“A vagrant of the sea”: Introducing Morgan Robertson

I teach at a beautiful campus on the southern shores of Lake Ontario in Oswego, New York. Oswego is a place of remarkable history. Its geographical position relative to waterways and other supply routes through central New York made it the target of military tussling between French and British forces during the Seven Years’ War and between American and British forces during the War of 1812. The Oswego Canal, completed in 1828, connected the epic Erie Canal system to Lake Ontario, thus accelerating Oswego’s contribution to the anthropogenic remaking of the Great Lakes ecosystem that’s been ongoing since the seventeenth century. Oswego was a launching-point to Canada for those traveling on the Underground Railway; its library, founded in 1853 on a principle of universal access for all persons, regardless of “their race, complexion, or condition,” is the oldest continuously operating public library in New York State (“About Us.”). In 1943, Oswego became the site of the single World War II refugee camp in the United States.

Continue reading ““A vagrant of the sea”: Introducing Morgan Robertson”

Writing the Disaster: Babbage and the Black Box

Photograph of the 1895 train wreck at the Montparnasse train station in Paris. Photo by Studio Lévy & fils.

I’m teaching a course in Victorian culture this summer, and planning to open the class with a chapter from Charles Babbage’s Ninth Bridgewater Treatise (on “Natural Theology”). His mathematical speculations in this text seem to me perfectly representative of the anxious and industrious Victorian desire to apprehend every incident and accident of the physical world. In his chapter  “On the Permanent Impression of our Words and Actions on the Globe we Inhabit,” Babbage theorizes that an exhaustive and precise archive of past events would give us an exact vision of our future (to the extent that the latter unfolds as the accumulated consequence of the former). Continue reading “Writing the Disaster: Babbage and the Black Box”

Modern Times, Nervous Men

George Beard.  This image is in the public domain

I’m testing out some ideas about neurasthenia, my favourite nineteenth-century nervous complaint. Mark Micale and Elaine Showalter have argued quite convincingly that neurasthenia was polite metonym for male hysteria. I, however, am interested in the ways that it differs from hysteria – the particulars that made it non-feminizing. The following are some of my musings to that end. Yet again I am sucked into the American context (“really,” the lady protests, “when I’m not splashing about with humanities computing, 98% of my research is on the British, not that you can tell from this blog”): the term neurasthenia was coined by American nerve specialist, George M. Beard, and popularized by his two books Nervous Exhaustion (Neurasthenia) (1880) and American Nervousness: Its Causes and the Consequences (1881).

The central distinctions between Nervous Exhaustion (Neurasthenia) and American Nervousness arise from the books’ tone and audience. While Nervous Exhaustion (Neurasthenia) was written for the medical community, and excerpted and summarized in the periodical press, American Nervousness was, in Beard’s own words, “of a more distinctly philosophical and popular character than [Nervous Exhaustion (Neurasthenia)] which was specially addressed to the professional and scientific reader” Continue reading “Modern Times, Nervous Men”

Scientific Boxing: Gentlemen in the Ring

James "Gentleman Jim" Corbett, heavyweight champion from 1892 to 1897.  Image is in the public domain.
"Gentleman Jim" Corbett
I’ve been working through the various models of masculinity on display at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. One of the Exposition’s most popular entertainments (alongside the first Ferris wheel, Buffalo Bill’s Rough Riders, and movable sidewalks) was a daily boxing demonstration by heavyweight champion James “Gentleman Jim” Corbett. Corbett used multiple venues –the ring, the stage, the press, film– in his attempt to use popular science to make the strong male body signify as genteel. Continue reading “Scientific Boxing: Gentlemen in the Ring”

Honk if you love Darwin: The Problem of the Human (Researcher)

An interesting discussion recently took place at the “On the Human” forum, hosted by the National Humanities Center, in response to Gillian Beer’s essay “Late Darwin and the Problem of the Human.” The “On the Human” forum is, I think, a really wonderful example of the ways that web technology can allow for thoughtful, engaged, and open scholarly conversations and I encourage you to take a look at it if you haven’t already. Continue reading “Honk if you love Darwin: The Problem of the Human (Researcher)”

Looking at the Origin

Word cloud for On the Origin of Species, 2nd edition
Word Cloud for On the Origin of Species, 2nd edition

I hope visualizations entertain you as much as they do me.  I’ve recently generated two word clouds which denote the word frequency in the second and sixth editions of On the Origin of Species.  As always, they support what we already know (for example, the increased frequency of “Mr” in the sixth edition confirms that there were more men that Darwin could draw on to substantiate his work in 1872 than he had been able to in 1860).  That said, I’m not sure how to interpret the later text’s dwindling use of the word “varieties” relative to “variations,” or the virtual disappearance of the word “believe.”  I suppose visualizations really do make us question the text, rather than providing us with answers.

Word cloud for On the Origin of Species, 6th edition
Word Cloud for On the Origin of Species, 6th edition

Aesthetics Old and New

Molly Porkshanks Friedrich's Mechanical Womb on display at the Oxford History of Science MuseumI expected to be able to hear Molly Porkshanks Friedrich’s Complete Mechanical Womb tick. It didn’t look as though it should pulse with life, but I did anticipate a mechanical buzzing or whirring. I was alone in the basement of Oxford’s history of science museum, at what the museum billed as “the world’s first museum exhibition of Steampunk art.” I’m sure the little figure in the gravid pneumatic tube was honoured by the Continue reading “Aesthetics Old and New”

Avifauna for the Masses

Three rooks' heads from the Natural History Museum, London. First displayed in 1881.

I recently made at trip (or as one friend put it, “what you’re describing is a pilgrimage, Crompton”) to the Natural History Museum in London. It has all the qualities that I like in a museum: super-fatted gothic architecture, knowledgeable staff, and a sensational bird collection.

Victorian curatorial practices are curious to the contemporary visitor. A bird case from the Museum’s inaugural year, 1881, is tucked into one corner of the bird hall. Rather than displaying the mounted birds whole, the case is full of disembodied heads, wings, feet and feathers – the better, I assume, to teach the viewer about bird anatomy. The accompanying text is excessively didactic. The Latin names of the each joint and tendon season the explanatory prose since, as the 1886 catalog suggested, by “the aid of explanatory labels, the essential characters and the principle modifications of all these Continue reading “Avifauna for the Masses”

Gather ‘Round: T. H. Huxley’s Fairy Tale

John Dickson Batten's illustration of Jack and the Giant. English Fairy Tales (1890)
John Dickson Batten's illustration of Jack and the Giant. English Fairy Tales (1890)
At Oxford in 1893 Thomas Henry Huxley opened the Romanes lecture with a fairy tale: “Here is a delightful child’s story, known by the title of “Jack and the Bean-stalk,” with which my contemporaries who are present will be familiar. But so many of our grave and reverend Juniors have been brought up on severer intellectual diet, and, perhaps, have become acquainted with fairyland only through primers of comparative mythology, that it may be needful to give an outline of the tale” (47). Continue reading “Gather ‘Round: T. H. Huxley’s Fairy Tale”

One Face From a Crowd

composite photographs
composite photographs

Fiona’s last post left me musing about Francis Galton’s composite photography. Galton proposed the process as a simple method, inspired by Herbert Spencer, for achieving a photographic average. In an article, “Composite Portraits, Made by Combining Those of Many Different Persons into a Single Resultant Figure,” Galton describes a method for exposing a photographic plate to several photographs, each containing the image of a face. The result, he suggested, “represents no man in particular, but portrays an imaginary figure possessing the average features of any given group of men” (132-133). He suggests, however, that his readers might be able recognize someone who is likely to commit a crime, based on that person’s resemblance to the composite photograph. Continue reading “One Face From a Crowd”

The Mystery of Life and the Science of Heredity in The Heavenly Twins

“Now don’t say a word if you’ve read it… I owe everyone a grudge who tells me the plot of a story that I’m interested in” (The Heavenly Twins 1893, 527)

While making my way through New Woman novels this year, I’ve been musing on the New Woman and the problem of heredity. I’ll save my thoughts on Neo-Lamarkian and Darwinian theories for another post – for the nonce, I’d like to open up a discussion about heredity’s relationship to mystery novels in Sarah Grand’s The Heavenly Twins (1893). Continue reading “The Mystery of Life and the Science of Heredity in The Heavenly Twins”