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Peer Reviewed

P. M. Harman. The Culture of Nature in Britain, 1680-1860. New Haven: Yale UP, 2009. 400 pp. $65.00 (c).

Noah Heringman, University of Missouri

Rev. by Noah Heringman
In this book, P. M. Harman, a distinguished historian of science who has published widely on nineteenth-century British physics and natural philosophy, creates a richly detailed, panoramic view of the cultural landscape inhabited by the figures that loom large in his previous work, ranging from Sir Isaac Newton to James Clerk Maxwell. When he proposed his spectral theory of colors in 1672, Harman tells us, Newton was “prompted” by six decades of debate among painters, philosophers, and makers of pigments concerning the nature of “simple” or primary colors (240). In the 1850s Maxwell and Hermann Helmholtz finally proved by experiment that “mixing yellow and blue spectral lights does not yield green” (281), and at the same time new experiments in painting by William Holman Hunt showed that primary colors could be juxtaposed effectively to mimic natural light, also contradicting Newtonian theory (234). Rather than framing this divergence as an incipient two-cultures split, Harman illustrates powerful continuities both within the discourse of natural philosophy itself and in the cultural matrix of which it formed a part, along with painting, aesthetic theory, poetry, and natural theology. If natural philosophy and “culture” remain constant in this sense, “nature” becomes more sharply divided by the end of Harman’s period between the “science of aspects” and the “science of essence.” Harman takes these terms from John Ruskin, and a parallel might be drawn to Marjorie Nicolson—whose histories of ideas are among those most widely cited by Harman—and her use of Ruskin’s terms to define her classic study Mountain Gloom and Mountain Glory.
The title of the book indicates clearly enough its ambition to synthesize both continuities and change in these two colossal concepts across nearly two centuries—a broad ambition even when qualified by the emphasis on Britain (which does not stop Harman from drawing in Rubens, Goethe, Alexander von Humboldt, and other continentals where needed). The term “old-fashioned intellectual history” has been used pejoratively for such a long time that perhaps now it can be allowed again as a term of qualified praise, which is how I intend it. The framing of the topic, and the moderately popularizing aim of the project, make this more a narrative than an interpretive history of the cultivation of nature in the era of modern science, and less a cultural history than a history of ideas. Scholarly references, though ample and up-to-date, are almost entirely confined to the notes, and the long period covered by the study contributes to a selective view of “culture” that is well represented by my initial example of color theory, and excludes other venues that have been of interest to students of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century science, such as museums, women’s writing, workingmen’s institutes, and popular periodicals.
Within these limits, Harman’s book excels in many of the areas associated with history of ideas. He displays admirable breadth and depth of erudition, moving deftly between the seventeenth and nineteenth century and in and out of arguments and texts by Ruskin, Virgil, Thomas Burnet, Erasmus and Charles Darwin, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Humphry Repton, William Buckland, and many others whose works Harman seems to know as intimately as those of Maxwell and the physicists. This range and the depth of the readings bear out Harman’s claim that this book brings to fruition a lifelong project pursued alongside his history of physics (xi). The book presents a familiar range of questions and materials but creates new and often fruitful combinations by pursuing the longue durée of “nature” and a thorough integration of natural knowledge in many of its forms. At its best, this wide-ranging history captures the intricate interactions of images, texts and ideas, transcending the dilemma of “one culture” vs. “two cultures.”
The history incorporates detailed summaries of numerous issues and works, offering particularly rich engagements with Charles Darwin and John Ruskin in several of the chapters, as well as with Burnet’s Sacred Theory of the Earth (104-12), the debate on the picturesque (120-30), Sir William Hamilton’s Campi Phlegraei (134-42), Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes (159-63), Sir Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (171-81), Newton’s natural philosophy (285-91), and Erasmus Darwin’s The Temple of Nature (307-12).
More than teleological histories of secularization, Harman’s attends to the persistence of natural theology—the “design” element in natural philosophy—and its intimate relationship with the aesthetics of nature. But his synthetic ambitions dictate attention to change as well, and the periodic eruption of “shifts” (68, 96, and passim) in the definitions and perception of “nature” is never reconciled adequately with the arc of the narrative. Harman frames these shifts too often, it seems to me, in terms in terms of conventional dichotomies between science and religion or science and art (34, 230). Many of his original contributions come, instead, when he observes moments of surprising continuity, such as the persistence of the language of design in Charles Darwin (52). Harman acknowledges that two primary goals take precedence in his book over “systematic” argument. In a very brief preface, he states the ambition of “discuss[ing] design, exploration, landscape, flora and fauna, colour and vital forces . . . across conventional disciplinary and chronological boundaries, and within common terms of debate” (ix). “The selection of topics,” he explains, “has been shaped by the thematic structure adopted, and the argument is illustrative rather than systematic” (x). This thematic emphasis is intended to combat today’s “fragmented” disciplinary compartmentalization of these “common terms of debate” and the “bifurcated” specialist study of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century culture.
The first chapter, accordingly titled “Themes and Contexts,” introduces a number of narrative features that Harman uses to shape each chapter: he begins with a picture, proceeds to a broad thematic survey (in this case “Nature and the Culture of Modernity”), and from there to a close reading, in this case of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (Part III). Harman’s very agile chronological tacking between the Enlightenment and the Victorian period complements the navigation between close readings and broad themes in the history of ideas. In this case the visual starting point, J. M. W. Turner’s Lancaster, from the Aqueduct Bridge (1825) establishes a focus on the Victorian reckoning with the “impact of technology and industry on the landscape” (1), bookended by Swift’s satire of the Royal Society, a world in which science and nature are still opposed (13). The “culture of nature” intervened by representing the increasing impact of science in the form of technology, and by reacting (especially in the Romantic period) with a veneration of “untamed nature” that Harman distinguishes sharply from the georgic and picturesque hybrids of the eighteenth century (12). In Chapter Two, the visual starting point is William Dyce’s Pegwell Bay, Kent—A Recollection of October 5th 1858, encapsulating an “intellectual outlook” that “joins science to natural theology and the aesthetics of nature. These were the themes that shaped the culture of nature in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries” (24).
The titles of the remaining pictures with which Harman begins his chapters, all but one of them subjected to rewarding close analysis, tell a part of the story: Humboldt’s Tableau physique des Andes; Thomas Gainsborough, Wooded Landscape with a Peasant Resting; Ruskin, Chamonix: Rocks and Vegetation; C. Darwin, “Tree of Life” sketch, Notebook B (1837); Holman Hunt, Our English Coasts (Strayed Sheep); and Henry Fuseli, The Temple of Nature (frontispiece). Following the analysis of Dyce’s Pegwell Bay in ch. 2, Harman sketches the broad arc of theology from the Newton-Leibniz debates over design through the Boyle lectures (by Richard Bentley, Samuel Clarke, and William Derham), David Hume, and William Paley, to the Bridgewater Treatises of the 1830s, engaging closely with the treatises William Whewell and William Buckland (24-38). The chapter then traces the “aesthetics of nature” from Francis Hutcheson through George Turnbull, Edmund Burke, Archibald Alison, and Dugald Stewart, winding up with Coleridge who, Harman argues, “severed the link between the aesthetics of nature and the language of design” by claiming that “the sublime . . . is a faculty of mind” (51). Both aesthetics and design become associated with geology rather than astronomy, deep rather than static time, a “naturalistic” shift captured by the differential intersection of these two time-scales with human activity in Dyce’s painting. The association between geology and a naturalistic worldview, here and elsewhere (cp. 130-47, 347), recalls Dennis Dean’s argument in Romantic Landscapes (2007), in many ways a similar book.
Lacking the space to deal individually with each of the very substantial chapters (an average of forty-five pages for chapters two through eight), I will offer a simple sketch of the most rewarding episodes. These include a rich and closely argued account of Humboldt’s literary influence on Charles Darwin (75-92) and a more sweeping account of the emergence of geology out of landscape aesthetics between Burnet and Lyell. As “the picturesque tour elided into interest in geological formations” (133) local instances of “the culture of nature” appear as visual-verbal juxtapositions of either conventional picturesque illustrations accompanying empirical narratives of field research or (later) of geologically schooled illustrations accompanying residually picturesque travel narratives (146). Harman’s juxtaposition of Lyell and Ruskin in Chapter Five is rewarding, though their respective uses of “nature” could be more clearly distinguished (171-94). Chapter Six describes a branching descent of natural history classification, from the early modern scheme of cabinets and wonder through Linnaeus’s “classical” order to the two secular orders of art and science. This larger narrative is animated by vivid illustrations from the botanical culture industry exemplified by Erasmus Darwin and Robert Thornton (208-10) and from the anti[-Charles]-Darwinian repertoire of figures as varied as Ruskin (in Proserpina) and Adam Sedgwick (229).
Following the treatment of color theory in Chapter Seven, Harman concludes in Chapter Eight with an especially literary account of the “inherent active powers” of matter as they are developed, first, by Newtonian revisionists such as Joseph Priestley and James Hutton; then by Erasmus Darwin, and by Coleridge in his mediations of Naturphilosophie; and finally by Mary Shelley, inspired by Humphry Davy, in Frankenstein (321-33). Although chemistry in Davy’s account is already a “modern science”—Frankenstein’s failure is explained as a refusal to adhere to its ethos of “transparency”—it is still, if I understand Harman’s sense correctly, a “culture of nature”: “in his panoramic Discourse Introductory Davy strove to portray chemistry as integral to cultural sensibility, as a ‘branch of sublime philosophy’” (330).
In The Culture of Nature, Harman recuperates natural philosophy as an analytic for nineteenth-century studies. It is easy to forget, or ignore, the insistence of H. G. Wells’s Time Traveler—who has published widely on physical optics—that the problem of time travel is as much “philosophical” as “scientific.” It is refreshing, in this age of strong contextualism, to be reminded of how indebted the Bridgewater Treatises are to the Boyle Lectures, and that Constable and Ruskin and Wordsworth all found themselves responding as much to early seventeenth-century landscape painting as to contemporary science. However, this long view also entails a theoretical commitment to the transparency of “nature” and culture” that is at times troubling or even untenable. “The primacy of nature as unfettered by the artificial structures of human culture” may have been a tenable concept then (149), but it is not now; or at least not without some recognition and rebuttal of arguments from environmental history, revisionist literary history, and elsewhere, that “unfettered nature” is itself an ideological construction specific to early nineteenth-century Europe.
The book could have been more carefully edited as well. There are many instances of unnecessary repetition at all levels, from the repetition, within single chapters, of one or more sentences (51, cp. 81-82) and of summaries of the same work (108, cp. 130), to the repetition of certain anecdotes across chapters (31-32, 169, 312), to the repetition of the same explanation—here that Daniel Solander was a pupil of Linnaeus—on the same page (57). There are fairly numerous errors, ranging from fatal typos in verse quotations from The Excursion (181) and The Botanic Garden (306), to errors of fact, including the mistaken (and repeated) substitution of “Rain, Storm, and Speed” for Turner’s Rain, Steam and Speed (2, 12, 391) and a mistaken location for Christ’s Hospital (70). From a stylistic point of view, “was” and “were”—with all their attendant vagueness of subject and time—dominate too much, especially in the chapter conclusions and the broad thematic surveys that alternate with Harman’s close readings. Perhaps especially for a literary scholar, these close readings, richly varied, always learned, often incisive or startling, are the real substance of the book, and taken together they make a strong case for natural philosophy as an enlivening interdisciplinary framework for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century studies.
Noah Heringman teaches English at the University of Missouri.  He has published widely on British Romanticism, natural history, and antiquarianism.  His new book, Sciences of Antiquity: Natural History and Antiquarianism in the Romantic Age, is due out from Oxford in Fall 2012.