X-POSTED REVIEW: Baumhammer on Irmscher, 'The Poetics of Natural History'

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Christoph Irmscher
Megan Baumhammer

Baumhammer on Irmscher, 'The Poetics of Natural History'

Christoph Irmscher. The Poetics of Natural History. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press Classics, 2019. 403 pp. $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-978805-86-6

Reviewed by Megan Baumhammer (Princeton University) Published on H-Environment (April, 2022) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=57114

Megan Baumhammer on Christoph Irmscher, The Poetics of Natural History

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. The central analytic of “poetics” is applied differently in different chapters, but in general it refers to a kind of “whimsy,” or playfulness, or spectacular curiosity for the natural world. Their poetics are bound in creative engagement, an account of the natural world that also describes the hand of the enthusiast and the collector in shaping understanding of the specimens and scientific examples.

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.

One of the most powerful effects of reading The Poetics of Natural History is the sense of a community of shared scientific endeavor, of sharing or displaying or collecting. Irmscher creates this sense not only in the detailed analytical work he has done with sources but also in the structure of this careful work. History is told here across several temporal axes—the anticipation of a plant collector contemplating the time it will take for a tree to grow to full height from a seed; the wait of a ship across the Atlantic ocean; the length of time it took for a letter to arrive along a disjointed postal service; the evolution of man; the time it took to wander the length of an exhibition; the contemplation of mortality in the presence of a skull or skeleton. The book is divided by both theme and subject: the book’s first part, “Displaying,” contains chapters on the collecting practices of the early American republic, showing the shift of investigative locus from Europe to the American continent from amateur plant collecting through Charles Wilson Peale and the American Museum to P. T. Barnam and the narrative spectacle of display. The second part, “Representing,” mirrors the first in beginning with a chapter on a specific case study of the imaginative fascination of the rattlesnake in North American natural history, proceeding to the life and work of John James Audubon, and culminating in a chapter on Louis Agassiz, his anti-Darwinism, and the Thayer expedition to Brazil. Irmscher connects the central figures of this story through their personal lineages but also through their intellectual engagement with the world around them; the reader is given a sense of the vibrant connections that these historical naturalists, collectors, or showmen made with each other or identified for themselves.

The first chapter, “America Transplanted,” demonstrates the connected communities of collectors, gardeners, horticulturalists, and natural scientists who were involved in the enterprise of plant collecting and sharing through the Americas and across the Atlantic to Europe. The scientists that Irmscher describes were connected through community, often through confessional ties as fellow Quakers in the eighteenth century. However, Irmscher emphasizes the connection between the scientists principally through passion, zeal, interest, and curiosity. Here, in the first chapter, Irmscher connects the work of Peter Collinson, plant collector, enthusiast, and the person primarily responsible for the global spread of ornamental plants from the Americas, to John Bartram, a farmer and fellow plant enthusiast who had been experimenting with breeding varieties of American plant species. By tracing the correspondence between Collison and Bartram, Irmscher lays out the breadth of scientific interest during the eighteenth century around novelties and the New World. Irmscher’s analysis of the correspondence emphasizes connection between the two botanical collectors through their shared interest, while simultaneously showing the class and political differences between the two and the commercial relationship that their correspondence entailed. Their communication is set amidst lush descriptions of plants, fragrant flowers: evoking the objects of their shared desires.

The second chapter, “Collection and Recollection,” sees Irmscher draw nationhood, formation of institutions, and the simultaneous and interconnected project of collecting natural history and memorializing the state into his orbit of analysis. Charles Wilson Peale is the central subject of analysis and Irmscher uses Peale’s work, collection, and correspondence to detail the priorities of collection for a new museum in the service of a new nation and part of the project of constructing a narrative to serve the nation’s political interests. The masterful analysis here opens at a point toward the end of Peale’s life, when he wanted to ensure that his life’s work of collecting was left in a suitable place after his death. Peale had collected for the public; the museum he founded was explicitly part of the edification and formation of a national consciousness toward the people, animals, birds, and objects that represented the nation, and were connected, no matter in any small way, to the people founding the nation. Peale’s collecting impulses were disparate and particular; he wanted the nation to see itself and to learn to see itself through the museum space. This meant representing the flora and fauna of the American territories, as well as containing the “human collection” of revolutionaries and important political figures. To begin with, this entailed painting their portraits and hanging them in the museum with the collected objects. Irmscher’s comparison in this chapter between human specimens in eighteenth-century taxonomic collections and the collection of portraits in Peale’s museum offers a fascinating method for the historian charged with writing a history of a remarkable person like Peale: Irmscher links the taxonomic systems founded in the eighteenth century to Peale’s collecting impulses; while placing him in context he also shows how Peale was unique and singular in his approach. The political valence which Peale wished his museum to occupy was significant—he knew specifically what position it could occupy and the narrative he could craft through collection and display of objects.

The presentation of objects here does some extremely generative work in demonstrating the close alignment between display of human likeness, relics of the early republic, and the intent to display human remains, and contemporaneous human collections arranged to present race science. Irmscher’s argument does not claim that Peale was attempting to present the same findings, but that, according to the presentation of objects he was seeking, his enterprise was connected to the same prior commitments. Peale thought that displaying artifacts from the dawn of the republic would be morally instructive for the citizens of the United States. It was supposed to educate as well as entertain them. Peale’s efforts to provide a museum for the modern world, a national museum connected to the new effort of nation building, were not realized in his lifetime or by his museum. Irmscher handles the tricky historical claim to being “ahead of his time” by carefully tracing his commitments and the reasons why he wanted his museum to perform all the tasks he wanted it to. Irmscher’s attention to Peale’s notes helps provide a bridge between the reader and the remarkable and unique—sometimes to the point of ridicule by peers—historical figure. The care with which Irmscher presents the outsize personalities and the personal projects, which are exaggerated through legends built in the distance of time, allows the reader to access their character more clearly.

Irmscher draws the reader through display as spectacle next, with the work of P. T. Barnum and the American Museum. Where Peale saw the edification of a new nation, Barnum created displays for excitement and entertainment with an attractive thread of contemporary science. Irmscher makes a compelling historical argument that Barnum’s famous hoaxes, chief among them the Feejee Mermaid, were popular because they were fakes. They allowed audiences to discern truth from falsehood, to weigh the status of an object as though granted expertise. This was underlined in the presentation of primates and humans alongside each other in a chained hierarchy which the viewer was part of, but above. Separated by the glass of a display case and their participation in the spectacle of display, the audience was differentiated, politicized, and granted an elevated status next to the theater of primitivism Barnum presented. Barnum showed performers such as William Henry Johnson as freaks, and also as “the true ‘connecting link between the Wild Native African, And The Orang-Outan,’” beyond which, on display in the museum, were only yet more animals for the interest of paying customers (p. 145).

The opening of the next part comes as an excursion through more myth-making, but rather than in the hands of one man, this was around the particular species of American animal: the rattlesnake. Irmscher shows how the rattlesnake was an object of fascination for thinkers from the earliest days of scientific exploration, through the mythologizing of cultural anxieties about natural history, the interaction with the wilderness of a colonized land, and the limits of the enterprise of colonization. “The people of that Country” were “strangely possessed” by the rattlesnake, as the Royal Society records and Irmscher quotes (p. 160). The reader is then guided through an extended collection of the snake’s appearance across decades, disciplines, and media. The rattlesnake evoked the garden of Eden, troubling the paradisiacal space crafted by the collections of naturalists identified in the first chapter, and to them were attributed all kinds of psychological manipulations and tricks, from the sound of their tail to the physiological shifts in their form if they are surprised. As the chapter progresses in time more naturalists added their voices to the chorus of those speaking about the rattlesnake, banishing mention of enchantment and instead emphasizing the dangers of fieldwork. Everything about the rattlesnake held the attention of Irmscher’s gathered community of scientific thinkers, from the pattern of the skin and the undulating movement of the reptile through space, to the broad head and fangs, and the sound and shape of its tail. Irmscher also shows the persistence of the mythological attributes in art and literature, alongside the contemporary descriptions of the scientific investigations, that worked together to make “one composite, often larger-than-life animal” (p. 198).

The fifth chapter shifts the concern about representation from a collective creation of a composite being, to the representation of a class of animals by a particular person: John James Audubon and his book The Birds of America (1827-38). In this chapter Irmscher demonstrates the tensions in pictorial representation between “accuracy” and attractive dramatic choice. Audubon’s presentation of his work as an incidental and direct view into the task of a naturalist belies the careful construction and work it took to travel to habitat, shoot birds, and draw them. Irmscher illustrates the similar lengths Audubon went to in crafting a presentation of himself in his ornithological works, from incidental details about his biography that hide his true origins, to his crafting as an integral part of the enterprise of naturalism and collecting of the forms of birds. It is in this chapter that the new edition truly shines with the colorful illustrations which were included in the new printing. The difference is particularly noticeable in this chapter.

Irmscher concludes the book with a chapter that frames American science in its early influence and its trajectory through the nineteenth century. Irmscher examines the nature of American science through the work of Louis Agassiz and the Thayer expedition to Brazil, accompanied by, among others, his wife, Elizabeth Cabot Cary, and the philosopher William James. In this final chapter Irmscher maintains the focus of the rest of the book: the curiosity and fascination of his subjects. This in turn means that the famous disagreement between Agassiz and Darwin is elided in preference for an account of the directions Agassiz chose to pursue his scientific inquiry despite the popularity of Darwin. In this way the story follows the outworking of Agassiz’s travel to Brazil, rather than as a foil to growing scientific consensus about evolution.

As a result, Irmscher allows Agassiz to stand within the tradition of naturalists traced through this book, while demonstrating just how particular his work is: out of step with Darwinian evolutionary theory, separated from the social and cultural upheaval of the American Civil War, Agassiz remained in the tradition of colonial science and in particular colonial race science.

The new edition includes a foreword and photographs by Rosamund Purcell. The photographs provide an evocative glimpse into many of the collecting contexts that each of the figures included in this volume worked within. They echo Irmscher’s deft handling of historical detail; full-color clarity of collected natural history specimens that punctuate his book sections. As Irmscher telescopes the distance of time, granting near access to thoughts, experiences, and people who lived centuries ago, Purcell’s photographs of archived and collected specimens, in one case of an extinct species, offer similar access through the visual medium. As Purcell states in the foreword: “Past events, as he describes them, seem immediate, while the sense of time itself advances and retreats—without ellipses” (p. xi).

One key theme that Irmscher emphasizes throughout the book is that of the limits of the fascination: that is, that this is a story of classifying the natural world, and the human place within it, but one that took “human” to be bound according to political, social, and cultural limits. Irmscher clearly presents race science as a concurrent, and in several cases intrinsic, obsession alongside the more palatable obsessions found in plant or animal collecting. Purcell’s photographs emphasize beauty, rarity, and the artifacts of exploration and collection, and at first glance this focus elides the racial politics of settler colonialism embedded in the expeditions that collected them. They are beautiful, because Purcell’s eye for detail finds the beauty in framing these photographs. It takes reading the book to find the embedded racial politics that Irmscher pays attention to.

This new edition of Irmscher’s classic text is an excellent example of the value of attention to small details, as well as the tapestry into which they are woven. The combination of stage-setting and specific detail gives an incredible sense of the richness of the world Irmscher presents.

Citation: Megan Baumhammer. Review of Irmscher, Christoph, The Poetics of Natural History. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. April, 2022. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=57114

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