Butterfly People: An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World
Leach’s painstakingly documented ode to the American lepidopterists of the late 19th century teems with both science and humanism. An amateur collector himself, Leach provides an overview of Americans exploring nature, just when industry was ramping up the supply of man-made cultural artifacts; the juxtaposition of natural and artificial beauty remains with us today. The discussion is personalized, as readers meet the big players in the emerging natural history world, from William Henry Edwards and Samuel Scudder to Herman Strecker and Augustus Grote. These men and others refined the system of nomenclature and classification of butterflies, far beyond the outlines provided by Linnaeus. Occasionally the pastime turned adversarial, and Leach documents the personal and professional battles between these men, over everything from naming rights to acquisitions expeditions. While there was increasing interest in natural history among the middle and lower classes, the focus remains on those with the money to acquire, travel, and communicate. The few instances of working-class collectors are notable. The influence of women appears in the beautiful color plates, which, with the advent of technology, evolved into photographs. The tone is at times overly-reverential, but beneath the rapture is solid research, covering the emerging environmental movement and a unique period of American history.