A Troubled Marriage of Discourses: Science Writing and Travel Narrative in Louis and Elizabeth Agassiz's A Journey in Brazil

By Bergmann, Linda S. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

A Troubled Marriage of Discourses: Science Writing and Travel Narrative in Louis and Elizabeth Agassiz's A Journey in Brazil


Bergmann, Linda S., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


The narrative of exploration and discovery was an important form of 19th-century nonfiction, and a form that was regularly employed by scientists and explorers to reach both professional and popular audiences. Contemporary critics engaged in reexamining this 19th-century literature have shown how these narratives served to normalize and codify relations between Anglo-Americans and non-white cultures and to justify the exploitation and extermination of Africans, Native Americans, and other indigenous peoples who stood in the path of Western expansion. Accounts of scientific expeditions, whose leaders often made direct claims for the scientific objectivity of their observations, brought the enormous prestige of science to this process. Typically, according to Mary Louise Pratt, the writers of what she calls "scientistic" or "informational" narratives-those claiming to document discoveries, rather than to tell stories of adventures -- at the same time effaced themselves, reduced the land to landscape, and marginalized its inhabitants ("Scratches" 146-47). In this way they could depict the lands explored as empty of indigenous intentions and meanings and could obscure the nature of the interactions between the European "discoverers" and the peoples being discovered. The explorer's interpretation of these places could then be considered "objective."

The claims, both implicit and explicit, to the scientific value of these expeditions and to the "objectivity" of the observations made by explorers were, however, highly ambiguous. Expeditions were expensive undertakings, and were often expected to pay off militarily or economically as well as scientifically (Bruce 65-67, 213-14). Although scientific observations were often included on their agendas (as in Darwin's voyage on the Beagle or in polar explorations after the fiascoes of Sir John Franklin's last expedition and the expeditions to save it), few expeditions were purely scientific. Because of these multiple and often contradictory purposes, exploration narratives are full of contradictions and instabilities. Pratt notes that "at points of intense ideological contradiction" ("Scratches" 158) there are sometimes interjections into "scientific" narratives from the more exciting but less respectable form of exploration narrative that recounted heroic, sentimental, and experiential adventures. The text that I am here considering, A Journey in Brazil, the result of a collaboration between the 19th-century American scientist Louis Agassiz and his wife Elizabeth Cary Agassiz, offers such an uneasy combination of scientific observation and travel story. Because of the contradictions between the collaborating voices, the overtly scientific purpose of the text is overshadowed by the personal vision of the travel narrative. I argue that although the text makes a claim to scientific "objectivity," Elizabeth Agassiz's personal journal offers a clearer view of Brazil than her husband's purportedly "scientific" discourse, and I suggest that it does so because she does not efface herself or her experiences from it.

It is difficult in 1995 to imagine how well known and influential the American scientist Louis Agassiz was in the 1860's, because today his name is almost completely absent from the indices of contemporary histories of New England culture. But in the mid-19th century, so well known was Louis Agassiz as a collector, writer, lecturer, teacher, fund raiser, and promoter of science, that when his contemporary Americans thought "scientist," the name of Louis Agassiz came first to their minds. Internationally renowned for his research in ichthyology and glaciation, Louis Agassiz immigrated from Switzerland to the United States in 1846 and was immediately embraced by both the American scientific establishment and the New England intelligentsia among whom he made his home. When he agreed to remain in the United States, a professorship of zoology and geology was created for him at Harvard, and he took his place in the mainstream of New England culture. …

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