Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Curiosity Cabinet



This entertaining popular account of the Victorian mania for natural history was published by Jonathan Cape and Doubleday in 1980, and has apparently been out of print for decades, perhaps because its color plates would have made it too expensive to reprint. That's unfortunate, because Lynn Barber (on whom more below) did a first-rate job of researching, organizing, and writing the book, and has many interesting things to say both about natural history as a popular Victorian pastime and about weighty scientific figures like Owen, Agassiz, Philip Gosse, and Darwin, not to mention the likes of Frank Buckland, who seemingly ate everything he studied. I read it not too long after it appeared and have occasionally revisited it. Many fine books on the history of 19th-century natural science have appeared before and since but I suspect that few are as entertaining. Barber has a solid command of the major scientific advances and controversies, but she also has a sharp wit and a knack for a good anecdote.
The diary of Caroline Owen, wife of the zoologist Richard Owen, records an odd incident when she was visited by a lady who produced out of her reticule 'a thing which she had been told was an unborn kangaroo.' She (the lady visitor) had brought it to show Richard Owen, but 'she was hesitating about bringing such an "indelicate" subject to a gentleman.' Caroline set her fears at rest by assuring her that the kangaroo had not only been born but had lived for some time, and they then settled down to tea and chat, since Richard was not at home anyway, but it is surely strange that a woman who had no qualms about carrying a dead kangaroo around with her would then start blushing and trembling at the thought of showing it to a gentleman. It reminds us, if we need any reminder, that Victorian delicacy had very little to do with natural modesty and a great deal to do with cultivated prurience.
Of Buckland's gustatorial experiments there is much to report, including:
While at Oxford, he feasted on panther, sent down from the Surrey Zoological Gardens. 'It had, however, been buried a couple of days,' he noted, 'but I got them to dig it up and send me some. It was not very good.'
And here is Barber on science versus religion in the days before Darwin upset the apple cart:
When we talk about the 'clash' between religion and science in the Victorian era, we are talking about the 'clash' between an articulated lorry and a grain of sand. Science counted for absolutely nothing compared to religion. It stood, at best, in the relation of a handmaid to religion but, like a handmaid, it could be sacked if it ever showed signs of being uppity.
The jacket flap of the book identifies Lynn Barber as "a British journalist educated at Oxford," and notes that "she is currently working on a new book focusing on another aspect of Victorian popular culture." (Unmentioned in the author bio is the fact that her journalism had included seven years at Penthouse.) As far as I can tell, she never published the "new book" alluded to, but she didn't disappear into obscurity either. She has had a long career as a writer and interviewer for various publications (she has been called "the rottweiler of Fleet Street"), and has published a memoir recounting her affair, while in her teens, with a dashingly charming older man who turned out to be not only involved in various criminal activities but married to boot. That account, An Education was made into a likeable 2009 film starring Carey Mulligan, which I saw several times before I realized that she and the author of The Heyday of Natural History were one and the same. As to her curious career path and Heyday's place in it, Barber has this to say:
There are whole subjects I used to know that I have since forgotten. I have a certificate that says I can do shorthand at 100 wpm – how did I acquire that? Did I bribe the examiner? I got top marks in A-level Latin – eheu fugaces, I can't translate a line of Horace now. In my brief, improbable career as a sex expert, I wrote a manual called How to Improve Your Man in Bed that was accepted at the time as an authoritative guide. How did I have the chutzpah to do it? I also spent five years researching and writing a book, The Heyday of Natural History, which involved reading all the popular natural history books of the Victorian era. Gone, all gone. I seem to have an auto-erase button in my brain that says that once I have 'done' a subject, I no longer need retain it.
Luckily, talent is the one thing she has apparently never been short on.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Stephen O. Saxe (1930-2019)



The printing historian Stephen O. Saxe died on April 27th of this year, according to a memorial notice in the New York Times today (June 16th) and a brief note from the American Printing History Association, of which he was a founder. Saxe followed an interesting career path that led him from Yale Drama School to television set design to book design at Harcourt, Brace, but it was for his activities as an amateur (in the best etymological sense of the word) that he is best known, at least among printing scholars and enthusiasts. Among his publications was the book pictured above, the definitive study of the 19th-century iron presses that were the first major revolution in printing technology after Gutenberg. (Appropriately, the book was first published in a letterpress edition by Yellow Barn Press, though a trade edition followed.)

I met Stephen Saxe once. I had written to him with a couple of questions about some research I was doing and he generously invited me — a stranger and total novice to the field — and a printmaking friend to his home in White Plains, where he spent a couple of hours showing us his printing equipment and some treasures from his library, including an extraordinary 19th-century French specimen book filled with elaborate typographical decorations. (The APHA announcement has a nice photo of Saxe at his home.) There aren't many of his kind still around.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Mistaken Identity



An incident that Julio Cortázar (a noted admirer of Verne) would no doubt have appreciated, as related by Alejandro Zambla:
I remember how at sixteen, I convinced my dad to give me the six thousand pesos that Hopscotch cost, explaining that the book was "several books, but two in particular,"* so that buying it was like buying two novels for three thousand pesos each, or even four books for fifteen hundred pesos each. I also remember the employee at the Ateneo bookshop who, when I was looking for Around the Day in Eighty Worlds, explained to me patiently, over and over, that the book was called Around the World in Eighty Days and that the author was Jules Verne, not Julio Cortázar.
"Bring Back Cortázar," from The Paris Review (online) October 17, 2018.

I can sympathize, though, with the poor bookseller, who was no doubt used to dealing with cronopios like this fellow (played by Marty Feldman):


* The phrase is borrowed from the "Table of Instructions" of Hopscotch.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

Monday, May 13, 2019

"Mala Cosa" (Cabeza de Vaca)


The Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca recounts an incident that was related to him by Native Americans he encountered during his long sojourn across the southern US and northern Mexico:


Narrative of the Narváez Expedition, edited by Harold Augenbraum.

Cabeza de Vaca was one of a handful of survivors of a 16th-century expedition to Florida that went catastrophically wrong. The accuracy of his account of his travels on many points has been questioned, but few things in it are as difficult to believe as the one thing that is unquestionably true, which is that he and three other men did survive eight years wandering among various Native American peoples before finally meeting up with a group of his countrymen near Culiacán in Sinaloa. Along the way he found himself cast in the role of faith healer, and claimed to have performed countless miracles on ailing (and very grateful) Indians.

The passage above has been much pondered. It appears to record some kind of shamanic performance reminiscent in some ways of modern "psychic surgery" cons and fortune-telling bujo scams. How the Indians understood what they told Cabeza de Vaca, and how it differed from what he recorded, is impossible to say. It's the oddest passage in the book.

Ouch


Jeopardy clue: "John & Priscilla Alden lie in the U.S.A.'s oldest maintained cemetery, which like a poem about the couple, is named for this person." Contestants' proposed questions: "Who is Poe?," "Who is Arlington?," and "Who is Mary?"

(The correct question: "Who is Myles Standish?")

Sunday, May 12, 2019

On Ants (Thomas Bewick)


"The history and œconomy of these vary curious Insects are (I think) not well known — they appear to manage all their Affairs, with as much forethought & greater industry than Mankind — but to what degree their reasoning & instructive powers extend is yet a mystery — After they have spent a certain time toiling on earth, they then change this abode, get Wings, & soar aloft into the atmosphere — It is not well known what state they undergo, before they assume this new character, nor what becomes of them after"

(Memoirs)

On Being Alone


"As the lodges afforded so little shelter, people began to die, and five Christians quartered on the coast were driven to such extremity that they ate each other until but one remained, who, being left alone, had nobody to eat him." — Cabeza de Vaca

Adapted from the Lakeside Press edition of Narrative of the Narváez Expedition, edited by Harold Augenbraum.

Friday, May 03, 2019

An Existential Necessity (Luc Sante)



The Paris Review has inaugurated a new blog, Pinakothek. Written by Luc Sante, it's devoted to "miscellaneous visual strata of the past." Here's an excerpt from the second post, "Arcade":
Getting yourself photographed was a pastime and an existential necessity. It reminded you that you existed outside your own head. It showed you your face as others would see it. It gave you an opportunity to compose yourself, although few had the skill to do so successfully, and often the photographer’s haste and hard sell would mitigate against it. Most people come off in arcade pictures as if they had suddenly been shoved onstage to face an audience of thousands.
"Pinakothek" (from a Greek and Latin word for a picture gallery) was also the title of a short-lived feature that Sante maintained on his website a number of years ago.