine article that retold the tale of a murder uncovered by the earthquakes. Valencius mentions the same story briefly as the remains of a murdered slave were uncovered after a chimney collapse.

Coming from a geologic background into the History of Science this has been one of my favorite books from the readings. Not just because of the history, but because Valencius easily justifies the use of “vernacular” science in the case of the earthquakes and provides an excellent precedent for doing the same thing with other historical events. To go further on this point of vernacular, the tide is now turning towards utilizing the stories of indigenous peoples (where they can be found) in relation to larger European and American historical events The most recent being the discovery of the HMS Terror in areas that match up to Inuit tales, tales which also include incidents of cannibalism among desperate seamen. Valencius’ work also means that now those in between indigenous knowledge and learned professionals can also have a voice in the history of American science. Especially revealing is the fact that this isn’t just an exchange of information, it is the creation of knowledge.

Humboldt Current

That aptly named Humboldt Current (which ironically has been renamed the Peru Current) attempts to reframe some American exploration in the light of Humbolt’s “ecological” pursuits. Many well-known names in America were students (in the philosophical sense) of Humbolt’s work to provide evidence of an intricately connected world. J.N. Reynolds, Clarence King, George Melville, and John Muir are all connected mainly through their adoption of Humboltian idea(l)s.

Whether or not the book succeeds in convincing any of the deeply rooted professionals that some exploration is not imperialistically motivated (several reviews indicate it wasn’t) is immaterial. The book provides another angle to look at not only exploration, but ironically, empire, ecology, environmentalism, and nature. That some  expeditions were undertaken for explorations sake, or to prove some pet theory (in the case of Symmes’ Hollow Earth) seems to be beyond belief for more than a few historians. Many of these people also have a problem differentiating between exploration and exploitation (and that says nothing of using the word “exploitation” as a neutral descriptor for environment use a la anthropological theory).

How the Canyon Became Grand

Some of those environments can become cultural even though they have zero survival/subsistence value. The case of the Grand Canyon is one such event. How the Canyon Became Grand is strikingly similar to The Lost History of the New Madrid Earthquakes in that it charts a discovery, forgetting, and rediscovery of something. Anyone on a road trip to visit the Grand Canyon should read this book. Not only to understand how the canyon became grand, but because it is kind of a meta trip as in visiting you are becoming part of that story and its reasoning.

For me, the most interesting parts of the book looks at the first Europeans to see the canyon in 1540. The Spanish were far from embracing Enlightenment thinking in Europe and they were in no way going to waste important colonial time on anything as novel and romantic as a giant hole in the ground.

Fluvialism in the mid 19th century and the geological surveys a few decades later provide adventure and natural spectacle that was part of the great American West. For the exact same reasons the early Spaniards ignored the canyon, 19th century Americans made it Grand. Pyne’s analysis and charts that record the mentions, descriptions, and other engagements with the Grand Canyon foreshadow many of the projects going on in Digital Humanities today. Pyne’s idea that the Grand Canyon became an important American icon because a select group of educated elite gave it  meaning can serve as avatar for any number of American Icons. After all, visits to the canyon or for that purpose. Since you really have to be going there to get there (as it isn’t conveniently on the way to anywhere) it seems that not only is Pyne right about the Canyon, but his results can be applied to nearly anything that educated elite decided to “give meaning.”

American Curiosity

American Curiosity is a lot like the ecological exchange book in the previous post–i.e. that knowledge wasn’t a unidirectional commodity no more than pigs or plants were. Parrish’s work situations the colonial Americans, in the earliest years including women, Native Americans, and slaves, not in reference to London, but in concert with the capital. Think of these “white men in London” in the 1790s as the educated elite of Pyne’s Grand Canyon Analysis. Any and all information was useful during the colonial period. This seems to be the case in any colonial possession of Great Britain, but Parrish stays focused on the American holdings.

Parrish’s work reveals the adversarial nature of colonization was a driving force in the early diversity of natural history “knowledge makers.” This also explains why, as Great Britain came to dominate the continent all enterprises became less diverse. This coincides with the treatment of the Native Americans as well, following the end of the French and Indian Wars, many Native people were on the losing end of decisions that left them with no one to offset British power. This more or less was the case for natural history providers as well.

Correspondence from women were important in practice but failed to be printed in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. One of the issues to remember from this process is that it repeats itself after the American Revolution and as America discovers itself.  There is almost a frontier theory of scientific correspondence and authority. Once a center is solidified (London, or in the US Philadelphia for science and Washington D.C. for politics) the periphery becomes less important as voices of authority in most matters not least natural history collecting, naming, trading. There is much to glean from the analysis if you can get through Parrish’s her smug (90s) theoretical vocabulary regarding  race and gender.  In my case, it is best used as a resource to utilize the same various source material that Valencius uses tracking down accounts of forgotten earthquakes.

It also another facet reading of  Moby Dick as the only people who could understand what it meant to be a whale was the whalers and more broadly why the cetacean chapter or the book is in the middle of the crew waxing on Shakespeare. If she had stopped there it would have been an excellent analysis, but, as with many of the great points she continues to show what “Melville failed to realize,” etc. Although not part of the reading in this case, this book will work exceptionally well paired with Kariann Yokota’s Unbecoming British. 

Unbecoming British

The Passage to Cosmos is the second Humboldt book in the section, and it is useful to see them together. Walls works in the same manner as Sachs in resituating Humboldt’s expeditions. In Sachs case it was to make it less imperialistic, and to Walls it meant fighting the dismissal that Humboldt’s work was overly romantic. More importantly, Walls delves into the loss of Humboldt in American History shortly after his death and huge continent-wide celebrations for his centennial.

Passage to Cosmos

As much as Humboldt tried to find the common thread throughout nature, the differences in his disciples (chosen and unchosen) unravelled it as quickly as he could make ends meet. Materialist, atheist, scientist, “ecologist”, man of letters, romantic, Prussian, Humboldt was all these things and just as individuals can attach themselves to parts of nature and ignore others, the same can be seen in those early adopters of Humboldt’s ideas. In the end it was the professionalization of science, arguments of social darwinism, and (above all) wars with Germany that ground Humboldt’s name out of the annals of (north) American history.

If Passage does nothing else, it should serve as a call to action among historians of science, especially cultural historians of science, to work more unravel the mysteries Walls presents. That Humboldt is still a national hero in many Latin American countries is not just a quaint aside, it is vastly important to the development of natural history and relationships with nature south of the United States border. That most of the english editions of Humboldt works and biographies are severely dated would be an easy place to start. It might also help if the Academy would ever get over its own importance as a memory institution and let Spanish count as a “academic” language. ( I had to petition to get Spanish to count, it was approved, but that I had to petition at all speaks volumes).

It might also be useful to note that Walls is not a historian of science, she is a specialist in English Literature (currently at Notre Dame).  I mention this because the bulk of Passage is devoted to the American Transcendentalist authors and poets that were the earliest adopters of Humboldtian idea(ls). These authors, and the movement will come in another post as I work through the American Studies portion of my readings. Incidentally most of these readings were from original dissertations in American Civilizations or similar disciplines.

Nature's Ghost

Nature’s Ghosts follows the idea of extinction from “the age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology.” It is right there in the subtitle. Content wise it doesn’t add much to the plethora of there books that deal with American Natural History at any or all points in time mentioned. What Barrow’s work does, however, is important. It traces the history of an idea from the very idea that it went against nature to the modern attempts to document it as it wipes out specie after specie.

By following the idea through time Barrow allows us to move through the development of natural history through its splintering into countless professions, the battle for the acceptance of evolution and what it meant for species extinction in regards to natural occurrences, all the way to modern efforts to keep things from going extinct. This is as much a history of conservation as it is any history of ideas. He compares the historical accounts of saving the alligator and the bison to losing the Passenger Pigeon and the Heath Hen. These stories set up the final instances of the California Condor and the whooping crane that even non history inclined individuals will be familiar with.

The strength of the book for my purposes lie in its scope and its relevance to the existing modern period. Something that most people get bent out of shape about when histories start trying to explain how things work today. They hurl Whiggish history around like it is an insult that you want to understand how we got where e are today. This is why the most useful books, and ones that reach the most people are printed by Viking or St. Martin’s Press, and not University presses. Barrow’s work is another in this series that serves as a guide of how to write good, useful, and readable history by including sources that are “outside the box” for most modern American historians.

The Book of Nature

The Book of Nature shrinks Barrows scope to a mere 50 years. It also takes Valencius’ approach and sources out to the popular books of natural history. By looking at what the average (literate) Americans had in hand, Welch follows the development of the educated hobbyist for generations on either side of the Civil War. This crosses much of the same territory as some of the earlier works and deals with some of the familiar authors as well (Thoreau, for example).  The biggest boon to these early nature studies was the explosion of printing, text and more importantly images during the 19th century.

Welch’s study also follows along the development of the American Transcendentalist movement regarding self reflection, with biographies and autobiographies helping author’s work out their, and by extension humankind’s place in nature.  Welch’s study ends just as the professionalization of scientific disciplines start taking authority out of the hand of learned citizenry as well as the earliest rumbles of the American Renaissance. It is an excellent book to show the obverse side to Barrow’s Nature’s Ghost providing a more in depth look at a few sources and historical actors instead of the survey spanning two centuries.

The Destruction of the Bison

The final book in this section, and this portion of comps study has to be one of the strangest books I have ever read. On the surface it seems straightforward enough to be an environmental history about the destruction of the bison. I mean, it is titled The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History. I literally have no idea what the purpose of this book is. I think, in the end Isenberg wanted to point out how complex the near extinction of the American Bison was.

Explaining that something is complex and making it complicated are two entirely different things. This book is heavy on the latter.  Isenberg states that several chapters of this short book appeared in print as various articles prior to publishing in 2001. This (I hope) is why the book is so schizophrenic. On the other hand it isn’t just choppy between chapters.

Within the chapters Isenberg goes from setting up the history of Native Americans turn to nomadism after the introduction of the horse, back to the vocabulary for the plains Indians more broadly to bits and pieces of Chaos theory.  To sum it all up: Isenberg implicates climate, Indians, and the Plains themselves as accomplices to the Buffalo hunters in the demise of the numbers.

I love this comic. The fact that it was released on my birthday makes it even better. ©Neil Kohney
I am using this again because I use both buffalo and bison when talking about this book, and because I love it.  ©Neil Kohney

Several key, and reiterated, points include that fact that Native Americans were not harmonious with nature in some Edenic way, they were not stewards of wildlife, and they were sometimes wasteful in the utilization of the bison carcass. He also shows the market pressures for the Indians to become hunters and providers of hides for the robe market as well. All this historical intraculturalism could serve to provide a more holistic picture of the plight of the buffalo, but then he evokes modern ecological studies (which, for the record I think is actual Whiggish history in the sense that people sneer at it).

To help prove that nature is in no way stable, Isenberg follows a handful of biologist that follow chaos theory. Think Ian Malcolm in Buffalo Park. The absolute worst for me is the use of a modern population study to back up claims that Bison populations experience drastic fluctuations in number. The study in question involved the reindeer on St. Matthews Island.

This is one of the (literal) textbook studies of population as the 29 original reindeer swell to 6000 in almost 20 years only to crash back to 60. The problems with this analogy are: 1) An island is a closed ecosystem in no way similar to the vast expanse of the Great Plains and B) Reindeer were introduced to the island whereas bison evolved over 30+ million years on the great plains. To this end I wonder if Isenberg has ever taken an ecology course or seen a buffalo or the Great Plains.

I will end the discussion on Isenberg’s book with a wonder at just how much he wanted chaos theory to work here. There is already a smoking gun in the plight of the bison and it belongs to the American hunter. Isenberg tries to put other instigators up on the grassy knoll but spends so much time setting up the position he does not establish and accountability for each in relation to each other before  applying them all to the larger problem at hand.

He introduces an idea and then either neutralizes it or proffers a counter almost immediately. If this was supposed to help in the explanation of a complex system it failed. My favorite line in the book falls near the end when he is (again) approaching chaos theory and describes the standard butterfly in Africa causing havoc elsewhere: “no butterfly ever shouldered a .50 caliber rifle on the hide hunters’ range” (196).  He also starts tangents about bison preserves serving to domesticate the bison in regards to the drive of civilization.  This book would far better serve as a collection of essays centered around a relative theme, as a single, drive, work though, it serves as an example of what not to do.  By trying to be history and ecology research it fails to do justice to either.

The Road to Comps Part 5: Exploration and the Field

One if by land, two if by sea! This section looks at fieldwork in guise of expeditionary forces from Captain Cook to American Army explorers in the American West.  Exploration and fieldwork have been the two longest lasting interests since I started working with history professionally. To see how some of these books fit together was more useful than anything that they may have actually argued.

Nature's Government

Nature’s Government has been reviewed on its own here, so I won’t retread on travelled ground and will focus more on how this books more or less arranges the others in the reading. In simplest terms Drayton’s “World History [from the British Perspective]” proposes that the impact of British dominance of the world was not a unidirectional project.  That is to say that it was more than raw material that made its way back to England after colonization. Even in instances where one product was sent directly to another landholding (specifically breadfruit to feed slaves in the sugar plantations), British culture was shaped by the nature that was traded.

The biggest use of this book is a methodology of looking at trade as a complex with many movie parts and influences traveling in several directions as once. Similar to Iron Cages Drayton looks at several of the colonial parties together instead of looking at Britain Imperialism in bits and pieces.

Masters of All They Surveyed

Drayton also influenced D. Graham Burnett’s work in South America from a dissertation to publication as Masters of All they Surveyed. I first read this book in 2008 while doing field work in Belize. As an after workday read it isn’t one to keep on the bedside table. After reading Drayton now I see a little more at what Burnett was teasing out with the surveyors work. Working in the field as a surveyor meant literally scouting out the lines that were to go on a map. In the case Robert Hermann Schomburgk he tries to reveal the lasting legacy of the survey in imperial studies as more than just “map scouts.”

A broader theme in Burnett’s book tackles the very idea of border studies and mapmaking. By using Schomburgk’s survey of Guiana as a case study he opens the discussion for the geopolitics involved in mapmaking. This includes the thousands of deaths over imaginary lines argued over in drawing rooms. Many times the elite, armed with reports such as Schomburgk’s argued for the “naturalness” of such boundaries as folling certain rivers, or from the surveying tradition “landmarks” which are fixed and, if possible, enormous.

To compound the issue earlier surveyors were intent on finding the lost lands of El Dorado or other mythical regions that only existed on maps and in the minds of men. Mapmaking and naming in these instances almost have the biblical power of knowing someone’s true name. After all, if it is on all the maps, it must be true, just think of the Central American paradise known as Poyais. There is land speculation and then there is land speculation. Schomburgk was following in the footsteps of the explorer-hero Raleigh, and it isn’t the only time this kind of admiration led to explorations around the world.

Longitude and Empire

Longitude and Empire is almost a misnomer for this particular book. Other than the fact that Cook was able to retrace and check the lines of longitude it more concerns itself with the impact of Cook’s island discoveries on the Enlightenment. The most obvious for my purposes is that the islanders in the South Pacific. The islands and their inhabitants represented “stages” of civilization in direct opposition to the (then) modern notion of the dichotomy of Civilization and Savagery. More broadly the systems of governance set up between islands strengthened British understandings of a nation-state.

One of the things that all the Cook books have in common, but never actually trace any deeper is the idea that these small islands dotting the Pacific were not tiny pieces of land across vast expanses of nothingness, the ocean that existed between islands were just as much part of the nation as the terrestrial counterparts.  Some argue that Cook was a man of his time and an extremely lucky Enlightenment man of science, but the fact remains that islands that he visited, mapped, and named were generally never the same after his departure. Many had been visited before, but it was the regimented service of the British Navy that opened them up farther, and more deeply, than shipwrecks or whalers.

Captain Cook: Master of the Seas

Frank McLynn’s book calls Cook the Master of the Seas. This is a good place to start if your knowledge of Cook is superficial. McLynn has several other good land explorer (Stanley and Burton) under his belt and attempts to look at the personal records of Cook in order to get inside his head. This leaves much to be desired for the context that may have shaped some of Cook’s decisions as well as his ideology for the missions.  The man who could not be comfortable in his own retirement had need to undertake a third voyage to find the Northwest passage from the back door. It was the third voyage that sent Cook to the top of heroic martyrdom, a fate I am not 100% sure wasn’t his end goal with that third voyage anyway. By the time the remainder of that mission limped into port under a great cloud of misfortunate, news of Cook’s death was months old and most of the garments had been rent so the reception for the remaining crew was as warm as the weather.

Trading Nature

The first two voyages however prove a more fertile ground for environmental historians to work. Trading Nature is one such outcome. In comparison to Drayton’s big picture work, Jennifer Newell takes a case study approach in order to get into the heart of the island of Tahiti and ecological exchange.  The argument is as obvious as Drayton’s for anyone that is paying attention: every instance of trade in the case of something living (including seeds) is ecological exchange and it has an impact on both parties involved in the trade.

These more modern takes do much to dull the “fatal impact” theory. Newell’s search for “indigenous agency” will probably meet with some resistance if not merely controversy. Without a full record of the relationships we are at a constant disadvantage of painting these portraits from one side. It is likely that for whatever the Europeans believed they were duping the islanders, the islanders thought they were getting the best of the Europeans. Human nature.   We see Cook and explorer’s attempts to set up filling stations on the islands to aid in sea travel, with unintended consequences on the native geopolitics. But, just as Drayton suggests in Nature’s Government, there were just as many unintended consequences back in Europe, they just didn’t necessarily involve complete upheaval of standard organization of power–unless you count something like the Great Reform Act. I am not saying that it is a direct result of Cook’s voyages or even trade, I am suggesting that many of the changes in British and European culture began with the wealth generated by trade. To tie this one back to Burnett’s book: “culture doesn’t live in maps.”

It wasn’t just Britain that was trading across the globe. There are two types of “imperialism.” The standard we must have more landholdings than x and the economic imperialism, which is what everyone generally thinks about when they hear the word. They are intricately related, but there are different aspects of each and we would do well to think about that as a complex just as these trade systems.

Utopia's Garden

On the other team in this instance there was France. They are England’s main adversary at sea  especially after the sinking of the Spanish Armada. They had extensive landholdings and trade networks as well. They also had a huge royal garden and an all encompassing revolution. As with Drayton, Emma Spary’s Utopia’s Garden was part of a singular discussion chronicled here. It serves as in interesting study in how “natural history” and more broadly “nature” handles the huge shift from monarchy to republic. The process was far more than just changing the name of the gardens and museum or putting out the sign that said “under new management.”

The fact that most of the staff working in the King’s garden weathered the revolution with appointments at the museum is a testament to their ability to work within changing socio-economic politics. In short, the move from idiosyncratic royal/aristocratic patronage to idiosyncratic governmental patronage. The fact that the garden was used by many of the revolutionaries as a way to not only justify the revolution but as a means of structuring the resulting government as well. It also reveals that the revolution was mainly a means for the upper middle class to take power from the elite of the elite and most of the poor working French were left with little more than they started with.

Army Exploration in the American West

The other portion of this section opened up the exploration of the American West. The Goetzmann pieces are dated in ways (Mainly in 1957 and 1966 terminology) but in others remain an excellent starting place to understand what was going on in the west. The whole idea of rugged individualism is a myth. Everything the cowboy owned came from the east. Even the mountain men–who were apparently experiencing a Renaissance of sorts in the late 50s and early 60s, much to the chagrin of William Goetzmann–were beholden to the trading stations where the fruits of their labors were part of an international trade network of their own. Think of the fashion in Paris driving the need for beaver from the Canadian/US borderland wilderness.

Exploration and Empire

In the same manner the opening up of the west was the undertaking of those in the East. They either lived there, worked there, or where educated there before moving past the Cumberland Gap, then the Mississippi River, and then later the Great American Desert. Army Exploration and the American West was Goetzmann’s American Studies Dissertation at Yale. Exploration and Empire was the result of a late reading of the dissertation by a publisher who offered Goetzmann a deal for a follow up book. One of the gleanings from both works is that we have to look at the American West in regards to the east. That is we have to see the uncharted west the same way we look at the ocean connections of the South Pacific Islands.

We also look at the West as laboratory, just as the ocean was for Cook. It is also another representation of the work that Schomburgk was doing in South America following the lead of Raleigh. It was a distinctly American process though, as it also mirrors some of that governmental patronage from the new Jardin in Spary’s Utopia. This is especially true of the post civil war period and the development of the topographical engineers as a separate entity. Many things impacted the American government’s involvement in the west, the shift from sea exploration (the U.S. Ex Ex has ended), the end of privately funded collecting trips of the 1830s and 40s gentlemen geologists, the develop of American Universities, and even the shift of the “Indian Question” from the War Dept to the Dept of the Interior.

In the end, though, and one of the things I hope to explore in my dissertation is that each of those aspects were part of a larger complex of issues that were structured with old systems in mind. Most especially when comparing the overland expeditions to their watery counterparts. This is particularly important in our case as out military models come from different countries. We get our Army from the French, so the exploration of the American West is akin to Napoleon in Egypt and out navy is modeled on that of the British, which leaves the US. Ex. Ex. similar in scope and model to the voyages of Cook and Darwin. Wilkes actually wanted to become the American Cook. There was also the huge push into hydrography and magnetic studies on the east coast. I think, as it has turned out it was the huge overland military assisted/led/involved that led to West Point eclipsing Annapolis in American consciousness for the place to go for a workable, military education.

Captive Paradise

As far as “Americanization” goes, the starkest example of that comes through James Haley’s Captive Paradise: The Unites States and Hawai’i. The greatest part of this books comes in Haley’s explanation of why he wrote it (and by extension why it is St. Martin’s Press and not an University Press, but that discussion will come at the end of this journey after I have finally answered my questions).

Haley’s work is revisionist, but not in the manner that the modern academy is expecting or producing. His arguments come from extension work within the Hawaiian archives themselves as well as the islands history before American contact. The standard narrative is the usurpation of the independent country, annexation and eventual statehood of the indigenous people at the hand of the more powerful Euro-Americans in the hardest, clearest picture of American Imperialism (as if we don’t have Panama for this).

Haley argues that long before it was a protectorate or territory under American conquest, Hawaii was aware of its power for trade and navigation. Going back to the Cook books and Trading Nature the arguments are there as well. The islanders were working a system that was working them. Haley’s lynchpin is that Hawaii was Americanizing long before it became part of America. This is that dual system of imperialism I mentioned earlier. For most other holdings, they were part of land grabbing imperialism first and economic imperialism after. In the case of mainland America and Hawaii that process seems to be reversed.

With the boundary surveys on land separating the American Northwest wilderness from the British Canadian wilderness as part of American expansion, Manifest Destiny, sea to shining sea, etc When the missionaries move in (major players in Empire building according to Haley) the Sandwich Islands no longer bore the name of Cook’s last benefactor. In the Shadow of Iron Cages one can ask how the Hawaiians were viewed in light of their new American citizenship as territory and statehood in 1959, and what comparison and contrasts can be drawn from the native Alaskans which were less traveled trade stops in the Pacific. For whatever else Hawai’i may be, it is an excellent example of economic imperialism, it also doesn’t hurt the irony of World History that the island where Britain’s golden sea captain is killed becomes an American State.


Exploring the West is a Smithsonian publishing popular coffee table book from 1987. The introduction was written by William Goetzmann. By most accounts such popular books do not warrant scholarly investment. If you have made it this far into this mess of a page you have realized that I am (by far) not most accounts. One of the things I work with is visual analysis and visual culture. This book is loaded with the latter.  Books like these have become of great use to me in recent years as I have tempered my historical training with advanced work in art history. This isn’t all about the history of art. This is where you can learn to “read” photographs, ask questions about a publication’s audience based on what is included visually as well as (and especially) by what is being advertised in the finished products. Museum exhibit books will play a larger part in the end of this road as I work with the collection of essays surrounding artists and movements to understand them within their historical context.

Exploring the West

A for instance, and in closing, I will share an image from Exploring the West that demonstrates an interesting turn for someone that studies the history of collecting, collection, and display. As part of this Smithsonian exhibit Titan Peale’s collecting gun is part of the display with odds and ends from his time with the US. Ex. Ex. This firearm has transcended life as a “scientific instrument” and even a tool od expansion as it was used in hostilities twice (see the silver name plate) to an artifact that is part of the same collection as the war clubs and shields that the US. Ex. Ex collected during their sea voyage. I will have more to say about the US Ex Ex and the Sea of Glory book that I didn’t included here. The Lost World of James Smithson did not add any more to the American story that wasn’t mentioned previously, but I do suggest you read it if you are interested in learning more about the beginnings of the Institution and early Washington DC.

From Exploring the West by Henry Viola.
From Exploring the West by Henry Viola.

The Road to Comps Part 4: Emergent Specializations-Anthropology/Paleoanthropology

As I continue to look at the professionalization of disciplines in the later 19th century I believe I am beginning to see the historic thread that connects these things starting to match the thread of my personal interests in their modern incarnations. The greatest thing about these readings (and the few before in the last post) is that I have been part of their modern machinations. Aside from working in the Vertebrate Paleo lab (such as it is) at Lamar for most of my undergrad, I spend a summer field season in Belize with the University of Texas following the Maya. Not only did it help me see I was more interested in the history of archaeology as a direction of inquiry (I still follow the latest Central–and some southern-American discoveries) than actually making a career working with those personalities, it has provided me with an already primed canvas to start smearing my own theories onto.

Ancestral Images

Let’s start, conveniently at the beginning. I read Moser’s work back when I was working on a display and reconstruction chapter in my Piltdown thesis. The beauty of this book is the unrolling of a large scroll of images of the past–both physical images, of which there are a handful; and subconscious images of which there are almost innumerable sort, but, like human ancestry can be traced back to their source, if you know where to look.

Stone Age artists at work by Charles Knight
Stone Age artists at work by Charles Knight

The idea of cavemen with clubs and skins are the very essence of understanding humanity’s past. Kids drawings contain this although they can’t always tell you why. The most matter of fact ones will say “because that is the way they were.” They don’t know that, and we don’t know that. If we know anything it is that is wasn’t that way. The first neanderthals were brutes, partly due to the misidentification of pathological disease on the first skeleton, but in reality all led by a host of ideas about the “other.” That is going to come up again and again in this post and hopefully it will makes sense to us both by the time I get to the end.

The caveman situation is not the beginning of that iconography. It isn’t even the middle. Wildmen, hairy and misshapen, come to us from some of the earliest sources translated. Marco Polo’s travel reports gave us the odd communities of mono-pods and the torso-faced. These were other. They weren’t Greeks, they weren’t Roman, and they certainly weren’t civilized. These sorts of otherness qualities run hairily though the Renaissance as well. Even the Bible recorded instances of either people reverting to wild men living off grass, etc. while others as hosts to demons live outside the city away from civilization. Just like the biblical imagery in Rudwick’s analysis of paleontological scenes, these march badly forward through time not necessarily within the waking consciousness of man, but most definitely part of the grey matter. The “modern stone age family” isn’t as much of a caricature as you might think.

The past is a foreign country and the first visitors there fell into the same category as other foreigners. The pasts borders were filled with people so unlike modern humanity that they defied regular classification. Even as those classifications arose in the 20th and more recently the 21st century, the iconography of their existence and lives have remained relatively unchanged, although with the finds of the last few years, Arthur Keith’s necklace-wearing caveman has been vindicated.

There is no better way to tie these two books together than this Far Side cartoon
There is no better way to tie these two books together than this Far Side cartoon

The discoveries that led to the eventual depictions of neanderthal were part of a larger collecting effort. In order to understand the fullest picture of life on earth in the past paleontologist were scouring the entire habitable planet to find specimens of the long dead. That methodology crossed over into other new branches of science. Material culture was one thing, bowls, pots, weapons, could all be employed in arguments of a technologically driven process of evolution, but the questions that needed to be answered was that of race. Namely was man a single specie–not so much as in the variation of mockingbirds or tortoises, but questions of racial hierarchy and classification had to be answered.

The Skull CollectorsAnyone who works with statistics will implore you to increase you n. The large the sample size the more your analysis can smooth out or accommodate oddities. Such was Samuel Morton’s drive in his collection of human skulls. Definitely macabre by any standards and offensive to a great number of tastes people are still arguing over the ideology of Morton and others of his day who went about dealing in body parts of others while never thinking to have their family members boiled, de-fleshed and numbered.

Aside from the count, Morton’s collection stands as a testament to early American scientific methods. Morton’s collection grew as people from across the globe sent him skulls. A trade network of what Fabian calls the “unburied dead” existed for most of the century. In its earliest guise it was grave robbers selling corpses to medical schools, but as the recent turn in tastes was anthropology, that was where the enterprise lay. Since most “civilized” people could afford burial in a protected area, Morton’s collection skews heavily towards the poor and minority groups. This says as much as anything and if you are into that kind of study, definitely add Fabian’s book to your library, it is one of the best on the subject. For my purposes those it reveals the power of specimen-ization. The clips below show nearly the same thing. Darwin in South American bartering for a skull specimen and an outlaw in the American Southwest doing the same. The differences to our eyes are one was a living breathing prehistoric beast and the other was a living breathing human. The hardest point to get through here, beyond the whys and wherewithalls is to many people, especially the collectors and early anthropologists, this distinction simply did not exist.


For Morton, and those who collected for him, the pieces of what once made up individuals became important pieces of a larger puzzle, nameless, if not faceless, data points used to try and answer the same questions about man that were being addressed involving  say, the evolution of the horse. For many of Morton’s collectors, and maybe Morton himself, the remains were no more or less than that of horses. They would see “primitive” burial practices as quaint, and wait for the ceremony to be over before swiping the skull and mailing it back to Pennsylvania. There was always someone willing to help. Even John James Audubon of bird and quadruped fame shipped Morton skulls from the battlefield of San Jacinto in Texas. Spanish-Indian he surmised.

Audubon sends Morton skulls from San Jacinto

With the oddities pouring in, and more than a few bags of skulls coming in from the Pacific Northwest and California it would sound like Morton had many experimental measurements but nothing so much as a standard or a control. The American Civil War provided an abundant opportunity for the skulls of white men to be added to Morton’s collection. In fact this time of windfall was exactly what one of Morton’s collectors pegged as the best opportunity for collecting–death on such a scale that the living have no time, energy, or ability to buried their dead. Embalming and funerary history aside, this is one of the races for the new middle class to have their family members embalmed and returned to the cities. Many of them knew the fate of the unburied dead.

In Morton’s lifetime he saw the end to this type of scientific collecting as the Smithsonian’s Bureau of Ethnography began undertaking government-sponsored large scale collecting expeditions and gone were the days that individuals without government authority would collect skulls. Decades later the move to repatriate remains reduced the collection but because not all of the skulls had claimants it wasn’t completely dismantled. In fact, this further skews the original Morton collection towards the poorest class as many of the native american remains have been claimed and repatriated  while skulls of those from tenements and asylums are still part of the collection at UPENN. Most recently (2013/14) the exhibit Year of Proof: Making and Unmaking Race, displayed some of the remaining skulls inside the craniometers that Morton used to measure the skulls in minute detail. As you can surmise many people were put off by the display.

The Smithsonian and The American Indian

After the war, the USGS was still helping America push West along newly united transcontinental railways. Veterans of the war with more skill or cunning or, (more likely) connections made their way into advanced posts in government positions. John Wesley Powell creates the Bureau of American Ethnology in order to preserve the material culture of the vanishing race of American Indians as well as throw his hat into the debates of race, evolution, progress, and what it means for culture.  The Smithsonian’s relationship with its own past is somewhat of an inconvenience these days. The fact that they are attuned to it is promising as you can see the difference in this version of the book in 1994 after being originally released in 1981 under a quite different title:

Savages and Scientists

It wasn’t necessarily a question of de-humanizing the American Indian in the case of the bureau. The Indian had been a vanishing race since before George Catlin and others went west to preserve what they could of the culture with their art. In the post Civil War West the “vanishing” was less than romantic. Nearly to a man all comers to the “Indian question” offered the same two options (a very victorian matter of fact either/or conundrum) the native people must either assimilate or be exterminated. Either choice meant an end to Indian culture as it was practiced in the 1870s through. This was a blanket justification for the bureau. Here, again, we see the other as specimen. Their culture (and their bodies) were things to be collected, studied, catalogued, and explained. (That explanation will come near the end with the last book I will talk about in this post Iron Cages). Incidentally it was the bureau’s work–methodology, scale, and financing–that kept others from amassing collections like Morton. In this sense, anthrology was pulling from the playbook of geology. In fact, Frederick Max Müller called the Bureau of American Ethnography “intellectual geology.”

Wonderful Things Vol. 1

From the perspective of the anthropologists, why not? They were not only riding the tide of understanding the earth, in deep time and for them more recent, and for linguist, perhaps even real time. The Indians were either developing modern Republican sensibilities or were being killed. Either way the race, culture, and civilization of the American Indian in all its guises was vanishing or had vanished. Egyptomania was gripping the American East coast even as modern civilization’s wonderful things were headed west. A vanished civilization with high art and an only recently deciphered language (Champollion cracked the Rosetta Stone in 1822).  Native American Indian Culture was as ripe for the picking as anything buried in Egyptian sands. There were also mummy unwrapping parties, after all why just dehumanize indigenous remains?

Jungle of Stone

To further accelerate American archaeology you have John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood exploring the lost cities of the Maya. In 1841 they published the first book of American archeology: Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán. To tie the two together Stephens had explored Egypt, and The Holy Land (with a book published in 1837), Greece, Turkey (published in 1838) and other places before setting out for Central American jungles in 1839 the same year that Morton published his Crania Americana. In 1844 Morton published Crania Aegyptiaca; or, Observations on Egyptian ethnography, derived from anatomy, history, and the monuments.  

Egyptian Obelisk in New York's Central Park. Installed February 22, 1881
Egyptian Obelisk in New York’s Central Park. Installed February 22, 1881

That following year Edger Allan Poe published a satirical short story “Some Words with a Mummy” in the American Review: a Whig Journal. Poe had attended a mummy unwrapping ceremony whose star had, through ever increasing exaggeration by the press,  been billed an “Egyptian Princess.” As the unwrapping concluded with evidence that she was intact not a real princess, but not even a real she, Poe introduced the world, through one Doctor Ponnonner, to Allamistakeo. I think this might set precedent for all the amazingly bad puns for things like this. There is even an episode of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon that introduces the ancient Amun Turt-El in 1991.  We will spend much more time with Poe later.

Experts are in an increasing accord that the men in this photograph are Samuel Morton, Joseph Leidy, and Edgar Allan Poe.
Experts are in an increasing accord that the men in this photograph are Samuel Morton, Joseph Leidy, and Edgar Allan Poe.

To tie almost all of this together in a less than neat bow is Takaki’s revised edition of Iron Cages. Here Takaki takes all the individual looks at American white attitudes towards different minorities and plays them out in context of each other, as they happened, in real time, from the Revolution to the Spanish -American War in the text and then as far as Post civil rights in the Epilogue. This is not an exercise to again arrange according to race who was treated the worst by the European Americans. One of the things I notice about that term is that is hardly ever includes the Spanish, Portuguese, or the Italians. The Scots are sometimes differentiated from the English and the Irish are right out. In effect it just works that the British, French, and (broadly) German.

Iron Cages

Following the settlement of the continent Takaki’s whites are pressed to incorporate themselves into staunch republicanism and non Britishness while they also deal with the millstone of slavery and continuing, often hostile contact with Native Americans. For the time period covered the book is relatively short (only 303 pages not including notes and an annotated bibliography) so it jettisons through emancipation, the newly freed black industrial “body” of the new south working for the increasing middle class white “mind.” They south is still separated form the north in terms of working class. The new industrial push sees labor in the north consolidating and unionizing to the dismay of the industrialists. While the argument that the newly freed workforce of the south is still as content in labor to make a dollar as they had been under the yoke of slavery.

The drive west brings more “other.” As the east is cleared by indian removal, and the north east especially has generations removed from Indian contact, new methods of describing the increased threat to modern Republicanism as it unfurled on the American West. With expansion comes new Americans. That is to say Mexicans living in lands that belonged to Mexico until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Now these people were Americans and they had the equivalence of five minutes to start acting like industrial, protestant infused working Republicans. Many ended up working in the copper mines to (as Takaki oft repeats) provide the raw material for the wires that brought electricity to the east. To make matters worse the treaty had only been worked out with the Mexican government and no thought was given to the indigenous tribes whose lands straddled the new borders. This should come as no surprise and in fact is repeated to the world’s great detriment after the end of the Great War as the European powers drew lines across the map and divided the spoils effectively planting the seeds of World War II. That is getting ahead of the story, and we must remember that this is a decent approximation of New York City in the 1840s:

Even jumping around the problems in the Southwest and British Northwest (present day Oregon) there were addition racial tensions as far west as the land went. California had seen an influx of Chinese immigrants arrive with the gold rush. They were classified of themselves and in relation to those existing others in North America. To paraphrase some of Takaki’s sources, the Chinese weren’t as brutish as the blacks, nor as lazy as the Indians. Takaki works in the alignment the Japanese had with Mexican workers in order to strike for better wages, only to not be able to register their union because the state wanted them to agree to a No Japanese membership (presumable knowing that on their own they would have less bargaining power).

Eventually the Chinese make it to the East Coast, to some shock and horror as they are brought in to break strikes, just as the “blacks of the New South” had been after the war. I can’t confirm it with hard dates, but one gets the idea that around this time is when C.H. Woolston wrote the words to Jesus Loves the Little Children as it, in its original incantation includes “red and yellow, black and white” children. Woolston was born in 1856 and lived exclusively in New Jersey and Philadelphia after 1880 (if is to be believed).


The book would be great use in any course on American History in the 19th century for no other reason than the great breadth of scholarship that it contains. For me, the most interesting parts is the inclusion of contemporary literature. Takaki utilizes contemporary literary sources for enormous impact by bringing books like Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court out of their quaint classic-ness and into the realm of political and social commentary that it was written as. This example in particular showing the Yankee’s classification of the medieval British as “indian-like” “barbarous” and “savage.” And that is ignoring all the violence.

The ending, I think, is the best part of the book. Not for how it ties in Takaki’s thesis on race in American in the longue durée, but for how he uses Melville’s work as a mirror to modern society. I have been a fan of Melville’s works for years. Not just Moby Dick, but the more obscure Bartleby, the Scrivener, and Redburn. These all show up in Takaki’s conclusion, which should be no surprise given the number of times Takaki uses the word “monomaniac,” it is second only to the phrase “iron cages.” Melville, like Poe and Twain, was well aware of the position of American republicanism, industrial might, and moral ambiguity. To see the Pequod as metaphor for an industrial complex, with her crew a numb mindles body, even aware of perpetuating their own demise they don’t overthrow the captain. Ahab, the embodiment of all the industrial might, civilization, and even technology–one forgets his wish to be a remade–manufactured–man, as his wooden leg serves him better than flesh. Ahab also studies all the maps, currents, tides, winds &c in order to utilize any and all scientific means available in order to destroy the whale.

By the time they catch up to the whale they are in Japanese waters and Fedallah is "Ahab's shadow"
By the time they catch up to the whale they are in Japanese waters and Fedallah is “Ahab’s shadow”

I think, for me, the power in those last pieces of comparative literature comes from work I did over 14 years ago. In my Comp II course I wrote a comparative literature paper comparing Moby Dick to the Bible. It is one of the few things I no longer have a copy of, and it pains me sorely as I was proud of the paper for not only the exemplary grade, but for what I learned while writing it.  Holding on to that sense that Moby Dick was metaphor for the Bible and now (Takaki’s first edition was published in 1979) seeing that it can also serve as metaphor for the captains (ahem) of industry and what Catlin called the “splendid juggernaut of civilization” leads me to take another step back and, like Euclid (and later Lincoln) note that things that are equal to the same thing are equal to each other. In this sense removing Moby Dick the Bible becomes a metaphor for American Production (and vice versa). This is the entire tenant that deist, like Jefferson, and Freemasons, like Washington, are working with by working biblically, but not religiously. The Bible for them, was treated any other way an ancient text was, this is why Jefferson had no qualms about cutting it to pieces and reordering it in his own fashion for his own purposes.

If you have been following along you will notice paths are starting to cross and the centrifugal force is increasing as it was the Bureau, and The U.S. Ex. Ex (Wilkes Expedition) that brought ends to Morton’s style of collecting, that is ye olde gentleman drawing room scientists that I sent out of vogue with my Piltdown work. Egypt influences American practices in the fields out west, Poe, Twain, and Melville provide harsh realities and Whitman a foil to modern problems with optimism, especially where race is concerned. There will be more about them in future posts but for now, what is the entire take home for all the readings of other? Why is the “other” so important with regards to American Republicanism? It will sound like an oversimplification, but in the case of the evidence above, the entire idea of what is is to be American is defined by what it is not. That is to say, it is not red, yellow, black or brown. In some senses, it is not merely white, as it is not British or French. Without the others Americans, as they exist in the 19th century could not be. The fact that there are many others, and a drive for recognition on the scientific stage set mainly in Europe, required cataloging and maintaining a hierarchy of others, races, and progress. That they were able to align each of them so readily, so quickly, and so firmly as for them to outlast that need requires further study from a multitude of fields. But first, it requires facing many inconvenient truths.

The Road to Comps Part 2. The Darwinian Tradition

Midweek post, but I think I have a schedule and routine that will facilitate more efficient information acquisition and postings.  This is a subset under the 19th century natural history block, the next few are particular to that as well. It will be a big deal when I get to the next “question” area of study.

In a multiverse, Darwin had another Bulldog.
In the pop culture multiverse, Darwin had another Bulldog. If you make it to the end you can watch the entire episode of X-men The Animated Series.

I have also realized that most of what I write here will make little to no sense to anyone who isn’t familiar to Darwin (or any other portion of this) in the same manner that I am, but if you are along for the ride, it is worth the price of admission.

From my visit to Down House in 2009
From my visit to Down House in 2009

Let’s talk about Darwin.  One of the two possible images that come to mind might be the portrait of the young man in relation to his famous voyage on the Beagle. The other, more likely image is an old bearded man in with a white beard peaking our from a black coat and hat.

So much ink has been spilled with regards to Darwin that it may seem insurmountable to get your bearings within a larger context of who Darwin was in relation to other 19th century naturalists vs the modern context of who Darwin is in relation to modern biology.

Even the Ghost of Dr. Hyde had a copy of Origin
Even the Ghost of Dr. Hyde had a copy of Origin

Working backwards it is best to start with when the Darwinian Revolution became a thing. It wasn’t in 1859, or 1871, or even later with the worms. It wasn’t really even in the 19th century. One of those modern social construct type arguments. On that point it is poignant to ask “Was Darwin and a Darwinian?”

Was it revolutionary?, (not really) Was Darwin a Darwinian? (not in the modern sense) Does it all matter? (greatly)
Was it revolutionary?, (not really) Was Darwin a Darwinian? (not in the modern sense) Does it all matter? (greatly)

I’d say to a certain extent he was. But not in the case of being a Charles Darwinian. He was an Erasmus Darwinian. Charles’ grandfather and I share a birthday (and the  more I read about him, it seems a few more sensibilities). His influence on young Charles is almost always understated in such a manner as “he grandfather’s book was on their shelves…” But the elder Darwin was far more influential in Charles’ politics and freethinking than that book, or his poetry really suggest. The connections can be drawn by anyone who looks at their work as comparative literature.

I first met Darwin through his geology, and to my mind he is a geologist that made great inroads and has sense been shanghaied by biology. This, most likely, is why Sandra Herbert’s Charles Darwin, Geologist is my favorite Darwin book. Re-reading it now, with a greater understanding of British politics made it even more enlightening.

This is the one I would recommend above most others
This is the one I would recommend above most others

Paired with the first volume of a large biography (Voyaging) by Janet Browne reinforces the thought-path that has put me in this predicament: field work. The voyage and its meaning on Darwin and biology are still argued, lauded, cussed, and discussed but the simple matter of fact that is as important in this case as the American cases that I will cover in my dissertation is that field work is incredibly important for shaping scientific enterprise.

Knowing geologist Darwin makes Herbert’s argument incredibly obvious: Darwin travelled as a geologist so of course his discoveries should not be surprising in relation to geological thought in the 1830s/40s.  What is brilliant is reading this and then reading one of, if not the newest Darwin text to hit the press Political Descent by Piers Hale. For full disclosure at this point, Dr. Hale is on my committee and was the original point of contact when I discovered the HSCI program at OU. After visiting, meeting, and finally getting accepted into the program I moved into the American side of things from the Victorian, but he still plays a major role in the comparison work that I am doing.

That being said, Political Descent is a beast. To say it is a Darwin book is like saying The Bridges of Madison County is a Clint Eastwood film. This book is an amazing history of British socialism with Darwin in it. And why not? With all that has been done with Darwin he gives a good meter-stick to follow on either side. What is brilliant about it is that the argument is almost the same as Herbert’s replacing “geologist” with “radical whig.”  More is said about Erasmus’ influence here as well.

Go for the Darwin, stay for the Kropotkin. The cover here is a prominent image in Herbert's book too as it isn't just about inheritance, or biology. (it is also about time and geology)
Go for the Darwin, stay for the Kropotkin. The cover here is a prominent image in Herbert’s book too as it isn’t just about inheritance, or biology. (it is also about time and geology)

The best parts of the book, for me at any rate, was the reconsideration of Herbert Spencer, bringing Huxley down a peg, and my introduction to Peter Kropotkin. I was absolutely glued to the Kropotkin account from beginning to end. Mainly because it is another example of how Darwinian natural selection wasn’t the obvious choice chosen by all except the church after 1859.  One of the biggest things about Kropotkin was the impact that FIELD WORK had on his anti-malthusian version of descent with modification. Hale also brings in work on H.G. Wells and how evolutionary politics and political evolution not only show up in his works, but in most cases is the pulse of his works. Having studied under Huxley as a student, it only makes sense. The little coursework in Victorian history at Lamar turned out to be a boon to understanding the background politics in Political Descent too, and that is always a good feeling. Reading more about Gladstone and his government as Darwin (and his family) saw it, was like running into an old friend at the coffee shop, or tea house as this case might be.

Many people describe Desmond and Moore’s Darwin biography as the Darwin biography. It is exhaustive, and it is enormous, but I don’t know that there can bethe book in the collection of Darwinalia. It’s as close as any I suppose. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy it, or think it is a great insight into Darwin’s life, it is just a bit much and adds fuel to the whole Darwinian importance that is pretty much all time since the 1920s.  Thinking about it while reading Ruse’ philosophy of science (ick) book on the Darwinian revolution really throws into focus that you can fully remove Darwin from the entire equation of descent with modification. Other people could have discovered it, in fact other people did (you know, Wallace?). It is the very reasons that Herbert pointed out about the geology network and the same reasons that Hale pointed out about political networks that keep Darwin on people’s lips until his theories reached critical mass by being validated (more or less) by genetics and modern biology.

Desmond and Moore, you don't get through any sort of anything that even tangentially hits 19th century natural history without reading at least part of this thing
Desmond and Moore, you don’t get through any sort of anything that even tangentially hits 19th century natural history without reading at least part of this thing

Even as people are adopting the term “Darwinian” in the late 19th century they are not all using it in the same way. Kropoptkin was very adamant about this case in regards to Huxley. I mentioned earlier about Huxley being dropped a peg, I suppose I mean humanized. Don’t get me wrong, I love Huxley and he is eminently quotable as so many of the good British speakers tend to be, but any time someone of such historical stature can be plinked, I am always for the plinking (this is probably why I read CRACKED and MAD magazine). Huxley’s work with the newly franchised working and middle classes through his public lectures have always been of interest, and his ability to use them to his own ends is remarkable. This also goes back to Lightman’s popularizers accounts (many of which were not publishing on Darwin’s particular version of natural selection during the period) when Huxley wanted to put that responsibility in the hands of the men of science themselves–especially himself. Much to his consternation he was unable to find success until he employed the same methods that he actively bitched about. To his credit he did employ those methods to great success in the end. Much could be done comparing Huxley and Darwin’s reactions after the passing of their children. It comes up in random places, but I am not aware of a side by side comparison that shows how existing personalities were solidified and enhanced in the years that followed.

Huxley portait with skull, and young Huxley with ape skull drawing
Huxley portait with skull, and young Huxley with ape skull drawing
No secret I love H.G. Wells. Here, during his term under Huxley he poses for a take on some of his professor's iconic images. Wells failed his exams and turned to literature.
No secret I love H.G. Wells. Here, during his term under Huxley he poses for a take on some of his professor’s iconic images. Wells failed his exams and turned to literature. (Source: Sherborne and Priest, H.G. Wells, Another Kind of Life, 2012)

What does it mean in the end? Darwin is still the greatest meter stick of natural history, politics, and even upper class education in the mid 19th century. He fits firmly into his family’s whig politics while also utilizing more than a few things he inherited *ahem* from his grandfather. He is a perfect storm of gentlemen naturalist, radical whig freethinker, and (for a time) active traveller. Many of Darwins contemporaries possessed some combination of these but few could claim all three. That is why, in the end, on the occasion of his interment at Westminster Abby the Times could, with absolute justification, quip “the abby needed Darwin more than he needed the Abby.”

There are frillions of documentaries and some films about Darwin’s life, but of all the ones I have seen (most of them) the best for my money is is first part of PBS’s 7 episode series Evolution. That episode (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea–of which (the clip above is from) is notable because the first time I saw it I thought Charles and Erasmus Darwin were played by Nathan Lane and Hank Azaria, respectively. After discovering that wasn’t they case, I still wish to make it so.

Popular Culture has taken up much of the torches that carry Darwin on as hero among heroes with no equal. One of the more ridiculous is in a series I am collecting for another project. I have mentioned Beakman’s World in a few other places regarding representation of science and–with his smokey door of history–history of science. This is one of the most unique portrayals of Darwin for at leat two reasons: 1) It is a young Darwin, and B) he has a speech impediment, now who, in all the hagiography that is Darwin Studies would stand for that? Well, “You Dar-win some and you Dar-lose Some”

Another, more recent incarnation shows the ye olde bearded Darwin taking on a David Bowie Classic Changes in Horrible Histories. This really works well to reveal just how much, and what of, Darwin has become part of popular consciousness.

Something that makes complete sense until you think about it is having Charles Darwin show up in a franchise that revolves around mutations. I don’t think that he has made an appearance in any version of the comics, but he does show up in X-men The Animated Series. Obvious tropes aside I think it is one of the better episodes as it reveals the backstory to Sinister (who, I hear will be in the newest whatever after Apocalypse X-men we get, it theoretically *should* take place in the 90s, but I digress). It’s called, what else, Descent.  Charles Xavier’s grandfather-James-was a contemporary of Charles Darwin, while Essex was working on a serum to save his wife–the daughter of Lord Grey, among some mutant experiments, most of which are pulled off the streets in London running from mobs calling them demons. The Irish surnames add another layer to it all.


This section’s core texts:

Browne, Janet. Charles Darwin: Voyaging Jonathan Cape, 1995

Desmond, Adrian and James Moore. Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist, W. W. Norton & Company, 1996

Hale, Piers J. Political Descent: Malthus, Mutualism, and the Politics of Evolution in VictorianEngland, University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Herbert, Sandra. Charles Darwin: Geologist. Cornell University Press, 2005.

Ruse, Michael. The Darwinian Revolution: Science Red in Tooth and Claw. U of Chicago Pr, 1999.

The Road to Comps Part 1: 19th Century Natural History in Comparative Perspective

Background Sources

That is the subheading for this seemingly insurmountable portion of the foothills of the mountain that is comps prep. Nothing about this is going to happen in even a remotely timely manner. In fact, you never know just how many things can happen to get in the way of actually finishing a book. This can range from the mundane–neighbor’s son’s dogs jumping the fence and wanting to hang out in our yard–to the earth shaking–literally a 5.6 earthquake at 7 a.m. so you can spend the morning looking for cracks in your drywall and mortar. Launching of Modern American Science

In and around that you have a stack of four or five books that average 400 pages and a couple of articles that you read online first to make it feel like you are making headway. This is the comps equivalent of putting “make a to-do list” on your to-do list so you can cross it off. You will grow to love articles mostly because they are (for the most part) succinct pieces of text that aren’t buried in statistical analysis of organizational member numbers and/or reinforced again and and again every time someone’s name is mentioned.

Background sources are just that. Everything in the background. Think of it as the base neutral painting on a canvass so your detailed painting doesn’t get absorbed. You may also think of it as being blown back out of the whirlpool that was your master’s work. The most established metaphor for graduate school is “drinking from a fire hose.” One of my mentor professors pitched it as parachuting into a sea of information and you swim around in as much general knowledge as you can as you head towards something more directed. To add to this, as you are swimming you end up in the Straits of Messina staring in the face of Charybdis.


At the point you finish your thesis you are swallowed, only to have Chary spit you back out into the great sea of all the things you didn’t know. It is the intellectual equivalent of running “horses” at basketball practice. To get through it, you have to get to it. Sort of like the ending of the original Magnificent Seven or, to keep with our ocean theme, this:

You’ll see this sections readings at the end of this post, but for now I am going to wax nostalgic on their collective points. I originally intended to work through each work systematically, but this isn’t going to be a collection of reviews (you can get plenty of those on JSTOR) or a set of notes for a reading comprehension exam. This, I think, is the largest hangup for many of us: the name. Comprehensive exams aren’t comprehensive in the fact that you are going to test your reading comprehension in the tradition sense of recounting what schools someone attended in Germany before trying to build the Dudley observatory, or the grandeur of the academic genealogy that has some how passed down with more than a slight attachment to politics. There is no way that you can remember details, notes or otherwise, in any useful manner from tens of thousands of pages of text, so you have to go with what you know, trust that your committee is preparing you well, and start packing new and useful things around those that you already know.

For the background stuff, that is fairly easy. There were only two things in this section that I was unfamiliar with. One being Robert Burce’s Pulitzer prize winning 1988 work on The Launching of Modern American Science, 1846-1876, and the most recent (2016) Bolton et al. “Science in Early America: Print Culture and the Sciences of Territoriality.”

This is pretty much how comps works: names, dates, nonsense about publishing, black magic, cults, yeah, I feel ya, Donnie.

The easiest way to explain the nature of background reading is driving out to meet a new friend only to find that several other people you know live on their street. Bruce should be the handbook for anyone studying American History of Science in the 19th century. It can also serve as a playbook for anyone wanting to understand scientific enterprise in the 20th and 21st centuries. There are many instances that modern scientific organizations are repeating many of the errors that plagued our Early Republic and Jacksonian brothers.

It all boils down to the European model. What can be gleaned from the organization and approach to science from the schools of Europe, and Europe in this sense means Germany, France, and the UK. America students made up for the lack of graduate training by studying with some of the most famous names in the History of Science before returning to the U.S. to set up smaller versions of the laboratories where they worked in Berlin, Paris, and Edinburgh. Scientific correspondence takes off during this period and many American scientists earn their clout from their relationships with those famous Europeans.

Victorian Popularizers of Science

Printing releases a flood of information, misinformation, religious fervor, and new nationalism throughout all literate society. Pamphlets, proceedings from scientific societies, handbills, and books circulated more widely than ever before and offered a glimpse into the structure of science. This is especially true for the newspapers in the United States. Even the popularizers and New Audiences in and around London were no match for the volume and distribution of the science of the press in American in the 1830s/40s. Many prominent British travelers remarked on the amount of newspapers being read across the Atlantic, even working class men were seen to have newspapers.

Such information required vetting from those in the know according to people like Thomas Huxley who fought against non scientists writing about science. Many today fall under this Huxley flock to the detriment of their own scientific communication efforts. In the end Huxley adopted the very methods, modes, and vocabularies of those he derided. The public wanted to know science, but they wanted it delivered in a way that wasn’t dry, trite, or boring. This also leads to come of the great “classics” in the History of Science coming out with staying power: things like Lyell’s Principles of Geology and the (then) anonymous Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. 

Victorian Sensation

Vestiges is brilliant. Not so much for what it says, but for the fact that it was anonymous. If no one wrote it then anyone could have. It turned into a sort of Dread Pirate Roberts. Depending on the audience, the author could have been a middle class partisan, or a mechanic distrustful of the new systems of industry. Because no one knew who wrote it, it was not immediately evident who the book was for. This is it’s greatest legacy, and it would be a thing to see if people weren’t allowed to know who wrote something until after they had read it. Works would have to be weighed on merit, logic, and evidence instead of dismissed (or lauded) out of hand because of its author.

This period, moreso than others I think, really set the stage for “modern” thinking. In more than just name, as Bruce highlights ad nauseum, but because these are the roots of the legacy of universities like Yale, Harvard, UPENN, and a few others. The essays in Cultures of Natural History reveal how the relationship with natural history shaped the way we think about things today. This isn’t necessarily the royal we, as someone coming from a scientific background in geology and paleontology I have really seen several unbroken legacies in both Cultures of Natural History and The Launching of Modern American Science, 1846-1876. 

Cultures of Natural History

Do I know any more about the background of 19th Century Natural History than I did when I started?  I could pinpoint one or two “facts” that I didn’t know, like where Joseph Henry worked in Michigan, or who were members of the Lazzaroni and when. One of the things about a year of preparation for multi-hour tests is that won’t be the question. The questions (I think) will be arranged to expose the holes that I will likely still have after finishing 123 books on a list. Hopefully it bodes well that a lot of the larger themes in these books–amateurism, professionalism, development of disciplines, scientific societies and organizations, new American exploration expeditions with scientists on board, are all things that I have written about before.

I think the best thing that comes out of the background reading (aside from Bruce’s work most likely being my bible for dissertation work–less his copious statistical analysis of the Dictionary of American Biography) is that James Secord really sums up preparation for comps when talking about the reading of Vestiges: 

“Every act of reading is an act of forgetting: the experience
reading is a palimpsest, in which each text partially covers
those that came before”  

Readings for this section (articles linked where available)

Bruce, Robert. The Launching of American Science, 1846-1876 (Cornell U Pr, 1988)

Jardine, N., et al Cultures of Natural History

Lightman, Bernard. Victorian Popularizers of Science: Designing Nature for New Audiences. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Pandora, Katherine. “Popular Science in National & Transnational Perspective: Suggestions from the American Context,” Isis, 2009, 100:346-358.

Secord, James. Victorian Sensation: The Extraordinary Publication, Reception, and Secret Authorship of Vestiges of the Natural History
of Creation. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Bolton, Conevery Valencius, David Spanagel, Emily Pawley, Sara Stidstone Gronim, and Paul Lucier, “Science in Early America: Print Culture and the Sciences of Territoriality,” Journal of the Early Republic, 2016, 36: 73-123