The Americas 59.1 (2002) 128-130
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"Image," a recent popular advertising campaign proclaimed, "is everything." In this beautifully illustrated and fascinating book by Nancy Stepan, images of the tropics have had everything to do with how we have perceived the lands between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Stepan has been writing about the history of science and medicine in Latin American for nearly thirty years. Her Beginnings of Brazilian Science: Oswaldo Cruz, Medical Research and Policy, 1890-1920 (1976) was a pioneering study of the institutionalization of science and scientific research in Brazil. She has also written on race and eugenics, in particular in The Hour of Eugenics: Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America (1991). Picturing Tropical Nature takes her in a new direction, although the book draws heavily on her earlier works. [End Page 128]
This is a book about the ways tropical places, peoples, and diseases have been depicted especially in the works of scientists in Europe, the United States, and Brazil in the nineteenth and (to a lesser extent) twentieth centuries. The focus of the book is almost entirely on Brazil. A more accurate title might have been "Reflections on Depictions of Brazilian Tropical Nature." The seven chapters are not so much a sustained argument and treatise but rather a series of essays connected by the common theme of depictions of tropicality. Chapters 1 and 2 look at tropical nature as a landscape or place, 3 and 4 examine depictions of tropical peoples, and chapters 5 and 6 turn to the depiction of "tropical" diseases.
As Stepan shows, a few key scientists and their widely read travel accounts profoundly shaped European and American views of the tropics during the nineteenth century. Alexander von Humboldt's immensely influential and voluminous publications in the early nineteenth century created a view of the tropics as a region of fertility and abundance, of "nature and passion" quite unlike the "culture and reason" of the temperate zones (p. 42). Through both his words and the pictorial images in his books Humboldt influenced generations of readers, both lay and scientific. In a sense, he set the standard for scientific travel writing and the predominant view of the American tropics. In one of the most interesting chapters in the book, Stepan analyzes the writings of Alfred Russel Wallace, always the interesting iconoclast in nineteenth-century Victorian science. Wallace's work, in many ways, helps create an ecological consciousness and tradition through his classic account of his years in the Amazon.
In chapters 3 and 4, Stepan looks at the depiction of tropical peoples. The focus of chapter 3 is the striking set of photographs taken during the scientific expedition of Louis Agassiz to Brazil in the 1860s. Stepan argues that these (and other) photographs helped create and perpetuate "erotic fantasies of tropical sexual availability" (p. 117). As a counterpart, many of the photographs in chapter 4 were taken by the Oswaldo Cruz Institute in the early twentieth century and provide us with a "view of the tropics from within the tropics" (p. 120). Much of this chapter goes over ground covered elsewhere in Stepan's work, discussing race and national identity. The chapter ends with the observation that these photographs "attract us by their irreducible indecipherability" (p. 148), not an especially helpful conclusion.
In chapters 5 and 6, Stepan turns to images of place and race through disease. She effectively describes how the "tropics became the pathogens" in the clinical portraits of diseases such as leishmaniasis and elephantiasis (p. 167). Chapter 7 is a fascinating analysis of the discovery of Chagas's disease (Trypanomiasis americana) and its complicated and debated history. Finally, chapter 7 jumps to the middle to late twentieth century examining the work of the world renowned landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. Stepan sees in his gardens the blending of the natural and unnatural, the tropical and non-tropical, providing an alternative understanding of tropicality. This final chapter is the least...