Friday, September 30, 2022

Constantine Samuel Rafinesque: A Voice in the American Wilderness by Leonard Warren

Comprehensive and balanced biography of American naturalism’s genius/quack
Born in Constantinople to French and German parents, Constantine Rafinesque (1783-1840) emigrated to the U.S. in 1815 and commenced walking thousands of miles over the countryside collecting myriad plant and animal specimens and publishing thousands of articles and books on his findings. An autodidact in a staggering array of fields, Rafinesque once described himself as a “Botanist, Naturalist, Geologist, Geographer, Historian, Poet, Philosopher, Philologist, Economist, Philanthropist . . . Traveller, Merchant, Manufacturer, Collector, Improver, Professor, Teacher, Surveyor, Draftsman, Architect, Engineer, Pulmist [a respiratory therapist specializing in tuberculosis], Author, Editor, Bookseller, Librarian, Secretary.” In his 2004 book Constantine Samuel Rafinesque, author Leonard Warren provides an excellent biography of this fascinating figure whom Botanist and historian Joseph Ewan once referred to as “the most enigmatic and controversial figure in American Natural History.”

Given the spectrum of fields in which Rafinesque dabbled, it’s not surprising his critics would accuse him of being a jack of all trades, master of none. Rafinesque undoubtedly made important contributions to natural science. Pick up any field guide of American birds, fish, or plants, and you are bound to find several instances of his name. His genius, however, was accompanied by rashness, arrogance, and gullibility. He became notorious for inventing species, wreaking havoc on established taxonomy, and passing off unfounded legend as history. For example, Rafinesque can claim credit for the first baby steps toward deciphering Mayan hieroglyphs, yet he also asserted with certainty that the Maya came from Atlantis. During his lifetime, Rafinesque was frequently attacked and ostracized by the American scientific community, but since his death his reputation has been gradually rehabilitated as his important discoveries have been recognized.

I had previously read T. J. Fitzpatrick’s 1911 biography of Rafinesque as well as Rafinesque’s 1836 autobiography A Life of Travels and Researches in North America and South Europe. Those books both served as major sources for this study, but Warren really delves deeply into Rafinesque’s correspondence and immense body of published writings to flesh out the biography with a wealth of detail. Though Warren clearly admires Rafinesque, he provides a very balanced assessment of the man, praising his bona fide discoveries while frankly examining the failures and absurdities in his published research. Rafinesque did a great deal of intellectual sparring with his scientific contemporaries, many of whom accused him of inaccuracies, errors, and fabrications. Warren examines these arguments from both sides, judiciously weighing the testimony of Rafinesque and his detractors. Warren also does an exceptional job of describing the state of various scholarly disciplines and the academic climate in America in the early 19th century. This helps the reader gain a better understanding of what Rafinesque legitimately accomplished, where he pushed the envelope (sometimes too far), and the reactions and effects his actions produced.

Warren covers Rafinesque’s entire life from cradle to grave, analyzes his impact on all the different fields he engaged in, and provides a colorful and nuanced portrait of the man’s personality and eccentricities. Warren’s prose is lively and accessible to the general reader. He has conducted his research with academic rigor, but one doesn’t need a PhD in biology to understand or enjoy this book. Although I had done previous reading on Rafinesque, I learned much from Warren’s fascinating and engaging narrative. Rafinesque may never get the respect he deserves, but thanks to Warren he has the biography he deserves.
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Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Book of the Knowledge of All the Kingdoms, Lands, and Lordships That Are in the World, and the Arms and Devices of Each Land and Lordship, or of the Kings and Lords Who Possess Them: Written by a Spanish Franciscan in the Middle of the XIV Century, edited by Marcos Jímenez de la Espada

Rapid-fire medieval travelogue of nations, cities, and flags
Written by an unknown Spanish Franciscan friar around the year 1360, Book of the Knowledge of All the Kingdoms, Lands, and Lordships That are in the World . . . (the title goes on) was first published in 1877 by Marcos Jímenez de la Espada, a Spanish explorer and zoologist who edited and annotated the original manuscript. The book was then translated into English by Sir Clements Markham and published in 1912 by the Hakluyt Society, a British organization devoted to publishing the historic accounts of explorers and world travelers. The unknown Franciscan was indeed a world traveler of the first order, if his account is to be believed, as the voyages he recounts in this volume took him all over Europe, Africa, and Asia to just about every nation in the known world at that time.

The manuscript is not dated, but the editors were able to establish a date of 1350 to 1360 based on historical events and the reign of monarchs discussed in the narrative. The Franciscan gives a very rapid-fire account of his extensive travels. Most of the text is a string of names of nations, kingdoms, and cities visited. He ends his account of each kingdom with a description of its flag. Given the many thousands of miles covered, this is a brief and not very detailed travelogue, but the Franciscan does manage to work in some fascinating details about the lands visited and their histories. In the book’s introduction, Markham explains that it is difficult to tell whether the Franciscan actually visited all the nations he discusses or if some are described from second-hand information. The narrative is certainly not entirely factual, as it does include some biblical and legendary content, such as references to Prester John, Gog and Magog, a race of headless people with faces in their chests (akephaloi) or “long faces like dogs” (cynocephali), and an earthly paradise at the Antarctic pole. One pleasantly surprising aspect of the book is the medieval author’s lack of racism in describing the myriad peoples of the world.

In addition to the verbal narrative of the Book of the Knowledge, the Franciscan also sketched the flags or arms of all the nations he visited. (I assume the images included in the 1912 edition are not his original drawings but rather reproductions cleaned up for publication.) In the field of vexillology (the study of flags), this is the earliest comprehensive source on flags of the world. When National Geographic published their special flag issue in October 1917 they included an article on this book and its flag drawings. Because the Franciscan’s travel narrative is so brief, and only provides a few sentences on each of the destinations visited, the flags may be the most valuable historical resource in this manuscript.

Many of the place names in the book are unrecognizable today because they are antiquated or misspelled, but that adds medieval color to the reading experience. For example, Ungria is Hungary; Catayo is Cathay, another name for China; the Himalaya are referred to as the Caspian Mountains; the Caspian Sea is the Sea of Sara. In most cases the editor’s notes clarify the locations referred to by the Franciscan, although the identity of some are undetermined. The Hakluyt edition is about 180 pages, but the Franciscan’s travelogue is only 62 pages, plus 20 pages of images, the rest being the introduction, indexes, and a catalog of other Hakluyt publications. This book can be downloaded for free in pdf format from HathiTrust. Geography buffs will enjoy it, especially those with a particular interest in flags and their history.

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One of twenty plates in the book:

Monday, September 26, 2022

It’s Me O Lord by Rockwell Kent

Autobiography of an artist, activist, atheist, socialist, and egotist
From the 1920s through the 1950s, Rockwell Kent was one of America’s best known artists. He is remembered for his landscape paintings and book illustrations, most notably the 1930 edition of Moby-Dick, and his artwork was also commonly seen in magazines and ad campaigns of his era. Over the course of his career, Kent wrote and illustrated several memoirs focusing on specific journeys or periods of his life. In 1955, however, he published a complete autobiography of his life up to that point, entitled It’s Me O Lord. In addition to being an artist, Kent was also a known socialist, atheist, and vegetarian, before any of those -isms were tolerated by mainstream America. The book is about these other aspects of his life just as much, if not more, than his career as an artist.

Kent was born to a rather privileged background, but he chose to live an austere and somewhat nomadic life in keeping with his socialist and artistic ethic. After recalling his education under painters like William Merritt Chase, Robert Henri, and Abbott Thayer, much of the book recounts Kent’s constant relocations from one locale to another. In almost every chapter he moves to a new state or country, builds a house, and paints pictures of the local landscape. Some of these travels he covered in books like Wilderness (about his time in Alaska), Voyaging Southwards from the Strait of Magellan (a journey to Tierra del Fuego), N by E, and Salamina (both about Greenland). Those interested in art might be disappointed to find that Kent talks more about building houses than he does about painting. As a socialist, he wants to depict himself not as an intellectual or aesthete but rather as a working man who is not afraid to get his hands dirty. At times Kent describes his family life as bordering on poverty, but it seems he always has wealthy friends to help him out when he’s in need, and ultimately his prodigious artistic talent leads to success. It’s Me O Lord contains hundreds of black and white illustrations from throughout Kent’s career as well as some color reproductions of his paintings.

As an artist Kent was a staunch realist, but as a writer he’s prone to romantic rhapsodizing. The convoluted Yoda-like syntax of each sentence needs to be unraveled before understanding. He also indulges in a lot of pretentious meta-commentary: “When writing an autobiography, one must . . .” Just write the book; don’t write about writing it; fifty pages of that could have been cut. And the ego on this guy! I don’t know if I’ve ever read an autobiography in which the author was so full of himself. Kent considers himself the greatest artist who ever lived, the truest socialist, and the best fighter, lover, and father. He never admits to doing anything wrong, and everyone else is always an idiot. At times his conceit comes across as childishly comic. The first time Kent confesses to cheating on his wife, the reader thinks, “My, how big of him to admit that!” By the third or fourth affair, however, one realizes that he is simply bragging about his conquests.

For a great artist who lived such an exciting life, It’s Me O Lord is a surprisingly dull narrative for much of its 617-page length. The final quarter of the book, however, delivers a significant escalation in interest. It is during these final chapters that Kent really delves into his activism as a socialist and the persecution he suffered for his beliefs during the era of McCarthyism. As the autobiography of an artist, It’s Me O Lord is really nothing to get excited about. As the autobiography of a socialist and freethinker, however, this is a valuable read for the perspective that Kent provides on the political climate of his times.
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Rockwell Kent illustration from Moby-Dick

Friday, September 23, 2022

Cousin Phillis by Elizabeth Gaskell

Realistic romance on an English country farm
Cousin Phillis
, a novella by English author, Elizabeth Gaskell, is a realistic social drama of English country life and middle-class characters. It was first published serially in The Cornhill Magazine from 1863 to 1864.

At the age of seventeen, Paul Manning moves out of his parents’ house to make his own way in the world. His father soon arranges a position for him as clerk for a railroad engineer named Mr. Holdsworth. The job requires quite a bit of travel as the two men oversee the construction of branch lines in the English countryside. When Paul’s mother hears that he is going to spend some time working near Heathbridge, she asks him to look in on her cousins, the Holmans, who live on a farm in the area. Paul undertakes the task reluctantly, as a family obligation, but upon meeting the Holmans he strikes up a friendship with them and comes to see their farm as a second home. In particular, Paul is fascinated by his third cousin Phillis Holman, a beautiful and intelligent young woman a year younger than himself.

The atmosphere of Hope Farm, as the Holmans’ country farm is called, is irresistible not only to Paul but also to the reader, who will enjoy spending time with these characters in this idyllic rural retreat. The Reverend Holman, Phillis’s father, is a strong, wise, and amiable man who becomes a sort of father figure to Paul and a good friend to Holdsworth. In this setting, not surprisingly, a romance develops, and it follows a course not unexpected. The only really original aspect of the story is the moral dilemma faced by a third party who becomes unwisely involved in the relationship.

Cousin Phillis is very well-written, but it suffers from the folly of its times. The code of etiquette and mores of Victorian England was so loaded with absurdities it seems intended to deliver the maximum amount of misery and guilt to Her Majesty’s subjects. Men couldn’t show any attention to a woman without being obligated to marry her. You’re only allowed to fall in love once in your life, after which you’re expected to become some sort of celibate pariah. Women were required to remain little girls until their clueless fathers allow them into womanhood. No wonder that, if the literature of the Victorian Era is to be believed, nervous breakdowns, referred to as “brain fever,” were common and fatal. Despite all this histrionic baggage, and the fact that the plot is utterly predictable, Gaskell does manage to make the reader care deeply about these characters. Much like when reading a fantasy novel, however, the reader of today must suspend disbelief in order to get into the mindset of this strange world and its irrational customs.

The ending of Cousin Phillis is less than satisfying and feels unfinished. Even so, I did enjoy spending time on the farm with this family and getting involved in their simple, wholesome lives. Gaskell displays a sensitive attention to psychological details. This novella really is an exceptional work for its time and genre, and for that reason deserves the high regard in which it is held. Gaskell is not as well known as her contemporaries the Brontë sisters, but if Cousin Phillis is indicative of the quality of her fiction, her body of work is worth further investigation.
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Thursday, September 22, 2022

Strange Stories by Grant Allen

Not strange enough, or strange for the wrong reasons
Strange Stories
, published in 1884, is a collection of short fiction by Grant Allen (1848-1899), a Canadian-British author known for both science writing and fiction. The title would lead one to believe that this is a collection of science fiction or horror tales, but of the 16 selections in the volume only a few dabble in those genres.

To the collection’s detriment, it serves up two reprehensible offerings early on. The first and third selections in the book, “The Reverend John Creedy” and “Mr. Chung,” are both marred by racism. I think Allen was trying to demonstrate that he could be sympathetic to people of color, but in both cases he serves up racist depictions of his title characters. The moral of “The Reverend John Creedy” could best be summed up as “You can take the ‘savage’ out of Africa, but you can’t take the Africa out of the ‘savage’.” “Mr. Chung,” a story about an Oxford-educated Chinese man in England, spends most of its length asserting how barbaric and uncivilized China is compared to enlightened England. The former story is a cautionary tale of interracial marriage, while the latter continually scoffs at the idea of its characters even considering such a blasphemous absurdity. Later in the book, however, another story of interracial courtship is handled much better. Set in Jamaica, “Carvalho” is a romance between a British woman and a Jewish man who is 1/16th Black. Here Allen manages to address the topic of racism without it backfiring on him.

Luckily, from its inauspicious beginnings, there’s nowhere for the book to go but up. Several of the stories are rather mundane Victorian romances or faltering attempts at comedy. The volume’s best selections are those that fall within the genres one might expect from a book entitled Strange Stories. “The Curate of Churnside” is a very good crime story, reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe, in which Allen takes a unique look at the psychology of a murderer. “Pausodyne” is a sci-fi tale of the mad scientist variety with a clever touch of Rip Van Winkle-style time travel. “The Child of the Phalanstery” is a more serious science fiction story set in a dystopian future that presages later novels like Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. “The Empress of Andorra” is a fun political satire in which a government functionary of the tiny nation indulges his delusions of grandeur by attempting world domination. Allen also delivers wry twists on the conventions of the horror genre with “My New Year’s Eve among the Mummies” and “Our Scientific Observations of a Ghost.”

For a collection of short stories by one author, 16 is a lot, and none of these are very short. In fact, most of them are quite longer than they need to be. The first edition of the book was 356 pages, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but it sure feels lengthy when you’re wading through these overly protracted narratives. I considered myself a moderate admirer of Allen’s work before I started this book, but by the time I finished I had had more than I wanted of him. I have to say I prefer his nonfiction writings, as evidenced by books such as The Evolutionist at Large and Biographies of Working Men. The qualities that I admire in Allen—his liberalism, his atheism, his rationalism—are more overtly pronounced and eloquently expressed in his essays than in his short stories. In his fiction, Allen tends to get mired in the worn-out conventions of Victorian literature, even when he attempts to satirize conservative England. You can tell he’s trying to push the envelope, but often that push feels more like a minor nudge. For all his egalitarian rhetoric, he really seems to idolize the British aristocracy to a point where he can’t adequately criticize or lampoon them. I admire Allen as an advocate of science and reason, but my opinion of him as a writer has diminished a bit after reading Strange Stories.

Stories in this collection

The Reverend John Creedy
Dr. Greatrex’s Engagment
Mr. Chung
The Curate of Churnside
An Episode in High Life
My New Year’s Eve among the Mummies
The Foundering of the “Fortuna”
The Backslider
The Mysterious Occurrence in Piccadilly
The Empress of Andorra
The Senior Proctor’s Wooing
The Child of the Phalanstery
Our Scientific Observations on a Ghost
Ram Das of Cawnpore

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Tuesday, September 20, 2022

King Coal by Upton Sinclair

Rich kid slumming in the mines
King Coal
, a novel by Upton Sinclair, was published in 1917. The story takes place in an unspecified location in the Rocky Mountains, amid fictional towns and cities, but it is pretty clearly based on the Colorado coal strikes of 1913 and 1914. As America’s preeminent literary muckraker, Sinclair exposes the horrible working conditions of coal miners, depicting them as wage slaves or indentured servants to the corrupt, authoritarian coal corporations that employ them.

The hero of the novel, Hal Warner, is a wealthy college-educated young man. As a sociological experiment, he decides to work as a coal miner to see how the other half lives. After being turned away from one mine where he is suspected of being a union organizer, Hal finds employment in North Valley, a mine of the General Fuel Company owned by coal king Pete Harrigan, who happens to be the benefactor of Hal’s alma mater, Harrigan College. Hal befriends many of the miners while working and living among them. He witnesses firsthand the terrible conditions under which they work and live, and the corruption and violence by which the coal company strips the miners of their rights. Hoping to better their condition and save lives, Hal leads the workers in organizing a union, but the mine management will use every means necessary to thwart his efforts. As one might expect, the story is told through Sinclair’s socialist perspective and in a very didactic fashion. It is difficult for the reader to care about the characters when much of the plot of the book consists of a string of examples of the coal company’s corrupt activities related as if Sinclair were presenting evidence at a trial.

Sinclair rose to fame after the publication of The Jungle, his unflinching look at immigrant laborers in the Chicago stockyards. In that superb book, the workers are at the center of the story. Somewhere along the line, however, Sinclair got the idea that he needed to mediate his labor narratives through upper-class protagonists, perhaps to broaden his audience. Sometimes this strategy works, as in his Lanny Budd series. Sometimes it fails miserably, however, as in Boston, his novel about a wealthy widow’s experience of the Sacco and Vanzetti trials. King Coal is not that bad of a failure, but a failure nonetheless. Not only does the plot proceed at a glacial pace, but while workers’ families are starving and miners are trapped underground, the reader is asked to waste time worrying about what Hal’s snooty brother or shallow fiancée think of him. Knowing that Hal can walk away at any time and resume his life of leisure makes the stakes here feel very low. If you want to read a novel about coal miners and the harsh realities of their lives, one that puts the workers front and center, read Emile Zola’s Germinal, perhaps the best labor novel ever written. Sinclair no doubt read Zola’s work, but King Coal doesn’t hold a candle to it.

Sinclair closes King Coal with a nonfiction afterword that details real-life measures taken by the Republican Party and coal companies in Colorado to disenfranchise working-class voters. Sinclair expects readers to be shocked by this crime against democracy, but to those who have lived through the Trump administration it seems like small potatoes. The Colorado Coalfield War of 1913 to 1914, which includes the Ludlow Massacre, is an important episode in American history that deserves a better novel than this. King Coal does have a sequel, The Coal War, published in 1976 after Sinclair’s death. Perhaps that book takes a more compelling look at these events, but if Hal Warner is still involved, probably not.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2022

A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf by John Muir

Botanizing and philosophizing from Kentucky to Cuba
Shortly before his death in 1914, nature writer John Muir published his autobiography, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth. In that book, Muir chronicled his childhood in Scotland, his family’s emigration to America, and his life in Wisconsin up to his departure from the state around the age of 26. Then Muir spent some time in Southern Ontario before briefly settling in Indiana. While working in a wagon wheel factory, he suffered an eye injury that forced him to quit his job and rethink his life. It was this incident that inspired him to devote the rest of his life to his true love, studying nature. After a period of recovery, Muir left Indiana on a botanizing trip to find and collect plant specimens. It is here that the book A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, published in 1916, picks up the story of Muir’s life. Compiled posthumously from Muir’s journals and letters, the book follows the course of his life up until the events covered in his memoir My First Summer in the Sierra.

Muir departed from Indianapolis on September 1, 1867. Taking a train to the Ohio River, he began his epic walk in Kentucky. His ambles would subsequently take him through Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida before boarding a boat to Cuba. Muir had dreams of going all the way to South America and trekking through the jungles of the Orinoco and the Amazon, but illness and poverty drove him to reconsider. Even without reaching that ultimate goal, however, he accomplished an adventure to be proud of. Muir occasionally received packets of money sent by his brother, but for the most part he roughed it and traveled very frugally, often sleeping in the open or relying on the kindness of strangers for a meal or lodging. During his travels through the American South, Muir enjoyed the hospitality of both White and Black families, gaining him a unique perspective on social conditions in the region immediately following the Civil War. This book is also unusual in that in addition to nature writing it also relates Muir’s experiences of urban settings like Havana and New York.

The posthumous assembly of A Thousand-Mile Walk does have its disadvantages. If Muir had deliberately written a book on this period of his life, it would no doubt have proved a more satisfying narrative. Being compiled from journals and letters, the narrative does feel a bit unpolished and piecemeal compared to the eloquence of Muir’s other books. Much of the text is presented as dated entries, giving the impression that the prose is taken verbatim from Muir’s notebooks. This is a relatively short book overall, and only about two-thirds of it actually pertains to Muir’s thousand-mile walk. The last few chapters recount a nautical voyage to New York City and another to California. Like personal journals often do, the book ends at an arbitrary point, presumably having exhausted his writings up to the point at which My First Summer in the Sierra begins.

Despite the cobbled together feeling, however, there are really some fantastic passages in A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, particularly when Muir turns away from the natural beauty before his eyes and holds forth on his person environmental ethic, theories of ecology, and philosophy of animal equality over anthropocentrism. Muir’s observations of nature, in this case mostly of plants, are pleasant to read, but it’s when he looks beyond the trees for the forest and expounds on the big picture of man, nature, and the universe that this book really ascends to a profound and inspiring statement. My Boyhood and Youth is a better written book, but A Thousand-Mile Walk is certainly a worthwhile read. Readers with an ardent sense of wanderlust will both envy and enjoy Muir’s cross-continental nature walk.
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