Butterfly People: An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World

William Leach. Pantheon, $30 (416p) ISBN 978-0-375-42293-5
National Book Award–finalist and Columbia University historian Leach (Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture) offers a mesmerizing and comprehensive history of butterfly collection in America, and this pastime’s relation to the nation’s landscape, ideologies, and industry. The individuals profiled—including William Henry Edwards, Samuel Scudder, Herman Strecker, Augustus Grote—are men grappling with the great ideas of the modern age: evolution, the expansion of the industrial age, and the rise of the market economy, humans’ relationship with nature, and beauty. 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. It is not just Edwards who “carried within him the tension at the heart of the American experience, from the colonial period onward, between extraction and adoration, artifactual beauty and natural beauty, commerce and science,” for Leach asks the reader to consider all these things as well—their loss and triumph—and what might be gained in the reflection. Agent: Georges Borchardt, the Georges Borchardt Literary Agency. (Apr.)
Reviewed on: 01/21/2013
Release date: 04/09/2013
Paperback - 388 pages - 978-1-4000-7692-5
Open Ebook - 352 pages - 978-0-307-90787-5
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