BOOK: An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century American Science Writing

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Last year, Anthem Press published An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century American Science Writing (Anthem Nineteenth-Century Series), edited by C. R. Resetarits:

This volume is a brief anthology of the most influential writing by American scientists between 1800 and 1900. Arranged thematically and chronologically to highlight the progression of American science throughout the nineteenth century – from its beginnings in self-taught classification and exploration to the movement towards university education and specialization – it is the first collection of its kind. Each section begins with a biography, putting human faces to each time period, and introducing such notable figures as Thomas Jefferson and Louis Agassiz.

It’s a really nice collection of primary sources, one the editor felt was very needed in the literature of nineteenth-century science (you can find plenty of analyses of science in America of the period, and even a collection of private documents of nineteenth-century American scientists; but no collections of solely works meant for public consumption). The over-representation of European science in any anthologies looking at science of the nineteenth century as a whole downplayed the role of American scientists. Of course, they were there. And they were doing plenty of science across the Atlantic.

The selections are split into three sections. The first section, “Naturals and Naturalists,” covering the period 1800-1846, provides pieces on natural history and the physical sciences, from Thomas Jefferson’s write up on the Megalonyx fossil to Joseph Henry’s take “On the Production of Currents and and Sparks of Electricity from Magnetism.” The second section (1846-1876) deals with paleontology and evolution, aptly titled “Warriors.” Here we get pieces about Darwin and the American response to On the Origin of Species (Agassiz, Asa Gray), and others from participants in the Bone Wars (Marsh, Cope) and other paleontologists. In the last section, “Scientists” (1876-1900), the pieces reflect a more specialized, academic scientific community. One might notice the lack of contributions from women scientists, and Resetarits rightly comments on this and provides sources for anyone looking to learn more about the role of women.

With a $99 cover price, this would be a book to ask your library (public or academic) to purchase, unless you’re a historian or extreme history buff, then this would be a handsome volume on your shelf.

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