Audubon's Haiti

May 5, 2018

Tags: John James Audubon, born in Haiti, Smooth-billed Ani, Charles Lucien Bonaparte

I had a fantastic time last weekend at the magnificent Audubon Museum in Henderson, Kentucky, as the invited speaker for the celebration of John James Audubon's 233rd birthday. bIt never felt more relevant to remind people that Audubon was born in Haiti (then Saint-Domingue), and that Haiti shaped his art and his thinking in ways that still remain to be discovered. Looking through Audubon's books art the museum, I found a marginal note in his copy of ornithologist Charles Lucien Bonaparte's works, where Audubon refers to himself proudly as "J.A. born in Santo Domingue." And he underlines it, too. A very moving moment. (more…)

Kurt Delbanco Paints Max Eastman

November 26, 2017

Tags: Kurt Delbanco, Max Eastman, portrait, Nicholas Delbanco, old age, Eastman biography

by Christoph Irmscher

(from Face to Face,
published by the National Portrait Gallery, November 7, 2017)

In 1968, one year before his death, during a period in his life already overshadowed by intense anxiety and mounting health problems, the writer and poet Max Eastman sat for the painter Kurt Delbanco. Eastman’s eighth-floor apartment, where his wife Yvette continued to live until she died in 2011, with its high ceilings and large windows, was perfect for the occasion. There would have been ample light, and the New York traffic would have been never more than a distant rumble, sirens, blaring car horns, the shouts of passersby muffled into pleasant indistinctness, faint reminders of a world that had become increasingly irrelevant to Eastman.

It is difficult to imagine a greater contrast between two men: the sociable, quirky, round-faced and cheerful Kurt, a “practical optimist,” in his own words, who charmed all who met him, and the occasionally self-righteous, often brooding, and permanently disappointed ex-socialist Max. Through Kurt’s son Nicholas, a novelist Max had taken under his wings, the two men had become friends. When you take someone’s portrait, too much familiarity can be an obstacle, a photographer friend of mine once told me when I had asked him for exactly that favor. Portraits are complicated transactions, to be sure, first between the artist and the sitter, but also between the viewer and the portrait itself. Mental or actual, a portrait is an intellectual process. Proust’s narrator, in Swann’s Way, observes: “We pack the physical outline of the creature we see with all the ideas we have already formed about him . . . they come to fill out so completely the curve of his cheeks, to follow so exactly the line of his nose, they blend so harmoniously in the sound of his voice that these seem to be no more than a transparent envelope.” In the end, Proust suggests, it is our own ideas of a person that we recognize when we see his or her face portrayed, a face from which we leach particular and unique distinction. (more…)

"Wipe Thy Self": Audubon's Mysterious Ledger

March 11, 2017

Tags: Audubon, ledger, neurological illness

(republished from the Blog of the Lilly Library)
In spring 2016, the Lilly Library acquired a handsome ledger bound in sturdy marble-covered boards. Dubbed the “Audubon Ledger” by bookseller Donald Heald, volume had been in the possession of Audubon’s great-granddaughter, Margaret Audubon McCormick until it was sold at Sotheby’s on January 26, 1983. The earliest entry in the book dates from December 10, 1842; the latest was made on February 14, 1844.

The Audubon Ledger is a treasure trove for the scholar: it is chock-full with lists documenting Audubon’s income and expenditures as he was finishing work on the Royal Octavo edition of Birds of America (1840-1844) and beginning to launch his new venture, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. Eight pages of draft letters, all in the handwriting of Audubon’s son Victor Gifford, add to the documentary value of the collection. But the Ledger has something else to offer too, something more unexpected. Among the 70-plus pages of lists we find an example of a different kind of bookkeeping, a mysterious page-long aside, in Audubon’s own handwriting, consisting of nothing but a stream of words, slathered on the page in no apparent order and, it seems, with near-complete disregard to meaning. Complete sentences are the exception rather than the rule. (more…)

Cramer's The Narrow Edge

September 8, 2015

Tags: The Red Knot, migration, horseshoe crabs, nature writing

Here is my new review of Deborah Cramer's splendid book The Narrow Edge: A Tiny Bird, An Ancient Crab, & an Epic Journey, just out from Yale University Press. Cramer combines an intensely personal account of following the journey of this small bird with a wide-ranging reflection on how the loss of one species will affect the survival of our species, too.

Reconsidering Longfellow

March 3, 2014

Tags: Longfellow, new anthology, Longfellow's art work

February 27, 2014, was Longfellow's 207th birthday--a good occasion to remember one of the world's most popular poets (and still one of the most musical in the English language). There are other reasons to celebrate him today: Longfellow supported women writers, was a committed pacifist as well as an unabashed cosmopolite--he spoke nine languages fluently and was able to read a dozen more. As he saw it, American literature, to be credible at all, had to become international, an antidote to what he regarded as the literary parochialism of his literary contemporaries. Not coincidentally, he was also the first major American writer to publish a collection of anti-slavery poems. Slavery made, he said, "every drop of blood" in him "quiver." He supported the Underground Railroad financially and castigated his fellow citizens for arresting fugitive slaves: "Dirty work for a country that is so loud about freedom as us." Fairleigh Dickinson Press marked Longfellow's birthday with the first collection of essays entirely devoted to the Cambridge poet in several decades, Reconsidering Longfellow, edited by Christoph Irmscher and Robert Arbour: ten original essays that cover the entire range of Longfellow's work, from the early poetry to the long poems of the middle period to his Chaucerian collection published after the Civil War, Tales of a Wayside Inn. Separate chapters deal with Longfellow's interest in the visual arts and the use of his poetry in the modern classroom. For more information, click on the link to your left.

Agassiz and the Poets, part II

June 15, 2013

Tags: Thomas William Parsons, John Greenleaf Whittier, Louis Agassiz, Tim Traver, religion and science

In a sonnet written immediately after Louis Agassiz’s death in December 1873, the Dante translator and Boston dentist Thomas William Parsons without further ado defined Agassiz’s lasting importance through the service he had done the nation by reconciling religious vision and scientific fact:

What made the greatness of our great man gone?
Facts about fishes?—reading laws that rule
The glacier’s marche [sic] and move the black moraine?
An eye whose gaze with equal reverence glowed
At a small star-fish, or his Alpine throne?
Or that he founded for our land a school?—
Never to see that harvest which he sowed!—
His large companionship with man, shell, stone,
And every type of the most High? The fool
Who thinketh in his heart there is no God
Stands here in silence. ’Mid our tears and pain
This joy was uppermost: beneath His rod
Bowing, we bless Him for each nobler mind
Whose highest vision science fails to blind.

December 1873 T. W. Parsons

Not his taxonomic achievements (Agassiz first made a name for himself as an expert on Brazilian ichthyology and the fossilized fish of Europe), not his pioneering work in glaciology or marine biology mattered to Parsons, nor the fact that Agassiz had put Harvard on the map as a center of scientific research, not even the warm relations he had maintained, according to Parsons, with all manner of created things. For him, Agassiz was more than merely human. (more…)

Agassiz Suavis

February 28, 2013

Tags: Agassiz's death, Asa Gray, plant named after Louis Agassiz

On December 14, 1873, after a struggle that had taken several days, the great Louis Agassiz, easily the best-known naturalist of his time, died of a stroke in his house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His colleague on the Harvard faculty, the equally brilliant botanist Asa Gray, apparently had Agassiz’s obituary all written, as if he had been waiting for that moment. His ambivalent tribute to him appeared in The Nation the day after the funeral. Of course, it was no secret around Harvard that there was no love lost between these two men, polar opposites not only physically (Agassiz, a good eater and dedicated drinker of wine, had always towered over the ascetic Gray) but also ideologically. Gray had ushered the American edition of The Origin of Species into print and fought Darwin’s battles in and around Cambridge so effectively that the staunch anti-evolutionist Agassiz was slinking around like a “well-cudgeled dog,” as Gray delightedly reported to his friend Darwin in Kent. (more…)

The Mighty Oak Has Fallen:
Lowell on Agassiz's Death

January 31, 2013

Tags: Louis Agassiz, James Russell Lowell, Ode to Agassiz

He had gone to Europe to write poetry, after years in the dusty classrooms of Harvard. Here he was, in Florence, reading the newspaper, fretting about the state of the world and America in particular, on a December day in 1873. Winter in Italy, it turned out, was still winter. James Russell Lowell, formerly the Smith Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard College, a distinguished editor and critic, had quit his job almost a year ago. He had leased his house to a friend and packed his bags to go abroad. France had been a pleasure, as always, but now he was in Florence, biding his time, waiting for inspiration to strike. His mood was down. He glanced casually at the paper before him, when suddenly it seemed that the earth around him was beginning to shake. (more…)