- The Curious Mister Catesby: A “Truly Ingenious” Naturalist Explores New Worlds ed. by E. Charles Nelson and David J. Elliott
In this beautifully illustrated volume, editors E. Charles Nelson and David J. Elliott “review the life and work of Mark Catesby in a way that will be valuable both to the interested and informed general reader and to the scholarly community” (p. xi). Twenty-five contributors (including historians, film-makers, botanists, and anthropologists) take a multifaceted approach to a complex man. What emerges is a sweeping picture of Mark Catesby, his life’s work, and the world that he lived in. Ultimately, the volume manages to bridge the ever-elusive gap between popular and scholarly history.
Born in 1682/3 in rural England to a genteel family, Catesby spent the years between 1712 and 1726 collecting, investigating, and recording the flora and fauna of North America and the Caribbean islands. A fellow of the Royal Society of London, Catesby was a well-connected gentleman naturalist devoted to extending mankind’s understanding of the natural world. And as the contributors to The Curious Mister Catesby: A “Truly Ingenious” Naturalist Explores New Worlds make clear, Catesby relied on a variety of contacts for both funding and research. He stayed with the gentleman planter William Byrd II while visiting Virginia from 1712 to 1719, sent specimens from the backcountry of the Carolinas to English elites like Sir Hans Sloane and William Sherard, and interacted with a staggering array of fellow naturalists through the burgeoning “republic of letters.” Catesby eventually emerged as “a man at the center of London’s horticultural and learned communities” after the publication of the first section of what became The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (p. xi). A summation of Catesby’s transatlantic travels and scholarship, his Natural History took him another eighteen years to finish and proved his most enduring legacy. With 220 hand-colored plates of North American and Caribbean flora and fauna, as well as in-depth field notes, Natural History broke new ground—methodologically as well as artistically—in the field of natural history.
Not surprisingly, Catesby’s Natural History forms the nexus of The Curious Mister Catesby. Although summarizing each essay is beyond the scope of this review, the diverse contributors deserve praise for creating a set of scholarly investigations that are seemingly disparate yet quite united. After laying out Catesby’s biography, short essays consider the history of Catesby’s Natural History; explore the places where Catesby lived, worked, and traveled during his life; investigate the naturalists who influenced Catesby; and demonstrate the impact Catesby had on contemporary and future naturalists. Kay Etheridge and Florence F. J. M. Pieters’s survey of Maria Sibylla Merian’s impact on Catesby is quite illuminating, as is Diana Preston and Michael Preston’s examination [End Page 654] of the swashbuckling naturalist/pirate William Dampier. Some historians provide solid surveys of the different environments that Catesby encountered in his travels, while others delve into the physical construction of Catesby’s books and prints. Taken together, Henrietta McBurney’s and Leslie K. Overstreet’s pieces especially demonstrate the hardships Catesby had to endure to mix his own paint in the backcountry of Carolina and cobble together the funds to self-publish such an expensive set of volumes. Other contributors do an admirable job of contextualizing Catesby’s scholarship in the quickly changing early-eighteenth-century scholarly community, which included men like Carl Linnaeus and new ideologies such as ethnobotany and binomial categorization.
Like any volume with such scope, The Curious Mister Catesby is not without its missteps, although they are small and infrequent. The greatest hurdle that scholars have to overcome when studying Mark Catesby is the unfortunate fact that little information about Catesby the man remains. All Catesby really left behind were his scholarly works, a spate of letters, and brief descriptions from others...