Saturday, 09 April 2005

Speculation and the Reefer, er, Reef Currently reading David Dobb's excellent (if unfortunately titled) Reef Madness and its generalist claims about the intellectual culture in the 1830s, '40s, and '50s dovetail nicely with what the ones I would make were I writing a popular intellectual history instead of a dissertation. (Were that I writing a popular intellectual history! Were that I could write something well, and appealing, and with a chance--slim though it would be--to alter the contemporary intellectual scene, i.e. the small but devoted readership of The New York Review of Books.) But I have a few complaints, foremost among them Dobb's desire to speculate when he's already informed us that he lacks the grounds to. For example, Dobbs says Alexander [Agassiz] never wrote a memoir, and as an adult he actively sheltered himself and his family from the sort of scrutiny his father had invited. His surviving letters reveal little of his personal history, for while there are many, he destroyed those more intimate. His letterpress letter books have crucial pages razored out, and the papers lack diaries and letters mentioned elsewhere. (37) Dobbs wears his ethical commitment proudly here, and signals readers of it throughout the text with the usual speculative flares: "would," "probably," "if," "possible," "possibly," "likely," etc. (The magnum opus of speculative non-fiction is still, to my mind, Sebastian Junger's The Perfect Storm, but that's another post.) But he intermingles what he knows from what he thinks he knows too, well, seamlessly. The narrative moves at so brisk a clip that passages like this one which follow the one quoted above almost slip by unnoticed: Having spent the previous eighteen months in limbo as his parents parted ways, by all reports sensitive and prone to melancholy anyway, Alex probably fet something short of "especially happy" that winter. (45) Now, that has all the markings of a successful bit of speculative non-fiction, by which I mean it's self-conscious about its status as history and calls attention to itself as an act of speculation. But I take issue with that "especially happy." It comes from the memoirs of a family member of Alex's mother Cecile (with whom Alex had spent that winter), who relates her saying the Freiburg winter, with its bracing summer air, was an especially happy time for the children. Alexander now became a proficient skater, an art in which as a young man he excelled...the boy and his mother spent many happy hours, while she sat in one of the high-backed sleds of that region, which he skillfully guided through the gay crowd of all ages who glided gracefully over the ice. (45) Dobbs feels sufficiently strongly about the constitution of young Alexander Agassiz that he sees no problem casting doubt on his mother's account (admittedly learned second-hand) of that "especially happy" winter. It's one thing to speculate when faced with a lack of evidence, another speculate in the face of it. I've seen this tendency in the work of professional biographers--Janet Browne's exhaustive life of Darwin brims with it--but...

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