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The Poetics of Natural History. New edition with photographs by Rosamond Purcell.

Published by Rutgers University Press, September 2019.


This expanded, full-color edition of The Poetics of Natural History features a preface and art from award-winning artist Rosamond Purcell and invites the reader to be fully immersed in an era when the boundaries between literature, art, and were fluid.


"A learned, leisurely, capacious book, elegantly written and beautifully produced with many ... illustrations.... Those interested in natural history, in natural history writing, or in antebellum American scientific culture will find Poetics of Natural History a first-rate collection in its own right."
— New England Quarterly

Early American naturalists assembled dazzling collections of native flora and fauna, from John Bartram's botanical garden in Philadelphia and the artful display of animals in Charles Willson Peale's museum to P. T. Barnum's American Museum, infamously characterized by Henry James as "halls of humbug." Yet physical collections were only one of the myriad ways that these naturalists captured, catalogued, and commemorated America's rich biodiversity. They also turned to writing and art, from John Edward Holbrook's forays into the fascinating world of herpetology to John James Audubon's masterful portraits of American birds.

In this groundbreaking, now classic book, Christoph Irmscher argues that early American natural historians developed a distinctly poetic sensibility that allowed them to imagine themselves as part of, and not apart from, their environment. He also demonstrates what happens to such inclusiveness in the hands of Harvard scientist-turned Amazonian explorer Louis Agassiz, whose racist pseudoscience appalled his student William James. 

"For over twenty years The Poetics of Natural History has offered readers insight into the collecting practices of scientists, interested onlookers, and wealthy patrons and donors in the early American period, from around the 1730s to the 1920s, with a variety of threads from different chapters reaching past others through the years. Christoph Irmscher's history described a wide range of scientific endeavors, from botany and plant scientists through spectacular display and entertainment, and ending with the human sciences. .... This is the second edition of a well-known, influential work that sits on the intersection of American history, history of science, nineteenth-century studies, museum history, and colonial science, and has shaped work in these fields and many others in the years since its publication, many that Irmscher acknowledges in a new preface." Read the rest of Megan Baumhammer's review of the second edition in H-Environment here.