Discovering Brazil

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 2017

I am sitting in the sun on the roof of my hotel in Rio, looking at the heavily forested hills to the east, the high rise hotels lining the Copacabana to the south, the elaborate rooftop garden across the Avenida de Princesa Isabel, and beyond, the rickety tin shacks of a favela creeping up a hill. It is winter in the tropics, and the temperature is 22 C (about 72 F) at 10 AM.

About 400 years ago, in 1637 or so (the sources differ on the dates), a young Dutch artist named Frans Post (1612-1680) travelled to South America at the invitation of the new Dutch governor of what was then a Dutch colony at Pernambuco in northeastern Brazil, which the Dutch held from 1630 until 1654.

Frans Post, Landscape of Pernambuco, 1637-44, Museu nacional de Belas Artes, Rio. Wikimedia

The Dutch governor, Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen (1604-1679), ruled over the sugar-rich territory between 1636 and 1644.

Map of Brazil from 17th century
Map of Dutch Brazil, ca 1639

According to art historians, Post completed eighteen landscapes while in Brazil, documenting Dutch possessions, including the port of Recife.  Post painted many more Brazilian landscapes from memory after his return to the Netherlands.  Another artist accompanying the governor, Albert Eckhout (1610-1666), painted people, including the slaves who worked on the sugar plantations, as well as plants and animals.

I saw a couple of Post’s later paintings last week at the art museum in São Paulo.  I had never heard of Frans Post, and knew only vaguely of the Dutch presence in Brazil.  I was intrigued by these large, lush landscapes laden with tropical plants, Dutch planters, and slaves.

Post View of Olinda 1662
Frans Post, View of Olinda, Brazil, 1662. Rijksmuseum

Some of his earlier works are at the Museu Nacional de Belas Artes in Rio; oddly, most of them are in Paris at the Louvre, presented as a gift to Louis XIV in 1679.  Some of Eckhout’s paintings, part of the same gift, became the basis of Gobelins tapestries. In 1645, Post made several engravings of his earlier paintings to illustrate a book by Caspar Barlaeus (1584-1648) on Johan Maurits’s tenure as governor, Rerum per octennium in Brasilia et alibi nuper gestarum (Recent achievements in Brazil over the past eight years), published in 1647.

Recently, a curator in the Netherlands discovered thirty-four previously unknown drawings of Brazilian animals made by Post during his stay.  Here is one, of a jaguar.   The caption calls it a “tiger,” and notes that some he has seen are black.

Post cat
Frans Post, Jaguar, ca. 1637-1644. Noord-Hollands Archief, Haarlem

The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam exhibited these drawings last winter, accompanied by taxidermied animals from the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in Leiden.  Sorry I missed it!

Johan Maurits appointed not only artists but also naturalists, to document the incredible richness and strangeness of Brazil. Among them was the German naturalist, astronomer, and explorer Georg Marcgraf (1610-1644), who arrived in Brazil early in 1638 and stayed until Johan Maurits’s departure; Marcgraf died shortly thereafter in Angola.  With Marcgraf was a Dutch physician, Willem Piso (1611-1678).  Together Marcgraf and Piso documented Brazilian flora and fauna.  Piso held a particular interest in indigenous remedies, following in the footsteps of Spanish physician Francisco Hernández (1514-1587), who had recorded Mexican plants and animals and the Aztec pharmacopoeia in the 1570s.  Hernández’s work finally appeared, much truncated, as Rerum medicarum Novae Hispaniae thesaurus (1651).

L0001205 F. Hernandez, 1517-1587, Rerum Medicarum..., 1649
Hernandez, Thesaurus, 1651

Johannes de Laet (1581-1649) edited the work of Piso and Marcgraf into the beautiful volume Historiae naturalis Brasiliae, published in 1648, a landmark in the natural history of the new world.

Marcgraf and Piso, Historia naturalis Brasiliae, 1648

Many of the illustrations came from the work of Post and Eckhout.

Several historians, including Hal Cook, Britt Dams, and Neil Safier, have written about Marcgraf and Piso.  I have seen less about their relationship with Post and Eckhout (which does not mean that that work does not exist).  I like to think of these young men, all still in their twenties in the late 1630s, walking through the magical landscape of Brazil and recording its treasures, far from home in northern Europe.


Vesalius in Wonderland

eu040001Last month, artist Lisa Temple-Cox had a residency at Oregon State for two weeks as part of the Horning Series on “The Material Body” that I organized this academic year. Among the numerous talks and demonstrations she gave was this collaborative talk with art historian Glenn Harcourt on a joint project they are calling “Vesalius in Wonderland.” During the talk, Glenn describes the project while Lisa does a life-size copy of one of Vesalius’s illustrations. A video of the talk is here.

Accompanying the talk was a copy of the new English translation of Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius’s landmark 1543 work De humani corporis fabrica libri septem, The Fabric of the Human Body in Seven Books.  The translation is full, folio size, beautifully printed with detailed reproductions of the original illustrations.  You can see some samples here.  The Horning Endowment funded the purchase of this volume by the Special Collections and Archives Research Center at OSU, where the talk took place.

The Witches

This review appears in The Public Historian, vol. 38, no. 2 (May 2016), pp. 98-99

The Witches: Salem 1692 by Stacy Schiff. New York, Boston and London: Little, Brown and Company, 2015. ix + 496 pp.; figures, notes, bibliography, index; clothbound, $32.00; paperbound, $30.00; eBook, $14.99.

download            Like many academic historians, I have a complicated relationship with works of popular history. When I was in high school I found the works of Barbara Tuchman inspiring; now, I’m afraid to reread them because they would probably make me cringe. Yet I envy the audiences that such historians attract, and the possibility of communicating the past to a broader public.

Stacy Schiff has been a particularly prolific and successful practitioner of popular historical biography, with subjects ranging from Véra Nabokov to Cleopatra. When I heard she had written a book about the Salem witch trials, I suppressed a groan—hasn’t that been done?—but after reading Jane Kamensky’s scathing review in the New York Times Book Review last fall, I felt I had to read it. There aren’t all that many popular books on my chosen era of the late seventeenth century that I could justify ignoring one.

Schiff is a skilled and descriptive writer, bringing the “crow-black” nights of the edge of wilderness, the spring mud, the bone-cracking winter cold, and the dreary, dim interiors to vivid life. Yet she also emphasizes the strangeness of 1692 New England to modern eyes. Puritanism is both mysterious and repellent; early modern knowledge of science is laughable, its medicine bizarre. Although New England Puritans, with their love of litigation, held a “hypertrophied faith in reason,” they were nonetheless utterly superstitious, with stout beliefs in omens and a healthy respect for the spirits that swirled about them (103). To them, very little happened by chance.

Schiff bases her work on prodigious research in both primary and secondary sources, as well as interviews and e-mails with well-known academic historians of early America. Her account is mostly chronological, beginning with the first accusations in early 1692 and ending with the last trials in the fall of the same year.. In between, she strings together a coherent story from disparate narratives and interpretations. She relies particularly on biographical sketches of major players: the weak Samuel Parris, from whose house the first accusations came; rigid William Stoughton, a political survivor who presided over the trials; the hot-tempered George Burroughs, accused of being the witches’ ringleader; and the slippery and ambitious Mathers—Increase, the father, and his son Cotton—who exploited the crisis for their own ends. Striking vignettes emerge: the rumbling carts that brought the accused to be hung; the sound of Giles Corey’s groans as he was “pressed” to death; the shrieks and gyrations of the accusing girls.

Yet it comes across as surprisingly flat. We are not allowed to identify with these people. Critical elements of context are missing. By 1692—seventy-two  years after the Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock, and sixty-two years after John Winthrop sailed into Massachusetts Bay—Puritans (who would not have called themselves that) were not the only religious sect in New England. Anglicans, Baptists, and Quakers pop up in Schiff’s tale, but she never tells the reader who these people were or what they were doing there. In addition, the New Englanders of 1692 stood chronologically between the Puritanism of John Winthrop and the Methodist-inspired, emotion-soaked Great Awakening of the 1740s. Indeed, we can see Cotton Mather as straddling this divide, rather than as the deluded egomaniac of Schiff’s telling. What did it mean to be a “conservative” or “orthodox” Puritan in 1692?  We never find out. Similarly, early modern medical practice may sound weird and disgusting to Schiff, but it followed its own logic and was not simply a morass of superstition. She seems unwilling to acknowledge the legitimacy of a belief system she does not understand, that is not somehow “rational.”  Her discomfort emerges here and there in jolting anachronisms: the Wizard of Oz comes up several times, as does Hogwarts, and she refers to Salem as “the Lourdes of New England” (323).  Cotton Mather, she says, viewed Indians and Quakers as a “colluding axis of evil” (266).

If Schiff may be said to have a hero, it is Thomas Brattle, who criticized the way the Salem trials had been run (in October 1692, when they were over). He is Schiff’s model of a future-looking, rational man. But Brattle, like his mentor, the English chemist Robert Boyle, nonetheless believed in the existence of witches and demons, a fact that Schiff glosses over. And Cotton Mather was probably one of the few men in New England who could understand Brattle’s mathematical ideas; both were fellows of the Royal Society. Yet Schiff’s enmity against Mather is such that even his later advocacy of smallpox inoculation is viewed as an extension of his belief in demons. The other colonial fellow of note was John Winthrop Jr., son of the founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who practiced alchemy, as did Boyle.

We will never know exactly why Salem erupted in witchcraft accusations in 1692, resulting in the execution of twenty people, mostly women. Scholars have offered many potential explanations, and it’s likely that many of those hold at least some truth. Schiff tells a good story, but at the end we are no closer to understanding Salem’s inhabitants than we were at the beginning. As historians, we should aim higher.


The biologist in the ashram (with a walk-on by Harpo Marx)

12 September 2015

A week ago I drove up to Portland with my grad student Elizabeth to interview the biologist John Tyler Bonner.

John Tyler Bonner, photo from Princeton Alumni Weekly, 2013
John Tyler Bonner, photo from Princeton Alumni Weekly, 2013

We were both amused, or bemused, by the declaration of the Institutional Review Board at Oregon State that the interview did not qualify as research (and therefore did not need IRB approval, a good thing) and wondered what we would learn.  As readers of this blog know, I’m a historian of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and my knowledge of the history of modern biology is pretty sketchy.  Elizabeth’s interest in Bonner’s work was related to her research on the British biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson (1860-1948), who also worked in natural history, classics, and a few other things.  Bonner had abridged Thompson’s enormous 1917 study On_Growth_and_FormOn Growth and Form in the early 1960s – the abridgement is still in print – and Elizabeth wanted to ask him about that.  I knew that Bonner was an important evolutionary and developmental biologist, that he was 95, and that he lived in an ashram in Portland.  I was not sure what to expect.

The ashram is a large rambling house in Laurelhurst in Northeast Portland and offers yoga classes.  One of Bonner’s sons lives there, and he moved there from Princeton a few years ago. We made our way around the building to the entrance amid people carrying yoga mats and Dr. Bonner came down and met us.  We took off our shoes andHuxley followed him upstairs to a bright and cozy little apartment, with the Spy caricature of  Darwin’s bulldog Thomas Henry Huxley hanging in the bathroom and a complete set of the Patrick O’Brien Aubrey-Maturin novels on the bookshelves.  I relaxed.  I pointed to the O’Brien.  John (as he insisted we call him) laughed. “I’ve read them all, four times, and I want to read them again.  But the last time was only two years ago, so I’ll have to wait a bit, and I’m not sure I’ll make it.”  He is straightforward about the debilities of age, and is hard of hearing.  My experience with my equally deaf father –as well as my Italian habit of talking with my hands – helped to move our conversation along.

John made us coffee, and we sat around a coffee table scattered with issues of Science and Nature and talked with him for over an hour about his life, about Thompson, and about biology.  John has published a lot of scientific papers – he had just submitted another one when we spoke with him — but unlike most scientists he has also written close to twenty books, including an bonner autobioautobiography that gives a wonderful overview of twentieth-century biology.  His most recent book, published two years ago, was Randomness in Evolution. bonner randomness_Three themes appeared over and over in our talk: the joy of good writing; the importance of good teachers; and why biologists need to keep the “big picture” in view.

John Bonner grew up in a literary and cultivated family; his father aspired to be an opera singer and later wrote for the New Yorker, and family friends included Alexander Woollcott, Harold Ross, Dorothy Parker, and George S. Kauffmann, as well as Harpo Marx.1376887-harpo_marx_5  I can’t help but think his appreciation and talent for writing came from this milieu; it seems much more likely that he would have become a writer, or a musician like his brother Anthony, than a biologist.  But in fact he became both a writer and a biologist.

In his autobiography, John recalled that his father gave him a copy of The Science of Life in the early 1930s to lure him away from a narrow preoccupation with bird-watching.  Written by H.G. Wells, his son G.P. Wells, and Julian Huxley, The Science of Life was an enormous (1500 pages) and enormously popular summary of all that was known about biology ca. 1930, including evolution, development, the germ theory of disease, and psychology.wells science of life  Written with H.G. Wells’s characteristic verve and clarity, it includes a chapter debunking theories of telepathy and clairvoyance that were popular in the 1920s.  It also closes with the somewhat radical view for 1930 that learning is not something that one does only as a child but something that continues throughout one’s life.

The other book that proved to be a major influence was Thompson’s On Growth and Form, which John, then a graduate student, read shortly after the appearance of a second edition in 1942.  John recalled that he was “overwhelmed” by it; all the young developmental biologists who read it in the 1940s loved it, he said, “but I loved it the most,” for its “magic combination of language and ideas.”  Another enormous book – the 1942 edition was over 1100 pages – On Growth and Form touched on a number of topics, including the relationship between development and size that John later explored in Why Size Matters.bonner size Yet it is the “beauty of his prose” that John now remembers.

slime mold
Slime mold, Wikimedia commons

Whenever I wonder (which I do, often) if my teaching makes any difference, I will now refer to John’s account – both in our interview and in his autobiography – of the immense influence on him of William “Cap” Weston, who taught botany at Harvard (John’s assessments in his autobiography of some of his other teachers at Harvard are pretty scathing).  Weston introduced John Bonner to the lower organisms with which he made his career, and supervised his Ph.D. work on slime molds.  Why slime molds?  Their unique life cycle made them ideal organisms to study development in the laboratory.  They are single-celled amoebae (his book on them is titled The Social Amoebae)  that feed first, then join together as a multicellular organism to reproduce.  John recalled that, when he was a graduate student, the eminent embryologist Ross Harrison complimented him on his choice of organism. In John Bonner’s lab, slime molds became a prime instrument to explore the science of development. (In case you still think they’re boring, look at this nifty little video).

When John Bonner came to Princeton as an assistant professor in 1947 he was the eleventh member of a department of biology (“all men,” he said with a grimace).  The molecular revolution sparked by the structure of DNA was still several years in the future.  John told us he believed something had been lost in the transition to molecular explanations, and that perhaps reductionism was reaching its limit.  “I’ve always been a big picture person,” he said, returning again to D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, a quintessential big picture man.  The attraction of biology, he said, is in “the ensemble of things.”  I am glad I had the chance to meet John Tyler Bonner: a delightful man, a brilliant scientist, and a great conversationalist.

Modiano and the Weight of History

I picked up my first novel by Patrick Modiano in a bookstore in Strasbourg last fall.  He had just won the Nobel Prize and it was obvious that the bookstore had scrambled to find copies of his books: there were new paperbacks with moody photographs on the covers and red paper straps that read “Prix Nobel de Littérature,”  but there were also the old buff-colored Gallimard editions from the 1980s and 90s.  I chose two, mainly for their titles, since I knew nothing about the author: Fleurs de ruine (1991) modiano fleurs de ruineand Rue des boutiques obscures (1978). Like their titles, the novels are written in a style I can only call “existential noir.”  Dark and atmospheric, they remind me of the plain declarative style of Simenon but also the films of Jean-Pierre Melville like Bob le flambeur (1956), although they are not as plot-driven.  I was not surprised to learn that Modiano co-wrote the screenplay for that devastating laconic masterpiece Lacombe Lucien (1974) with Louis Malle.  Some of the novels have now been translated into English, but so far I’ve read them in French.

This summer I bought another Modiano, Dora Bruder (1997), which some have referred to as non-fiction but which is generally billed as a novel.  Like Modiano’s other works, it is a mixture of history, autobiography, and fiction, all of it so intermingled that it is difficult to pull out what is “real” and what is fictional.  In all of the novels I have read, there is a male narrator who appears to be about Modiano’s age (he was born in 1945).  The setting is Paris, and even though I feel I know Paris pretty well, I find it helpful to read with my old maroon-covered Plan de Paris par Arrondissementlec47-01a to figure out where I am.  I did this with Eric Hazan’s passionate history The Invention of Paris too.  And anyway I like maps.Modiano Dora Bruder

My Plan de Paris, purchased in the 1990s, is now out of date, a reminder that cities are constantly changing.  Modiano is above all a historian of Paris, and his novels obsessively return to particular places – the 18th arrondissement in Dora Bruder, the Cité Universitaire in Fleurs du ruine – and note what building has been torn down, what café used to be on that corner, what restaurant he once ate in.  He walks the streets to retrace his own past and that of his characters, exploring memory and forgetting, particularly the memory of World War II, which took place before his birth but which haunts his work.  In Dora Bruder he wrote, “Il faut longtemps pour que resurgisse à la lumière ce qui a été effacé”: “it takes a long time for that which has been erased to reappear to the light.”  But it does reappear: “it takes a little patience.”  In all of these novels he pursues the work of the pre-internet historian (in more recent works he apparently does use the internet), tracking down obscure registers, newspaper clippings, human memories.  The protagonist in Rue des boutiques obscures has lost his own memory and spends the novel trying to find out who he is, and was.  Providentially, he works for a private detective, and mines the office collections of old city directories.  In a very Modiano move, there are lists of addresses and particularly of old phone numbers with their weirdly evocative three-letter prefixes.

Many of his novels begin with an old story in a newspaper.  Fleurs de ruine begins with a story about a murder in the Latin quarter in the 1930s.  Dora Bruder begins with a newspaper notice from December 1941 about a runaway girl, aged 15.  The girl, we soon learn, was Jewish, and we are not entirely surprised to learn, about halfway through the book, that she and her father ended up about six months later in Auschwitz.  But the point of the story is Modiano’s research into Dora’s life and how it intersects with the broader history of France in the 1940s (and the hidden history of collaboration) and how it intersects with his own history and his troubled relationship with his Jewish father.  Like Dora’s father, Modiano’s was swept up in one of the regular rafles or round-ups of Jews but he managed to escape.  Ernest Bruder was not as fortunate.

Paris has long recognized its defenders during the liberation in August 1944: plaques all over the city mark those who died. pont au change It has been slower to acknowledge the occupation.  But in the early 2000s, plaques began to appear on schools in neighborhoods that had large Jewish populations, including the 10th and the 18th, where Dora – who was a real person – lived.

Ecole Louise Michel, rue des Vinaigriers, 10th arrondissement
Ecole Louise Michel, rue des Vinaigriers, 10th arrondissement

Historical erasure, one can hope, is never complete.  It just takes patience to undo.  When I took the RER train out to Charles de Gaulle airport on this trip, I thought of Dora Bruder as the train passed through the drab northern suburb of Drancy, where thousands of Jews were detained on their way to concentration camps.

“Can Cookery,” 1928

28 January 2015

At Powell’s the other day, I picked up a pamphlet-style cookbook from 1928 called The Book of Can Cookery, Can Cookerypublished by Woman’s World magazine. Not to be confused with the modern tabloid magazine of the same name, this Woman’s World began in the late 19th century and ceased publication in 1940. It published many cookbooks in the 1920s with titles such as The Book of Fifty Two Sunday Dinners.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.   While Can Cookery portrays commercially canned foods as convenient, they’re also healthy. Cans allow the homemaker to serve a variety of foods, and the canning process preserves nutrients and renders the contents sterile: all selling points in these early years of vitamins and the germ theory, fomenting suspicions against both fresh foods and, especially, home-canned foods.

In the 1920s, anything that could be canned, was: Can Cookery employs canned veal loaf, canned cod cakes, canned lobster, and canned strawberries as well as more familiar fruits and vegetables and of course tuna fish. But despite the convenience of canned foods, the 1928 housewife was also expected to have a refrigerator, or at the very least an icebox.1927 refrigerator There are many recipes for chilled and jelled dishes, and mayonnaise is used to top anything resembling a salad. The “Poinsettia Salad” includes a ring of lettuce leaves, another of pineapple rings (covered with riced cream cheese) topped with ground nuts, and the whole slathered with mayonnaise thinned with cream and decorated with pimientos cut into leaf shapes.

Canned soup, maraschino cherries, and marshmallows (also canned) have already made their appearance at the American table in 1928. While there is no specific reference to Jell-O, the “Jellied Hawaiian Salad” does use “prepared lemon jelly powder.” Many recipes involve combining two cans of soup or dressing up canned soup, such as the “recipe” for canned tomato soup that advises “Add sufficient boiling water to make of desired consistency, season with pepper, salt, butter. Sprinkle each portion with minced parsley and toast cubes.”   But it is assumed that the reader can make a piecrust and has something called “French dressing” at hand for marinating vegetables (which are then covered in mayonnaise). Several recipes riff on combinations of whipped cream, canned pineapple, and mayo-hellmansmarshmallows, and the “Ring Salad with Cucumber Mayonnaise” consists of jellied vegetable soup in a ring mold with the cavity filled with “mayonnaise to which finely chopped cucumber had been added.” The “Jellied Hawaiian Salad” (with, of course, pineapple, as well as canned coconut and maraschino cherries) is served with “marshmallow mayonnaise.” But there are also homey recipes for corn chowder and “little chicken tarts” with only a minor canned component.

pineapple adCan Cookery even makes some attempts at ethnic food. “Mexican meatloaf” (made with canned tomato soup) includes two kinds of meat and chopped green pepper and canned pimientos, which is I guess the Mexican part. “Mexican salad” also has pimientos, and for some reason, pineapple. “Jambalaya” features canned shrimp, as does “Shrimp, Oriental Style” which adds diced celery and green pepper to the shrimp, along with yet more pineapple, all sautéed in butter and seasoned with paprika. The “Italian” foods, however, have no redeeming qualities: “Italian Beans and Spaghetti” consists of a can of baked beans and a can of tomato soup mixed with cooked spaghetti. “Sausage Italian style” has a can of Vienna sausages (“heated in the can”) topped with a can of tomato sauce in a ring of macaroni. The pièce de résistance, however, is “polenta,” made of cold leftover oatmeal molded in a can, sliced, sprinkled with cheese, and baked with tomato sauce. My uncle Ermanno would not be pleased.