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  • The Earth on Show: Fossils and the Poetics of Popular Science, 1802-1856
  • Richard Olson (bio)
The Earth on Show: Fossils and the Poetics of Popular Science, 1802-1856 by Ralph O'Connor; pp. 541 + xv. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2007.

This excellent and complex work on early Victorian geology is difficult to characterize. It is primarily an analysis of the imaginative literary strategies used by science writers that led to the replacement of astronomy by geology as the most popular science among British upper- and middle-class readers. As such, it is about science writing as literature; but it is more. Paradoxically, O'Connor argues, most respectable British geologists and geological popularizers condemned those who wrote histories of the earth, including Thomas Burnet, the Comte du Buffon, J.B. Lamarck, and the anonymous author of Vestiges of Creation, for the intrusion of speculation and imagination into what was intended to be sober and rational science; yet when they attempted to recreate the past, they filled their works with dramatic and poetic stories about violent monsters and dragon-like creatures and peppered their vivid word-pictures with quotations from poets, drawing most heavily from Byron and Milton. O'Connor thus argues that the literary construction of geology as a romantic and poetic science aimed at the restoration of what Lord Byron called the [End Page 269] "boundless, endless and sublime" (176) reality of deep time played a significant role in shaping the content of geology as understood in polite culture.

In one sense, this book shares characteristics with Charles Lyell's Principles of Geology, in which "the reader is bombarded with event after event. ... [until] their cumulative world-changing power is not only acknowledged, but felt" (175). O'Connor offers hundreds of block quotations from nearly one hundred authors in order to compel the reader to accept his arguments, although reference to this mass of evidence is eased by a reader-friendly forty-eight-page index. It surprised me initially that only four of his authors were women, given the importance of Victorian women science writers pointed out by Bernard Lightman in his Victorian Popularizers of Science. But its associations with the sublime, with violent and often catastrophic events, and with the exploration of rugged mountains and caves made geology the most masculine of Victorian sciences.

The structure of The Earth on Show is largely thematic, but there are three separate chapters on uniquely important figures. One is on William Buckland, whose showmanship as a lecturer was almost as important in promoting interest in geology as his discovery of evidence of the Biblical flood in the Kirkdale caves; one is on Charles Lyell, whose Principles of Geology seemed to many to reconstitute geology as a secular science and to reorient professional geology toward uniformitarian assumptions; and one is on Hugh Miller, the Scottish stonemason turned author and editor of the evangelical periodical The Witness, whose brilliant prose attracted huge audiences and kept young-earth geology alive through the first half of the nineteenth century.

At times, O'Connor turns the reader's attention to the visual representation of scenes from deep time, not just in their role as illustrations in geological texts, but as informed by the new forms of public spectacle associated with panoramas and dioramas depicting scenes from the ancient human past; the book is superbly illustrated with eight full-colour plates and ninety-one halftone figures. In focusing on visual representations, O'Connor, unlike Martin Rudwick, constantly relates the visual image to its verbal context. Thus, in discussing the appearance of Charles Wilson Peale's reconstructed mammoth in London in 1802, O'Connor emphasizes both the accompanying booklet that observers purchased and the literary responses to its exhibition; and in talking about panoramas, he emphasizes their relation to the guidebooks that were created to orient the viewers. In spite of its explicit denial that it is about the reception of geological literature, the book does occasionally take on the shape of reception studies and book history, as when it tries to reconstruct the audiences for popular geological works by examining their cost relative to the weekly or daily wages of a London law clerk...


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pp. 269-271
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