Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Intimate Life of an American Scientist

A couple weeks ago, I taught Martha Sandweiss's fascinating Passing Strange for my undergraduate methods seminar. The book exposes and explores the double life of Clarence King, the famed 19th century geologist of the American West. Historians have known for some time that after his western adventures King assumed a new identity as James Todd, a porter, and married a black women in New York named Ada Copeland. Sandweiss claims the honor of being the first to discover that King passed as black while married to Copeland (not a small accomplishment for a fair-haired, blue-eyed man). She also takes this relationship seriously and reconstructs not only King's life in light of it, but also the life of Ada Copeland/Todd.

The book amazed my students---some compared it favorably to a novel. I enjoy the story but appreciate Sandweiss' careful historical reasoning even more. To make up for a near total absence of archival material relating to Copeland, Sandweiss assumes in her third chapter the role of historical detective in a lucid and reflective manner. It is as if we get to see the historian thinking.

But every time I read Passing Strange, I wonder: does it have anything to contribute to the history of American science? For her part, Sandweiss seems content to focus on Gilded Age social and cultural history. In her historiographic comments on page 304, she sets her work apart from that of recent biographers were "concerned more with King as an exemplar of American science than with what his life might reveal about the nation's complicated politics of race and class." Still, I wonder if this fuller understanding of King's later years (those he spent in part with Ada Todd and their growing family) can be useful for historians of science. I feel like it *must* be.

Clarence King's life and work allow us a fascinating opportunity to think about the personal and professional opportunities available to a late 19th century scientist. I'm hardly the first to make such a claim. In fact, Henry Adams beat me to the punch in his Education by over a century.
In 1871 he [Adams] had thought King's education ideal, and his personal fitness unrivalled. No other young American approached him for the combination of chances — physical energy, social standing, mental scope and training, wit, geniality, and science, that seemed superlatively American and irresistibly strong. His nearest rival was Alexander Agassiz, and, as far as their friends knew, no one else could be classed with them in the running. The result of twenty years' effort proved that the theory of scientific education failed where most theory fails — for want of money. (Google Books, 346)
In Sandweiss's words, the lesson of King's financial failure in 1893, for all who cared to look, was that "scientific knowledge and personal bravado now mattered less than capital and corporate know-how." (230-231) By the time King's fortunes broke alongside the fortunes of so many others, his greatest scientific works, his leadership of the 40th parallel expedition, and his directorship of the USGS were long behind him. But he had hardly given up on science: rather he had devoted his intellectual energies and scientific expertise to testifying in mining trials and pitching new mining investments. Still, he couldn't keep up with his growing debts. The ruin of the panic pushed him over the edge and into an asylum.

Sandweiss's exploration of King's double life forces us to rethink the moral here. Certainly, King failed. But he failed while trying to support his dependent mother, his own lavish lifesytle, and a large (albeit secret) family. Perhaps scientific education did not fail for want of money. Perhaps it did not fail at all. King's economic failure was entirely typical and such failure drove many men to mental anguish. Yet the great blessings of King's life, and the responsibilities that come with such blessings, multiplied the devastation of his economic losses.

While King's particular (unique?) situation might not make him the best case for picking out general trends, it does seem that the elite life and the professional scientific life were becoming increasingly distinct in the Gilded Age. In The Humboldt Current, Aaron Sachs sets King next to Theodore Roosevelt in order to contrast King's "humility" in the face of the frontier to Roosevelt's cult of the "strenuous life."(263) Such differences aside, both King and Roosevelt had trouble making a living off the wild west and off of literary/scientific pursuits alone. TR lamented his political life---in fact, methinks he protested it too much---but politics put bread on the table in a way that writing couldn't and cattle ranching hadn't. I should probably be thinking about Paul Lucier's Isis article here as well (see Etherwave's commentary), since King is straddles the scientist/professional boundaries throughout his life.

More fruitful, however, than a King-Roosevelt comparison, would likely be a more extensive consideration of King alongside Alexander Agassiz. As Adams wrote, both men were scientists of the top rank---though Agassiz had the better lineage and Agassiz never suffered financial disaster. Indeed, Agassiz got the presidency of a successful mining company, between his echinoderm and coral reef investigations! Okay, so maybe I just want to read more about Agassiz now.

3 comments:

  1. Dan: A worthy book, and a worthy account, but I'm confused on what you see as the take-home point for American Science (beyond the fact that Sandweiss could've done more with it).

    You say that "it does seem that the elite life and the professional scientific life were becoming increasingly distinct," and yet you conclude with the dual success of Agassiz's "better lineage" and professional acumen. Does this prove or complicate your point?

    Maybe I'm just confused about what's more fruitful about Agassiz-King than Roosevelt-King as a comparison. Specifically, while TR couldn't feed a family (well, that was never going to be a problem, really) on writing or science, this was true for most of those who pursued either track in the c19. It was the turn into the c20 that produced "professionalized" fields in either area - is that your point?

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hey Hank: on the Agassiz-King comparison, I don't know the take-home. I genuinely want the study. I want to know why things seem to work out for Agassiz. Is it a personal or particular explanation? I.e. King's responsibilities vs. Agassiz's grooming. Or is it somehow indicative of systemic differences? Did Agassiz figure out how to tie himself to the right kind of corporate patron at the right moment.

    More generally, I suppose I'm struck by the fragility of this moment of transition toward professionalized science. Science education has already expanded. Lawrence and Sheffield are churning out science students, not to mention the Land Grants. But the market to accommodate those students hasn't kept up. Is that true? What do you think.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Dan: Ah, I see. Well, I think you were probably right initially to note that Agassiz's (and others') success is some combination of the two. It seems what you're interested in how the balance between the two - how much of either is necessary to make it in the world - is changing. Right?

    This is how I read your second paragraph. I guess what I'd caution you on is the quick tie to "science education." You know, of course, what a complicated thing the "scientific education" (to which Adams refers in your quote) is. It's a way quirkier thing than chapter seven in Philip Pauly, right?

    ReplyDelete