Synopses & Reviews
With 32 pages of full-color inserts and black-and-white illustrations throughout.
From one of our most highly regarded historians, here is an original and engrossing chronicle of nineteenth-century America’s infatuation with butterflies, and the story of the naturalists who unveiled the mysteries of their existence.
A product of William Leach’s lifelong love of butterflies, this engaging and elegantly illustrated history shows how Americans from all walks of life passionately pursued butterflies, and how through their discoveries and observations they transformed the character of natural history. Leach focuses on the correspondence and scientific writings of half a dozen pioneering lepidopterists who traveled across the country and throughout the world, collecting and studying unknown and exotic species. In a book as full of life as the subjects themselves and foregrounding a collecting culture now on the brink of vanishing, Leach reveals how the beauty of butterflies led Americans into a deeper understanding of the natural world. He shows, too, that the country’s enthusiasm for butterflies occurred at the very moment that another form of beauty — the technological and industrial objects being displayed at world’s fairs and commercial shows — was emerging, and that Americans’ attraction to this new beauty would eventually, and at great cost, take precedence over nature in general and butterflies in particular.
"Who but another butterfly collector would want to read a book about America's pioneer butterfly collectors? Anyone interested in the development of American science in the context of evolving American values and culture. Leach, an eminent historian, presents vivid portraits of these fascinating and complex people, who did so much to advance the emerging Darwinian biology and biogeography of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. (Along the way, the reader learns a lot of biology painlessly, too.)" Arthur M. Shapiro, University of California, Davis, author of Field Guide to the Butterflies of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento Valley Regions
"A mesmerizing and comprehensive history of butterfly collection in America....This is a deep dive into what, at first glance, seems an esoteric subject, but after further perusal reveals itself as an essential component of this nation's intellectual history. Fully informative on all things lepidoptera, this work embodies that 19th-century synthesis of science and art, while staying firmly grounded as a history of its namesake, as the Butterfly People become as rare as their most highly prized specimens." Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Fascinating....This is an unusual, pinpointed slice of American life enlivened with fragments of correspondence and reproductions of plates from classic books of the period." Kirkus
"With scintillating precision and original, paradigm-shifting interpretation, Leach tells intriguing life stories....Leach astutely considers how pursuing butterflies 'placed people inside the fullness of nature,' engendering crucial ecological understanding, even as escalating industrialization caused environmental destruction. Replete with forays into the creation of butterfly guidebooks and art, the mania for exotic specimens, and a history of the butterfly net, Leach's astute and exciting inquiry into a time of heightened awareness of 'the beauty of the world, in both its natural and its artificial forms,' delivers new understanding of our past and present." Booklist, starred review
"A brilliant work of history." Bookforum
About the Author
William Leach is a professor of history at Columbia University. His previous books include Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture, which was a National Book Award finalist, and Country of Exiles: The Destruction of Place in American Life.