A Tale of Two Worksites

Article excerpt

Christopher Wren, the leading architect of London's reconstruction after the great fire of 1666, lies buried beneath the floor of his most famous building, Saint Paul's Cathedral. No elaborate sarcophagus adorns the site. Instead, we find only the famous epitaph written by his son and now inscribed in the floor: si monumentum requiris, circumspice-"if you are searching for his monument, look around." A tad grandiose perhaps, but I have never read a finer testimony to the central importance-one might even say sacrednessof actual places, rather than replicas, symbols, or other forms of vicarious resemblance.

An odd coincidence of professional life recently turned my thoughts to this most celebrated epitaph when, for the second time, I received an office in a spot loaded with history, a place still redolent with ghosts of past events both central to our common culture and especially meaningful for my own life and choices.

In 1971, I spent an academic term as a visiting researcher at Oxford University. I received a cranny of office space on the upper floor of the University Museum. As I set up my books, fossil snails, and microscope, I noticed a metal plaque affixed to the wall, informing me that this reconfigured space of shelves and cubicles had been, originally, the site of the most famous public confrontation in the early history of Darwinism. On this very spot in 1860, just a few months after Darwin published the Origin of Species, T. H. Huxley had drawn his rhetorical sword and soundly skewered the slick but superficial champion of creationism Bishop "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce.

As with most legends, the official version ranks as mere cardboard before a much more complicated and multifaceted truth. Wilberforce and Huxley did put on a splendid and largely spontaneous show, but no clear victor emerged from the scuffle, and Joseph Hooker, Darwin's other champion, made an even more effective reply to the bishop, since forgotten by history. (See my May 1986 essay, "Knight Takes Bishop?")

I can't claim that the lingering presence of these Victorian giants increased my resolve or improved my work, but I loved the sense of continuity vouchsafed to me by this happy circumstance. I even treasured the etymology-for "circumstance" means "standing around," and there I stood, perhaps in the very spot where Huxley had said, at least according to legend, that he preferred an honest ape to a bishop who would use his privileged position to inject scorn and ridicule into a serious scientific debate.

Last year, I received a part-time appointment as visiting research professor of biology at New York University. I was given an office on the tenth floor of the Brown Building on Washington Place, a nondescript, early-twentieth-century structure now filled with laboratories and other academic spaces. As the dean took me on a casual tour of my new digs, he made a passing remark, intended as little more than tour-guide patter, but producing an electric effect upon his new tenant. Did I know, he asked, that this building had been the site of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911? My office occupied a corner location on one of the affected floors-in fact, as I later discovered, right near the escape route used by many workers to reach safety on the roof above. The dean also told me that each year on the March 25 anniversary of the fire, the International Ladies Garment Workers Union still holds a ceremony at the site and lays wreaths to memorialize the 146 workers killed in the blaze.

If the debate between Huxley and Wilberforce defines a primary legend of my chosen profession, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire occupies an even more central place in my larger view of life. I grew up in a family of Jewish immigrant garment workers, and this holocaust (in the literal meaning of a thorough sacrifice by burning) had set their views and helped to define their futures.

The shirtwaist-a collared blouse designed after the model of a man's shirt and worn above a separate skirt-had become the fashionable symbol of more independent women. …