Booklist, Starred review
"An eye-opening collection."
"A marvelous work."
"Rich enough to repay multiple readings.”
"Longfellow lives again."
Times Literary Supplement
Winner of the Literature and Language Award, AAP
Winner of the 2009 Katharine Kyes Leab and Daniel J. Leab Award, American Library Association
A Darwin Bicentennial Exhibit, with many illustrations from the Darwin holdings of the Lilly Library. |
March 11, 2017
(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…)
September 8, 2015
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.
April 28, 2015
Here is my recent review
of James Costa's Wallace, Darwin, and the Origin of Species
in the Weekly Standard
March 3, 2014
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.
June 15, 2013
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…)
June 5, 2013
For more on Agassiz's influence on Transcendentalism, see my new online essay
on "The Reader's Almanac."
February 28, 2013
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…)
January 31, 2013
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…)
January 12, 2013
Elizabeth Agassiz became the first President of Radcliffe College in 1894, after what was previously called "the Annex" had been incorporated by the state of Massachusetts. On the surface, the Annex was not much more than the college version of the School for Girls she had run, in the 1850s, in the attic of her husband's home on Quincy Street. She had been associated with the Annex since 1879, when a group of women got together at the house of Mr. Arthur Gilman at 5 Philips Place in Cambridge and nominated her to be a member of a committee to sponsor a school for young women, to be taught by Harvard faculty. Little did Elizabeth know then that a later incarnation of this group, now called "Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women," would vote her into the presidency of a college.
Indeed, much of the founders’ efforts in the early history of Radcliffe College went into denying that they ever had anything serious in mind. As one former student, Mary de Quedville Briggs, ’84 (who got her official Radcliffe degree in ‘01), declared when sending back a questionnaire she had received from Radcliffe’s fledgling alumnae association: “The Annex was not founded; like Topsy, it ‘Just growed.’” (more…)
July 1, 2012
Also in my collection is a little note in Agassiz’s thin, spidery handwriting, so fine that it seems more feminine than that of his wife, a note scribbled hastily on a small sheet of stationery, just a half page ripped off a larger sheet, as one would expect from someone who was socareless with his own things. The ink has faded over the years, as has the knowledge of the occasion on which this note was written. More than halfway down the left side of the page appears the name of the addressee, “George Ticknor, Esquire,” the former Smith Professor of French and Spanish at Harvard University, who had devoted the later part of his career to helping establish the Boston Public Library. “My dear Sir,” Agassiz had written to Ticknor on 22 October 1859, exactly a month before the publication Darwin’s Origin of Species, “I am a little too early, excuse me if I am a little late at 1 ocl.” He signed the note, “12 ocl. Ever truly yours, L. Agassiz.” Having come too early at twelve o’clock, he had left again, apparently resigning himself to the prospect that upon his return at one o’ clock, he’d be late.
It’s hard not to think of this note as emblematic of Agassiz’s life, too. He was too early for his own good in some ways, in imagining science as an activity which could be practiced by everybody, as a collaboration between several investigators, as an enterprise requiring money and fundraising skills, where the right set of moves would determine the right outcome. And he was unforgivably late in other ways, in his conviction, for example, that nature was made for human purposes only or in his skewed view that blacks were inferior to whites. And while he firmly believed—and staked his career on making that belief a reality—that science was something to be practiced by the many, he also believed that the results of such collaborative activity really belonged to only one: namely Agassiz himself. The trivial note to Ticknor thus acquires a more complex meaning. For this is how Louis Agassiz appears in my forthcoming biography: a visionary in some ways, he was a hopeless reactionary in others--truly a multi-dimensional character.