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  • Defending Master Race, Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant
  • William Toll
Defending Master Race, Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant. By Jonathan P. Spiro. Burlington, Vermont: University of Vermont Press. 2009.

Jonathan Spiro has written an informative and often witty life and times of Madison Grant (b. 1865-d.1937). For Spiro, Grant is the prolific leader of a morally ambiguous, [End Page 293] patriarchal circle fancying itself the conservators of a pristine America. Educated by tutors and at Yale and Columbia Law School in the 1880s, as a gentleman-reformer in the 1890s, Grant, with his close friend, Henry Fairfield Osborne, director of the American Museum of Natural History, got the state legislature to create the New York Zoological Society, which opened the Bronx Zoo (1899). It was then the largest and most theoretically advanced in the world. After traveling in the American West, he wrote monographs about large mammals and lobbied congress to preserve them by creating the first wildlife sanctuaries and vast national parks like Glacier and Denali.

But when Grant fit the human species into his vision of a properly tended America, his benevolence foundered on the pseudo-scientific ideology of "Race" and the tactic of eugenics. The three themes around which Grant organized his conservation work:- (1) typology (each species had a "best type"); (2) deterioration (interventions depleted the "type"); (3) invasive species (which consumed habitat)- were projected into human societies in his widely-read book, The Passing of the Great Race (1916). For Grant, his own type—the physically superior "Nordics," were threatened by deterioration through their failure to breed and by a catastrophic world war, just as the invasive species—east Europeans, especially insidious Polish Jewish—arrived to grab urban living space.

Because Grant and most of his circle left limited correspondence, Spiro consciously avoids speculating on personal motives and instead explores the convoluted public debates over racial theorizing. Though these conflicts have been analyzed by John Higham, George Stocking, Jr., and others, Spiro's strength lies in re-creating the social space out of which the literature and politics of eugenics emerged. New York City gentlemen's clubs—the Boone & Crockett Society and the Half-Moon Club—bred the American Bison Society, the Save-the-Redwoods League, the Galton Society, and other conservation claques with formidable lobbying power. Their greatest political triumph came in the early 1920s when Grant's new friend, Republican congressman Albert Johnson of Washington, steered immigration restriction legislation (with national origins quota provisions) through congress. The same cultural anxiety produced Grant's friendship with the ardent racist, John Sevier Cox, and state anti-miscegenation laws. Even Margaret Sanger and the birth control movement participated in Grant's eugenics propaganda.

Spiro frames the discussion of eugenics—and the second half of his book—as a struggle between Grant's Anglo-Protestant circle of museum and agency officers and journalists, and Franz Boas, with his largely Jewish circle of academically trained anthropologists. The Nordic dilettantes interpreted history as a struggle between immutable "races," while the Jewish scientists attributed human behavior to pliable "cultures." By the early 1930s the followers of Boas had won the academic debate in the United States and assumed control of Anthropology departments and grant-awarding agencies like the National Research Council. But just then Hitler and his followers embraced the racial thesis expounded in The Passing of the Great Race. The influence of Grant in Nazi Germany takes Spiro on a lengthy but compelling tangent.

More careful editing should have eliminated the many redundant references to the interlocking membership of clubs and societies and pruned rambling tangents. And Spiro could have used studies of the eastern elite by Digby Baltzell to more thoughtfully interpret what he often depicts as the bizarre bachelor behavior of Grant and his friends. But this book's great achievement is to explain how a dilettante elite resisted its own obsolescence, even as a meritocracy practicing a scientific mode of inquiry superceded it. [End Page 294]

William Toll
University of Oregon


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