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Agassiz and the Poets, part II

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.  Read More 

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Emerson, Agassiz, and the Mind of God

For more on Agassiz's influence on Transcendentalism, see my new online essay on "The Reader's Almanac."
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Agassiz Suavis

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.  Read More 

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

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. Read More 

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When the Principle Is Right: Lizzie Agassiz at Radcliffe

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.’”  Read More 

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Too Early and Yet Too Late

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.  Read More 

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Elizabeth Agassiz at 36 Quincy Street

I recently bought this nice autograph with Elizabeth Cary Agassiz's signature, dated 14 October 1885, written in the residence Louis Agassiz and she once shared at 36 Quincy Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts (today the site of Harvard's Fogg Art Museum). It was in this house that she ran her famous School for Girls, and it was here that Louis Agassiz died, on 14 December 1873. In the years after her husband's death, Elizabeth Agassiz continued to host lunches for the "University's ladies" at her house, although she would become increasingly preoccupied with the Harvard Annex for Women, later called Radcliffe College, whose first president she became. Elizabeth Cary Agassiz died in Lexington, Massachusetts, in the home of her niece Lisa Felton, on June 17, 1907. Read More 

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Audubon Collection Featured Summer Reading

My collection of Audubon's writings and drawings, the only critical edition of Audubon's writings available, is the featured summer reading in the most recent edition of the Library of America newsletter.

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Max Eastman

Just acquired this beautiful, autographed image of Max Eastman, inscribed to one Jeanie Wainwright. Eastman (1883-1969), the prolific radical, poet, editor, translator, and friend of Trotsky, is the subject of my new biography-in-progress. Eastman, who helped found the Men's League for Women's Suffrage and edited the radical magazine "The Masses," grew disenchanted with Stalin and supported Trotsky, with whom he collaborated on several books. In the 1940s, he renounced his radical past and began to embrace some form of free-market economics, although he would continue to warn against reactionary forces in American conservatism, whose religious overtones Eastman, the son of two ministers and a life-long atheist, always lamented. His life leads us from upstate New York to Greenwich Village to Stalin's Russia and then back to New York again, a wild romp through the first half of the 20th century. Eastman knew everybody, from Charlie Chaplin (with whom he shared one of his lovers) and Isadora Duncan (whose adopted daughter Lisa he seduced) to Trotsky, Sigmund Freud, and Pablo Casals. When his former leftist friends criticized him, he invariably responded that while the times had changed, his opinions on art, life, and society never had. Read More 

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