- American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World
The Atlantic turn in the historiography of British America aims to destabilize the traditional categories of colonial American history. No longer, this scholarship urges us, should scholars think dichotomously, in terms of colony and mother country, peripheries and center. Rather, historians should be working in terms that are integrative—transoceanic networks of commerce, ideas, peoples, and things—in short, a cohesive Atlantic world created by actors on all sides of the ocean. Such a reorientation brings to the fore exchange as an organizing metaphor for the region's and the period's history and focuses attention on the ties that bind, rather than divide, the Atlantic coasts. While dealing a blow to American exceptionalism, the emphasis in Atlantic historiography on exchange highlights as well the interpersonal dynamics and cultural imperatives that define trade relationships—negotiation and posturing, misunderstanding [End Page 175] and flattery, appropriation and prejudice—and makes these a focus of its attention.
In this vein, Susan Scott Parrish argues that the New World, as an imaginative category based on its material artifacts, was the work of many hands: European obviously, and provincial particularly. This is a story of the exchange of specimens and information, books and letters that made the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries' "cultures of natural history" a vibrant trade relationship. Whereas previous scholars asked what kinds of natural history colonial Americans pursued and how it resembled European practices, Parrish eschews metropole–periphery metrics and argues that provincials were central and essential to the process and products of natural knowledge. It was colonials who allowed Europeans to indulge their appetite for the "polycentric curiosity" of the New World (7). It was colonials who transmitted the samples, gathered the testimonies, and answered the queries that Europeans asked. In return, colonials could satisfy a hunger for "institutional connections, for print matter and scientific equipment, and in certain ways for publicity" (106). Natural history was a vehicle through which (mostly) American male colonials could gain access to a genteel Atlantic conversation, cultivate epistolary friendships, and establish a reputation for erudition among correspondents locally and abroad. Parrish argues that in matters of natural history at least, the imperial–provincial dynamic "bespoke a mutual sense of dependence and necessary laterality—rather than hierarchy—of relations" (106). The English, "so curious about America—so eager to see and possess its natural splendors" (22), granted colonial naturalists and Americans with an interest in nature great latitude to make natural knowledge and, as a consequence, to challenge the imperial flow of power. An Atlantic world empiricism and an English demand for facts about America, Parrish argues, "gave [colonials] authority where political empire took it away" (22).
Yet the identities colonial naturalists fashioned through nature and the possibilities for challenging imperial political dynamics via the natural world were unstable, ambiguous, and fraught with anxiety. Colonial testifiers and collectors had the luxury of first-hand access to specimens and phenomena. But confidence in their abilities to observe and report nature accurately was tempered by their real and imagined distance from English centers of learning and by persistent and gnawing fears of "creolean degeneracy." Were English bodies adversely altered by the New World's environment? Might the observational faculties be occluded by [End Page 176] America? Were colonials with their fragmentary experiences, their isolation from "scientific sociability," their "lack of leisure, of skill, and of curiosity" even capable of disinterested observation (118)? Parrish argues that over time colonials answered these questions—with qualifications—as no, no, and yes. In fact, it was in observation and reportage of the natural world that some savants began to detect and articulate a difference between England and America.
Readers of the Journal of the Early Republic will be intrigued by Parrish's history of an emerging American identity born of provincial resentment and resistance to a pernicious and dismissive European empiricism. The dispute over the New...