Monday, June 15, 2020

A Life of Travels and Researches in North America and South Europe by Constantine S. Rafinesque

A never-ending itinerary of scientific curiosity
Constantine Rafinesque
French/German-American scholar Constantine Rafinesque (1783-1840) is an exceptional example of an autodidact, or self-educated man. Having never attended college, he supported himself through various business endeavors, but his real passion was science. Before the era of rigid specialization, Rafinesque was able to boast, “I have been a Botanist, Naturalist, Geologist, Geographer, Historian, Poet, Philosopher, Philologist, Economist, Philanthropist,” and he also claims to have studied over fifty languages. As an autodidact, he struggled for respect from the academic scientific community. Many thought he was a quack, and that may have been an accurate assessment of his work in some fields, but there’s no denying Rafinesque did make his fair share of legitimate discoveries. You can’t open a field guide of American plants or animals without coming across species that he discovered or described.

In 1836, Rafinesque published his memoir A Life of Travels and Researches in North America and South Europe. More a summary sketch than a full-blown autobiography, this book consists of only 150 small pages of relatively large type. The title is quite accurate in that the text is primarily a lifelong itinerary of Rafinesque’s travels. He spent his entire life wandering through Europe and America, making empirical observations of nature and gathering biological, mineralogical, and paleontological specimens for research or sale. There is rarely a sentence in this volume that doesn’t revolve around at least one geographical place name. The text is a nonstop whirlwind tour of towns visited, rivers crossed, and mountains climbed. Along the way, Rafinesque reveals a few famous people he’s met (including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, and John James Audubon), some scientific colleagues with whom he has botanized and “herborized,” several failed business enterprises, and a sampling of his scientific discoveries. Rafinesque frequently brags about his “N.G.”—the many new genera of animals and plants that he has logged over the course of his career.

While reading A Life of Travels, one becomes intimately acquainted with this eccentric polymath, and he isn’t always the most pleasant of traveling companions. First of all, Rafinesque is clearly full of himself and quite overconfident in his own genius. Secondly, he envisions himself as a scientific martyr with more wounds than St. Sebastian, relying upon a paranoid victim mentality to justify his own failure to achieve unbridled fame and success. He repeatedly and petulantly complains of inventions stolen, writings plagiarized, and research suppressed. “I have tryed to serve mankind; but have often met with ungrateful returns.” On several occasions he asserts he “could have begun a lawsuit,” but decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. Like any true self-proclaimed martyr, Rafinesque takes solace in knowing that “time renders justice to all at last.”

Rafinesque is truly a fascinating character. I enjoyed very much following his travels, and I envy him for the life he led. He impetuously pursued whatever struck his curiosity, regardless of cost or hardship, and his enthusiasm is infectious. There are a few passages, particularly towards the end, that tediously read like a Pennsylvania road atlas. For the most part, however, this book is quite entertaining for scientifically-inclined armchair explorers, and it really gives you a candid look inside the mind of this eccentric genius. For more extensive studies of Rafinesque’s life and works, two classic biographies/bibliographies are The Life and Writings of Rafinesque (1895) by Richard Ellsworth Call and Rafinesque: A Sketch of His Life with Bibliography (1911) by T. J. Fitzpatrick.

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