Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Legendary "Rediscovery" of George Perkins Marsh

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Legendary "Rediscovery" of George Perkins Marsh

Article excerpt

One of the mysteries of American professional geography is how it was that Carl Sauer, who virtually took out a patent on George Perkins Marsh in his later years, should not have known of Marsh's work until the later 1930s. Yet even a cursory survey of the earlier history of geography in the United States shows that Marsh's book, originally titled Man and Nature (1864), especially in its later editions of 1874, 1877 (reprinted in 1882), and 1885 (reprinted in 1898 and 1907), was well known to an earlier generation of American academic and nonacademic geographers as well as to historians and other scholars. One of the first was Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, head of the revived Kentucky Geological Survey, who added a forty-one-page appendix to his 1875 annual report containing long extracts from Marsh's 1874 edition, The Earth as Modified by Human Action. Describing it as a "great masterpiece," Shaler recommended it to "all who desire to understand the effects of man's action on our earth's history" (Livingstone 1980, 371). Shaler continued to be inspired by Marsh's work and in some ways to extend his range (Koelsch 1979; Bladen 1983).

William Morris Davis had been a student in Shaler's Summer School of Geology near Cumberland Gap, Kentucky, in 1875, at the end of which Shaler asked him to become his assistant at Harvard University. The following year Davis was Shaler's assistant at Shaler's second summer school, in Kentucky and Tennessee. Much later, as a member of the National Academy of Sciences, it fell to Davis to write a memoir of Marsh, read in April 1906 (Davis 1909). Davis devoted little space to Man and Nature and even used the wrong date of first publication, listing it as 1865, not 1864. But he did mention Marsh's first major revision, the 1874 version of The Earth as Modified by Human Action. Probably, then, Davis had become familiar with Marsh initially through Shaler's survey report (Davis 1909; Chorley, Beckinsale, and Dunn 1973, 61-62).

Another Shaler student, Ralph Stockman Tarr, recommended Marsh's Earth as Modified by Human Action (the 1885 edition, Marsh's last, published posthumously). This occurs at the end of the chapter on "Man and Nature" in Tarr's best-selling textbook, Elementary Physical Geography (1895, 419; the book was reprinted ten times, until 1912). In 1955 John Leighly mentioned Tarr's chapter on "Man and Nature" but did not refer to The Earth as Modified by Human Action, cited at the end of it (Leighly 1955, 315, n. 21). Also in 1895, Smith, Elder and Company, a London publisher, issued Shaler's Sea and Land and inserted into it a number of extracts from British reviews of Shaler's earlier books. The reviewer of Shaler's Nature and Man in America (1891) for the Daily Chronicle had written "Altogether, since the appearance of Marsh's kindred work on The Earth as Influenced by Man: [sic] we have not met with a more admirable specimen of comparative geography" (see also Shaler 1894; Leighly 1955, 315, n.21).

David Lowenthal's biographies of Marsh list many foresters and conservationists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who knew Marsh's work (Lowenthal 1958, 2000a). How credible, then, is Sauer's claim in 1938 that Marsh was a "forgotten scientist" (1963b, 148)? Sauer claimed that Marsh--who in fact was not a scientist--was one of a number of authors unknown to him and his early University of California--Berkeley associates in the 1920s, which may well be true (Sauer 1974, 192). But Marsh's work was certainly not unknown to the founding generation of American professional geographers.

In 1993 William Speth presented an important paper at a meeting of the Association of Pacific Coast Geographers titled "Carl 0. Sauer's Uses of Geography's Past" (1999b). Speth showed that Sauer used the geographical past as "a methodological weapon," justifying what he was doing at the time. "In his early years at Berkeley," said Speth, "Sauer used disciplinary history in the classroom to advance his retrospective sense of geography" and "used historiography strategically to legitimate his humanistic and historical view of the field" (pp. …

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