Triumph of the Closet Naturalist -- Illustrations of the Birds of California, Texas, Oregon, British and Russian America by John Cassin and with an Introduction by Robert McCracken Peck

By Kastner, Joseph | Natural History, June 1992 | Go to article overview

Triumph of the Closet Naturalist -- Illustrations of the Birds of California, Texas, Oregon, British and Russian America by John Cassin and with an Introduction by Robert McCracken Peck


Kastner, Joseph, Natural History


by John Cassin, with an introduction by Robert McCracken Peck, Summerlee Foundation of Dallas-Texas State Historical Association, $29.95; 298 pp., illus.

In 1845 John James Audubon got into an argument with John Cassin at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Audubon was sixty, world famous for his monumental Birds of America. Cassin was half his age, a businessman who had recently been named curator of ornithology at the Academy, a position that carried much prestige but no pay.

On the face of it, this seems like a huge mismatch: the renowned star of art and natural history versus a semipro upstart. The argument itself--over the naming of Harris' sparrow--was of little importance. But a century and a half later, Robert McCracken Peck, currently a fellow at the Academy, wisely uses the incident to preface the handsome, new facsimile edition of Cassin's best-known work, Illustrations of the Birds of California, Texas, Oregon, British and Russian America, which has been out of print since 1856.

The confrontation that spring afternoon signaled the end of a great era in American natural history--the romantic period when adventurous naturalists wandered through the wilderness searching for the natural marvels of the New World. Now the last of these men was being pushed, not too gently--"Audubon talked like a fool," said Cassin tartly--into the past and into the company of a bygone cast of characters: Mark Catesby, the English amateur, who in the early 1700s roamed the South, living with Indians (and once sleeping with a rattlesnake), bringing new species to science and a new natural style to art; John Bartram, the self-taught Quaker farmer whom Linnaeus called "the greatest natural botanist in the world"; Alexander Wilson, the Scottish weaver who painted America's birds and then traveled all over the country peddling his books about them; Thomas Nuttall, the best field naturalist of his time, who had an instinct for nature but no sense of direction, and who was always getting lost on his transcontinental treks. And Audubon, the failed frontier storekeeper who became the finest painter of birds the world had ever seen.

The man disputing Audubon--and his whole era--at the Academy hardly ever went birding beyond the environs of Philadelphia. John Cassin was a part-time scientist playing truant from his import-export business to observe, not living birds, but their carcasses in the dusty rooms of the Academy--an inside man, what Audubon and his contemporaries called with some contempt a "closet naturalist."

Cassin brushed aside the epithet. "There is an indescribably pitiful display of ignorance and meanness of idea," he wrote, "in arrogating a superior position for the 'field naturalist' over the 'closet naturalist.' As well might he who navigated a sloop presume on being the greatest of astronomers." Cassin had few doubts about himself. He knew that he and his colleagues were the future of American natural history. The early naturalists, self-taught and self-directed, had done their indispensable job of discovering the New World's plants and animals. Now the institution would displace the individual. They stay-at-home naturalists would tell the field naturalists where to go and what to send back so that they, with their book knowledge and laboratory expertise, could classify and fit everything into the revolutionary restructuring that Darwin was fomenting.

A company of wide-minded men, very much aware of their roles and responsibilities, would now run the natural sciences--such men as John Torrey, of Princeton and New York, who had worked to replace Linnaeus' taxonomy with one that could accommodate the new understandings; Asa Gray, of Harvard, doing over American botany and becoming Darwin's chief advocate in America; Spencer Fullerton Baird, using the government's money and facilities to command cadres of field men and to remake both the Smithsonian Institution and American natural science. …

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