- American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World
In 1769, just as the imperial crisis was heating up, Pennsylvania Quaker farmer John Bartram sent a couple of large and noisy bullfrogs to the British king. The message was not antagonistic, a grumpy gesture from a disgruntled and otherwise silenced pacifist, but an act appropriate to cultural fascination with the specimens of American natural history and to the requirements of a diligent royal scientist in the colonies. The frogs [End Page 294] were kept in the pond of London physician John Fothergill, until one escaped, and after many months had elapsed without the second gaining an audience with George III, the doctor allowed it to go in search of its mate. This pair of frogs were failed specimens. But most of the other flora and fauna that colonists sent across the ocean were decidedly not. Offering a careful and elegant account of the dynamics of natural history on both the western and eastern sides of the British Atlantic, American Curiosity explains why. The British American colonies, and hence their specimens and informers, were crucial to the New Science under such intense elaboration in metropolitan London.
Parrish describes her approach as "a social history of knowledge making and a cultural history of representations" (15). The social history is peopled with members of a variety of social groups—not just colonial farmers and part-time botanists like Bartram and his brother William, but also elite women, such as Eliza Pinckney of the South Carolinian planter class, and slaves, such as the unnamed "black servant" of Charleston naturalist Alexander Garden, as well as native American informants sent further into the "wilderness" than privileged whites cared to go. The cultural history, which carries the greater analytical weight, involves close readings of a similarly wide variety of texts in the genres and medias concerned with natural history. Pastoral poetry, sermons, travel accounts, and especially personal letters are all set firmly against the more formal, propagandist and myopic publications of the Royal Society.
"Curiosity" and the New World make Parrish's approach uniquely desirable. She argues that America was an immense and provoking material curiosity for scientists, and that proper curiosity involved an English gentleman, well schooled and detached, honing scientific facts about nature in concert with other similarly disinterested and apprehending men of similar stature. Thus, curiosity requires both a social history of observers and a cultural history of what was observed. Curiosity was sufficiently flexible, and the longing of the New Science for natural facts and artifacts sufficiently powerful, for it to be ambivalently extended to, as well as defined against, that of certain native American informants (Indian sagacity) and the enslaved (African cunning). Women of Pinckney's ilk, meanwhile, made female curiosity respectable via pastoralism and practical application, carving out a place for themselves in the informal epistolary networks that were science's primary conduit.
American Curiosity develops both the social-constructionist scientific history exemplified by Shapin and the older entwined history of literature and science associated with critics such as Nicolson.1 Both traditions emerged in attempts to account for the full richness and complexity of European arts and sciences; both still tend to take the view from the [End Page 295] metropole where institutions were thickest on the ground and print culture deepest rooted. The main achievement of this book is to demonstrate how the colonies, and diverse inhabitants therein, were thoroughly constitutive of the ordinary workaday practices of metropolitan science. Parrish shows this participation to have been integral to curious empiricism, despite some of the louder claims of the New Science. The focus on specimens, and the preference for small fragments of knowledge over grand theories, made it newly possible for local, read peripheral, expertise to matter in unusual and surprising ways.
1. Steven Shapin, A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century England (Chicago, 1994); Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Newton Demands the Muse...