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An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World

by William Leach

Pub Date: April 23rd, 2013
ISBN: 978-0375422935
Publisher: Pantheon

An expansive historical account of the 19th-century figures whose enthusiasm and perseverance shaped natural history studies on butterflies.

Leach (History/Columbia Univ.; Country of Exiles: The Destruction of Place in American Life, 1999, etc.) meticulously examines butterfly collecting, once a pastime enjoyed across social strata and once viewed as a means for bridging art and science. He presents an appealing if controversial view of collecting as a direct appreciation of and engagement with nature’s beauty, while also acknowledging that it sometimes turned into a competitive expression of man’s dominion, resulting in harsh consequences and strife in relationships between collectors. Through portraits of William Henry Edwards (a West Virginian entomologist known for his voyage to the Amazon), Herman Strecker (a collector, author and illustrator), Augustus Grote (director of the Buffalo Museum of Natural Sciences), William Doherty (entomologist and tropical collector), Samuel Scudder (entomologist and paleontologist) and William Holland (director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh), Leach details conflicts in the field during the mid- to late-1800s, including concerns over the destruction of natural resources; the ethics of killing, selling and trading butterflies; debates on systematics, taxonomy, naming and considerations of butterfly habitats; creationist vs. Darwinist views; and the line between advancement of science and selfish amassment. The book’s closing chapters on dealings between butterfly men in the Gilded Age is especially fascinating.

For general readers, the esoteric minutia may overwhelm. For naturalists and butterfly buffs, however, this is an unusual, pinpointed slice of American life enlivened with fragments of correspondence and reproductions of plates from classic books of the period.