Friday, April 16, 2010

The Age of Wonder

I am reading with delight and admiration Richard Holmes' Age of Wonder, subtitled “How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science.”

I am thinking that he discovered how to write this kind of book by a happy accident. He made his name as a biographer: he wrote wonderful biographies of Shelley and Coleridge, which is how I come to know of him. These are full set-piece biographies, massive books that are both narratives and reference works for literary scholars. Need to know what Coleridge was reading, who was in his social circle, and where he was living at age 34? Look it up in Holmes.

Having read these vast tomes – excellent of their kind – I went on to pick up whatever I could find by Holmes. This is basically how I read: I find someone I think is worth reading, and then I just read everything they've written, no matter what it's about. I fashioned my undergraduate education in precisely the same way – found teachers I admired and then just took all their classes – and I've never regretted the method. What I found next was a very odd book. It was called Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer. You might think it was simply the scraps of writing he couldn't make into books, a hodge-podge of short biographical narratives stitched together by his own experience of biographical writing. He's quite clear that some of the research and writing in it is gleaned from failed book projects. But something wonderful and exciting is happening, which will culminate eventually in The Age of Wonder. He liberates biography from the plodding year by year sort of Anglo-Saxon chronicle. These are and aren't biographies. They're good-parts biographies.

If you read a lot of biographies, as I do, you'll know that there's almost always a lot of dull plodding reading in them, along with some dazzling nuggets of information and insight. What Holmes began to do is simply drop the plodding parts, and string the stories together according to a theme. The result is uncommonly rich and illuminating.

So The Age of Wonder is a set of biographies: in it is everything you would remember after reading full biographies of Joseph Banks (the pioneering ethnographer of Tahiti), William and Caroline Herschell (the brother and sister team that gave us “deep space,” and the realization that at night we see the light of stars that burned out thousands of years ago), and Humphry Davy (the brilliant young chemist and poet), along with fascinating accounts of the early “aeronauts” of ballooning, Mungo Parks' exploration of Africa, the controversy about Vitalism and how Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was written as a response to it and an exploration of it, and a number of other fascinating byways. It is a strangely constructed book. Banks weaves through it – as President of the Royal Society, he is pivotal at several points in all these narratives – and Holmes' love of the Romantic poets, and sympathy for their aims, weaves through it all as well. The result is illuminating in both directions. The scientists emerge as wonderfully engaging people – themselves very much contributors to Romantic literature and ideas – and the Romantic poets come off as considerably more complex and nuanced in their responses to science than a parroting of Wordsworth's “we murder to dissect” would lead you to believe. What Holmes finally does, brilliantly, is demonstrate that this the scientists and poets of this generation were at work on the same project, had the same appetite for exploration and the same faith in experiment.

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