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Susan Scott Parrish – American Curiosity: Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlant

Originally posted on my WordPress blog.

American Curiosity is an excellent and fascinating book that brings together an impressive amount of primary texts that speak to how people experienced and represented nature in early America. Parrish argues against the traditional assumption that the English “[created] modernity singlehandedly, whether in epic triumph or brutal domination” (23). Instead, she argues that “various peoples, issuing from around the Atlantic world, made facts about America in vexed chains of communication” (23). Or, as she puts it more succinctly in the conclusion: “Natural history in colonial America was a polycentric and internally riven empirical enterprise, rather than merely an imperial imposition of an abstract system” (315). While it is difficult to pare down my discussion of this book, as I found it so fascinating, so curious, I will try to focus on only a few particularly strong aspects of her book.

In terms of the book’s formal structure and organization, I appreciated how the early chapters set up a foundation of terms and concepts that recurred in all subsequent chapters, and ensured that the book felt like a cohesive whole despite its wide variety of texts. For example, in the introduction, Parrish makes the claim that, “in North America before 1800, almost all questions of culture circulated through nature” (20). She cites Crevecoeur’s “men are like plants” observation from Letters from an American Farmer as one of the more salient examples of the way this circulation occurs, but this claim runs throughout the book. It works to destabilize the nature-culture binary by suggesting that they are not diametrically opposed concepts but mutually constitutive.

Another recurring concept in the book that I found especially convincing was humoral theory or, as Parrish terms it, environmental humoralism. I hadn’t realized how common it was for colonists to be preoccupied with how the environment “had the power to alter and constitute” their bodies and minds.

Nature was thus not only understood as a potential stock of resources or a plot of property or as the new location of an old drama between God and humanity; it was also breathed in, drunk, eaten, absorbed under the skin, and incorporated into one’s faculties. (78)

I think this helps to explain part of what I thought was missing in Finseth’s argument. Parrish makes the case that early Americans were very much concerned with how the physical environment acted or impinged on their minds and bodies, and nature was not merely an inert backdrop. Furthermore, this underlying belief in humoral theory adds additional contextualization for previous readings this semester. Besides Crevecoeur (who Parrish discusses multiple times), Cotton Mather’s argument in “The Negro Christianized” about skin color and Allen’s and Jones’s description of bleeding patients as a way of treating yellow fever have can be understood through humoral theory. I also saw connections between humoral theory as Parrish discusses it and the current focus on trans-corporeality and concerns about toxins and chemicals entering the body.

I was also intrigued by Parrish’s emphasis of the material quality of natural history, and how letters and specimens functioned as the medium through which natural history was conducted and the way in which people presented themselves and gained identity and authority. Discourses of natural history were highly mediated by physical objects. As Parrish explains, “Because most colonial naturalists lived at a distance from each other and certainly from their English correspondents (whom they often never met), the letter and the shipped specimen more than the face-to-face encounter characterized the mediums of transatlantic natural history” (107). And while women, Native Americans, and Africans all had a certain amount of authority and agency, but it had to be filtered through specimens, letters, and people.

From plant to animal to Indian to white creole to the Royal Society, this piece of knowledge traveled, growing increasingly less secret, less liminal, less embodied, less experiential, and more authoritative as it went, yet paradoxically its authority was also tied to its utterly embedded “natural” source. (257)

Parrish’s analysis of how direct experience of nature went through several levels of mediation is interesting not only in terms of natural history texts, but the way correspondence networks created highly mediated systems of knowledge.

The last part of American Curiosity I want to touch on is the conclusion. By arguing that writers of the American Renaissance “failed to see the dynamic cultures of colonial nature appreciation and representation that preceded and, in many ways, anticipated them” (311), Parrish shows how natural history in the colonial period is a crucial precursor to 19th century American literature. This connection is made even stronger when Parrish talks specifically about the Cetology chapter of Moby-Dick and how, “much like British Americans naturalists since the late seventeenth century, Ishmael was working within local, experientially derived, and multiracial epistemologies” (313). In connecting her argument to what many critics consider to be one of the greatest American novels, Parrish points to the larger relevance and importance of her argument, and how literary scholars can situate her argument within literary history.

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