- Michael J. Brodhead (Author) and Paul Russell Cutright (Author)
Elliott Coues: Naturalists and Frontier Historian. University of Illinois Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Barry Alan Joyce (Author)
The Shaping of American Ethnography: The Wilkes Exploring Expedition. University of Nebraska Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- William Goetzmann (Author)
When the Eagle Screamed: The Romantic Horizon in American Expansionism, 1800-1860. University of Oklahoma Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Christoph Irmscher
These three books, two of them reprints, one brand-new, have a common subject, the seemingly uncontrollable urge of the newly established United States to spread out over the continent, from sea to shining sea, and, where possible, even beyond, into the unsuspecting rest of the world. For historian William Goetzmann, who takes pride in his political incorrectness, nineteenth-century Americans have been unjustly vilified. Their ambition to extend and secure the boundaries of the country to the south in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America, and to the west across the Pacific came not so much from a mad lust for land as it did from the need to compete with the European powers that were old hands at the imperialist game. In a revealing moment, Goetzmann claims that if Americans had not been so impressed "by the greater experience of these nations," they might have escaped the fate of being "tarred with the same brush" of imperialism that blackened England and France with guilt. Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so?
In When the Eagle Screamed, first published in 1966, Goetzmann doesn’t mince words: to him, the "Indians" attacking one of Astor’s ships in 1811 were "coastal savages"; President Polk deserves praise for quieting the "Mexican menace"; Cuba was a "coy temptress" bewitching the Americans as well as the British; finally, Commander Perry deserves our thanks for helping the benighted Japanese emerge from the "dark ages of feudalism." Goetzmann pays little attention to the chinks in the American armour. His views would seem merely dated today, like a message in a bottle found decades later, were it not for the new preface in this new edition, where he reiterates his belief that it is high time to lay the myth of "poor Mexico" to rest and make its inhabitants cherish "a nation that has been trying to help them for most of the latter half of the twentieth century."
When the Eagle Screamed is a political pamphlet, then, tossed off to rectify the "distortions" of neo-Whig historians, hardly a piece of original historical research. Most of Goetzmann’s footnotes refer not to sources but to the contributions of his patient predecessors. That said, his stubborn redescription of nineteenth-century expansionism as a process of continual diplomatic backroom-bartering, haggling, and frantic treaty-making did make me reconsider some of my own simplistic assumptions about American imperialism. One of Goetzmann’s favorite words is "brinksmanship." In fact, the real heroes of the book are not the adventurers like William Walker, who seized Nicaragua and ran it like his own personal fiefdom for several dismal years, but cautious diplomats like Nicholas Trist, the chief clerk of the State Department under Polk, who worked out the treaty of Guadeloupe-Hidalgo and thus brought the Mexican War to an end. Interestingly, this rather sober view of American expansionism as the result of intense, if sometimes misguided, diplomatic efforts undermines Goetzmann’s own chief claim in this book, namely that nineteenth-century American imperialism was the work of innocent, romantic dreamers "to whom nothing was impossible."
Like Goetzmann, Barry Alan Joyce does not want to be "politically correct." In the introduction to Shaping American Ethnography, he takes issue with current anthropological experts and their desire to "trivialize and dismiss the work of their predecessors." His book retells an important chapter in the history of American expansionism, the story of the United States Exploring Expedition, which set sail from Norfolk Navy Yard in 1838. Led by Captain Charles Wilkes, they spent nearly four years at sea, mostly in the Pacific, surveying 280 islands and part of the coast of Antarctica, and carrying the message of American power and entitlement to surprised "savages" abroad. Even more so than Lewis and Clark’s men, the members of this expedition were encouraged to write down their experiences. Joyce spent years combing through the massive archive of letters, journals, and official records they left behind. But the main focus of his "anthropology of anthropology" is on the contributions by the expedition’s zoologist, Charles Pickering, and by linguist and ethnologist Horatio Hale, who had just graduated from Harvard the year before joining Wilkes. Joyce is well aware that homespun images of "savagery," notably prejudices against Native Americans and African Americans, inexorably shaped the ways white Americans reacted towards the "exotic" people they encountered. But he also shows how such conceptual safeguards faltered when the expedition reached the Fiji Islands. Culturally sophisticated and less prone to admiration of white ways than other natives Wilkes’s men had encountered, the Fijians became the ultimate "savages," unpredictable beasts whose cunning made them "all the more to be feared."
Joyce’s narrative is rich in moments of dizzying cultural contradiction which occurred during the expedition, such as when the explorers staged improvised minstrel shows for the amusement and instruction of an audience composed of incredulous Pacific Islanders. Here supposedly "civilized" American whites in blackface entertained bona fide "savages" with a mockery of African American culture—a spectacle of wildness contained and conquered. It is not surprising that Horatio Hale, while dutifully compiling linguistic data and classifying his natives according to their "tamability," saw nothing that would have changed his prejudices. He revised his views only later in life, when he passed the anthropological torch on to Franz Boas. By contrast, the encounter with the Fijians persuaded his colleague Pickering to throw out all previous notions of racial hierarchy. Casting a jaundiced eye on the white members of the expedition, Pickering suddenly recognized them for what they were, "a race of plunderers." Significantly, his later book, The Races of Man (1848), locates the central origin of humankind (which Pickering did not regard as zoologically distinct from other productions of nature) in Africa.
Joyce tells a good story, and he tells it well. Inevitably, there are some minor distortions, as for example in his characterization of naturalist Titian Ramsay Peale, whom he misrepresents as a gun-toting, grave-robbing ignoramus. But Titian (whose father, incidentally, was not Franklin Peale but the portrait painter, naturalist, and museum owner Charles Willson Peale) was an artist of considerable talent. His sketches and paintings supplemented those of the expedition’s official artist, Alfred Agate, some of whose watercolours are reproduced in Joyce’s book. In addition, Titian was an experienced explorer and taxidermist, whose credentials included the Long expedition to the Rocky Mountains (1819-1820) and a trip to South America, where he went to collect birds for Charles Bonaparte.
Paul Russell Cutright and Michael Brodhead’s biography features the most prominent naturalist Elliott Coues, who started out as a specimen collector in the tradition of the Peales and then became a veritable fact machine, grinding up a large part of the American fauna into heavy tomes of dense taxonomic detail and cheerful advice for other aspiring naturalists. Who would have thought that a work like Coues’s Key to North American Birds would become a commercial success? The first printing of the second edition was exhausted only one year after it came out. So entranced are his biographers by their subject’s taxonomic achievements that they even weighed one of his books (ten pounds, four ounces). But Coues was also a Darwinian, deeply convinced of the provisional nature of traditional concepts of species and therefore an ardent proponent of the advantages of trinomialism, which allowed for the inclusion of subspecies in the taxonomic system. Like his birds, Coues was a difficult man to pin down: a taxono-mist who dabbled in poetry; an empiricist who yearned for the transforming power of the imagination and developed an interest in spiritualism (to the point of becoming a convert, for several years, to Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society); a field naturalist who shuddered when nature presented itself in its full rawness. Generally, he seems to have preferred the company of animals, alive or stuffed, to that of human beings, and the Mexicans ("worthless") fared even less well with him than they would later on in Goetzmann’s book. At least they didn’t harm the local bird population, particularly the house finches, which were the "only pleasing feature" in the dirty settlements of Los Pifios, New Mexico, visited by a reluctant Coues in 1864.
Cutright and Brodhead’s book, first published in 1981 and now reissued as a paperback, is pervaded by a sense of awe for Coues’s productivity. Quantity was indeed their author’s game: an army surgeon for the first part of his professional life, Coues roamed the territory made newly available by Goetzmann’s diplomats and used his frontier assignments to gather material ("everything that came in my way") for the Smithsonian in Washington, totalling a staggering 2,383 specimens by the end of his career. But in spite of the Audubonian fervour that pervades Coues’s work, I’m not sure how comfortable he really was in the great outdoors. A case in point is his reaction to the Grand Canyon. Coues’s colleague, the explorer John Wesley Powell, after noting how its colours changed with the ascending and descending sun and how light and shadow came and went with the passing clouds, was satisfied that the sublimity of the Grand Canyon could not be equaled "on the hither side of Paradise." But Coues, stopping by in 1881, found the same view "decidedly disappointing," adding that there was "nothing specially inspiring in blank walls of rock." For him, nature was a vast clearing-house of specimens just waiting to be grabbed by the naturalist’s greedy hand. Whenever he looked up from his notepad, living beings almost magically transformed themselves into publishable text: "We’re all proofreaders of Nature’s book," he explains, choosing a particularly apt metaphor. Insert a comma here or there, "according to our day’s beliefs," but don’t alter the manuscript itself. Asked by Cutright and Brodhead about the value of Coues’s ornithological drawings, the modern bird artist George M. Sutton wondered if his predecessor had ever made an effort to see for himself what a living bird’s eye looked like. Coues was in favour of possession, not contemplation. "All birds are common somewhere at some season," he exclaimed in his Key to North American Birds, "the point is, have collectors been there at the time?" The frontispiece of the Key features an anatomical view of a dead pigeon, its belly ripped open to display the inner organs. For the dedicated bird collector, a good day’s work, said Coues, meant "fifty birds shot, their skins preserved, and observations recorded." Not that wanton slaughter of birds was acceptable. "Bird-life is too beautiful a thing to destroy to no purpose . . . unless the tribute is hallowed by worthiness of motive."
Coues backed this claim up, somewhat incautiously, by referring to God’s interest in the most insignificant of birds: "Not a sparrow falleth to the ground without His notice." But the house sparrow was, in fact, the one bird species Coues wished off the face of the earth, or at least the American part of it. Passer domesticus—the alternative names Coues offers us in his Key are "parasite," "tramp," and "hoodlum"—had been introduced to the United States in the 1850s, because it was thought that the bird would rid ailing city trees of cankerworms. (House sparrows are seed-eaters and feed mainly on the ground!) Unexpectedly sturdy, terrifyingly adaptable, and ferociously fecund, the unsightly avian immigrant from Europe, unsuitable for its intended task, soon overran "the entire country," in what seems like an ironic counterpoint to American expansionism in the world at large. "Its habits," wrote a despairing Coues, "need not be noted, as they are already better known to everyone than those of any native bird whatsoever." Having denounced the ornithological friends of the sparrow as "weak-minded" idiots, Coues finally had to concede defeat: "You may do what you please, shoot or poison as many as you can, more will come to the funeral." The disreputable little bird had proved too much even for the expansive Dr. Coues. By the end of the century, the eagle’s scream had been drowned out by the chirping of millions of urban sparrows.
- The Tartan Connection by Sharon Alker
Books reviewed: Rapt in Plaid: Canadian Literature and Scottish Tradition by Elizabeth Waterston
- Green Liberalism by Graham Good
Books reviewed: How to be a Green Liberal: Nature, Value and Liberal Philosophy by Simon Hailwood
- Claiming Hongkongness by Maria Noëlle Ng
Books reviewed: Gender and Change in Hong Kong: Globalization, Postcolonialism, and Chinese Patriarchy by Eliza W.Y. Lee
- From Colony to Nation? Canada Revised by Andrea Cabajsky
Books reviewed: Worrying the Nation: Imagining a National Literature in English Canada by Jonathan Kertzer, Practising Femininity: Domestic Realism and the Performance of Gender in Early Canadian Fiction by Misao Dean, and Imperial Canada: 1867-1917 by Colin M. Coates
- The Taste of the Past by Norman Ravvin
Books reviewed: Lower East Side Memories: A Jewish Place in America by Hasia R. Diner and Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory by David E. Sutton
MLA: Irmscher, Christoph. Sparrow Nation. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 9 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #179 (Winter 2003), Literature & War. (pg. 136 - 140)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.