My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Most people believe history is made up of people and their ideas. Maybe also the things they do. But I tend to think of history as being made up much more of books. The majority of people live and die and leave no record, no imprint, on history. You’ll never know what they thought; you’ll never have any contact with them. Great historians can get around this to some extend; I know social historians who can tease a wealth of information about the past from statistics, censuses, documents, and other clues. If you’re lucky you might find a trove of letters or journals related to particular individuals as well. But these are the fringes and margins of intellectual history, and such evidences only go back a couple hundred years at the most.
Books are a different story. Books are like the shelled organisms in the fossil record. By their very nature they leave a mark on intellectual history. They’re ideas given form, preserved, read, and interpreted. And yet they’re not static. A person’s ideas are in some way solidified in a text, but that person’s thoughts change over time, and there’s always also the question of how good a reflection of a person’s true views or ideas a book truly is. But books like the Origin of Species, for instance, or the works of Newton, leave an impact: they’re read, and their ideas spread. They’re the bones we build our intellectual histories upon.
But this isn’t enough. If we simply try to read the classical texts of the past without regard for the context in which they were written or without understanding the ways contemporary readers would have interpreted them then we’re only getting a portion of the picture. It’s this context that the historian of science James Secord brings to a cluster of pivotal texts in his new work, Visions of Science.
The subtitle of the work is “Books and Readers at the Dawn of the Victorian Age.” The first half of the 1800s happens to be a period in which I’m quite comfortable, having written my dissertation on one of the authors whose work Secord examines. But it’s not an arbitrary choice of period, as Secord makes clear. The dawn of the Victorian Age was in many ways the dawn of modern science as we know it. Society was changing, particularly in Great Britain, where there was a growing middle class population, technological innovations were making texts more cheap and accessible, and scientific progress was seen as the panacea for solving social ills. The early 1800s saw the beginning of the devotion to science as a means of progress that we continue (though a bit more jaded, disillusioned, and hopefully wiser) to live within today. This is the world on the cusp of Darwin and the professionalization of science, steeped in the early enthusiasm of the industrial revolution.
Secord examines seven texts from this period: Humphrey Davy’s Consolations in Travel, published near the end of the chemist’s life as a retrospective on the progress of humanity to date; Charles Babbage’s Reflections on the Decline of Science in England, his tract against the perceived stagnation of science in England compared to the Continent, which Secord uses as a segue into the politics and personalities of practicing science during this period; John Herschel’s Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy, often seen as the first modern text on the philosophy of science; Mary Somerville’s popularization of science, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences; the geologists Charles Lyell’s Principle of Geology, which set the groundwork for thinking of deep time and Darwin’s revolution; George Combe’s immensely popular work on phrenology, Constitution of Man; and finally Thomas Carlyle’s weird and wonderful critique of the science of his day, Sartor Resartus.
Secord has previously published a book-length treatment of another important book during this period that should be included in this list, the anonymously-written Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, which created a “Victorian sensation.” In that earlier work Secord does in greater depth for the Vestiges, a text that brought ideas of naturalistic evolution to a widespread audience decades before Darwin, what he does for each of the texts listed above. His treatments in Visions of Science are brief synopses, almost vignettes, about each book, and it would have been nice to have an abbreviated version of his examination of the Vestiges among them as well for completeness; I don’t think any readers would have minded repetition with his previous study.
For each of these works, Secord is interested in showing how these primary sources– many of which students of the history of science in modern Britain would know well– was initially perceived. More than that, he dives into the structure of the physical books themselves: who published them, how they were printed, and what this meant about potential audience and cost. Secord also provides biographical sketches of the authors, but these are complete only in as far as needed to show how the writing of the particular book fit in the context of their lives. Who were these authors, what was their role in the nascent community of modern science, and why did they write? Secord’s exploration gives a clearer picture of the transitional world of early Victorian science and its rise to cultural prominence.
Visions of Science would be ideal for a course focusing on the history of science and culture in this period. Such a course would likely involve the assignment of large portions of the primary texts for reading, with the chapters of Secord’s work as supplementary material so today’s readers could do more than simply filter these works through their own interpretive frameworks. The studies in Secord’s work are a primer for a much more difficult task: seeing the works as they appeared in their own time. In this Visions of Science succeeds in making these foundational texts more three-dimensional, helping them come alive as we approach them as a Victorian reader would and seeing in a new way how foundational they were in shaping society and thought into molds we largely take for granted today.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It’s kind of fun to be part of a renaissance, even if you were late to the party. It’s kind of fun to be part of something gathering steam, spilling open, being rediscovered. Right now, that’s more or less what’s happening to the writings of R. A. Lafferty.
If you don’t know Lafferty, you haven’t been reading my blog long, as I’ve reviewed at least two of his books here already. You also probably haven’t seen the lovely fanzine, Feast of Laughter, which celebrates the man and his work and in which in the latest issue I have a story and review. You haven’t heard there was this really odd guy in Oklahoma writing at the crest of the New Wave in science fiction who was– bizarrely– Catholic, conservative, and curmudgeonly. You’re one of the lucky ones, because you get to discover his work from the ground up.
The collection The Man Who Made Models is the best place to start. I’ve written about Lafferty’s novels before. They are, I would argue, an acquired taste (but one well worth acquiring). It is in his short stories though that his madness and exuberance come in more manageable bits. But these aren’t dainty snacks; even as short stories they’re bloody, quivering chunks of meat you have to unhinge your jaw to swallow.
Part of what makes a Lafferty renaissance fun to be a part of is that Lafferty’s writings are so immense and scattered. Only one of his books is still in print, and his short story collections are treasures for which used bookstores are to be scoured regularly. Many of his later works were never published on a large scale and only appeared in now-vanished small presses. His short stories are spread across decades and lost in a farrago of out-of-print collections, unpublished manuscripts, and copyright litigation. All of which makes this particular collection so exciting: it’s purported to be the first volume in Lafferty’s complete collected short fiction.
And it really is a great place to begin the strange odyssey that is Lafferty, assuming you can sweet-talk your local librarian in getting her hands on it. There’s a fantastic mix of Lafferties in here, though I don’t believe this volume was designed to be a “best of” collection. (My single complaint about this volume is that the editorial afterword doesn’t explain the selection process for this volume. It is not chronological, as the list of original sources at the volume’s conclusion shows these stories range from the 1960s to the 1980s and appeared in everything from big-name magazines to small-press chapbooks.)
Models a pleasant patchwork, but that makes it sound comfortable and cozy. It’s not. It’s a patchwork of monsters. You’ve got stories in here that are among Lafferty’s best and brightest: “The Six Fingers of Time,” “Frog on the Mountain,” and “Narrow Valley.” These are the ones you want someone to read for the first time when you’re trying to explain who Lafferty is any why people get so excited about him.
But when you want to go beyond that and highlight his exuberant monstrosity, you’ve also got plenty of choices here. You have “The Hole on the Corner,” for instance, which I think is one of the best examples of what makes Lafferty tick: the Chestertonian joy of the gruesome, bizarre, and hilarious. There are some that are genuinely frightening, whether that means chillingly subdued like “Parthen” or riotously macabre like “The Skinny People of Leptophlebo Street.” And you have the ones where Lafferty almost goes too far, leaving you with a simmering crackling in your mind, an effervescence that only hints at the things other writers feel they need to work into their stories such as plots or conclusions: “The Ungodly Mice of Doctor Drakos,” for instance, or the concluding work of the volume, “Rivers of Damascus.”
I’m not a literary analyst who can comment eruditely on the philosophical or theological things lurking below the surface of Lafferty’s prose, like some of the contributors to Feast of Laughter. But I want to comment briefly on two of the stories in this collection, because it’s not worth much to an outsider to simply say Lafferty is impossible to classify and leave it at that. Each one of his stories bears deeper analysis, and each one in some way forces eyes and minds toward a world where a multiplicity of options and universes await, something that is often off-putting for those coming to his stories hoping for tidy conclusions and explanations. Things are a bit larger than that here; it’s like waiting for a cloud-scape to fall into its final configuration.
But there are two stories in this volume I especially love. The first is “Days of Grass, Days of Straw,” which is absolutely strange. On first blush this story seems to be an alternate reality tale, in which a man comes to awareness in a “weird western” motif where Indians have a thriving civilization on the Great Plains. This, it is eventually explained, is a “day of grass,” an extra day in the calendar that doesn’t count, as opposed to the ordinary, mundane “days of straw.” Life in the day of grass doesn’t have much narrative structure: the characters eat and talk and make war with buffalo and dance beneath a floating mountain. Simultaneously, in our own reality the characters discuss the nature of these lost calendar days, and Lafferty lists several of them for us, days we’re led to believe he’s lifted from obscurity from half a dozen ethnic calendars. The story ends abruptly with no real conclusion: we’re left with only potentiality, a flicker of wonder around the edges of our own life, and some pseudo-philosophical discussion of time and potentiality. It’s gorgeous.
And then there’s “Thus We Frustrated Charlemagne,” which features– as much of Lafferty’s short fiction does– characters that form a recurring cast of sorts in many of his stories. A group of scientists has achieved the technological breakthrough of sending avatars back in time to alter the past. (One of the best things about reading Lafferty is the way he handles technology. His explanations, which border on the absurd, somehow have aged much better than some of the best “hard science” explanations for fictitious technology.) Each time they alter the past, the world around them is transformed. It’s a trope that’s been explored often in science fiction since, but here it’s as fresh and new and hilarious as an actual real world popping into existence.
That’s much of the deep magic here: new, real worlds. Lafferty’s science fiction is never about making fantasy worlds to replace this one. Rather, he writes to open our eyes to the weirdness and the wonder in this one. The world, Lafferty’s fiction seems to say, is stranger than you can imagine. This one. The one you’re sitting in. It’s going to eat you alive. All of the fantasy– all of the horror and monstrosity and laughter and joy– is just him shaking your shoulders. Shaking them hard. Wake up.