Butterfly People: An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World (Paperback)
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.
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.
Praise for Butterfly People: An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World…
“A wonderful tale . . . Following the story of natural history, science, philosophy and even religion in America through the enthusiasms and feuds of a few insect collectors.” —The Dallas Morning News
“Compelling. . . . A splendid twinning of natural science and America.” —The Economist
“Illuminating . . . fascinating. . . . Leach is at his best when he describes moments of butterfly discovery, sharing both the insights Americans discovered over the course of a century and the price they paid for that knowledge.” —The Washington Post
“In this sprawling examination, Leach succeeds in weaving his disparate social and historical strands into a thought-provoking tapestry that will appeal to natural history aficionados and students of American culture.” —The Wall Street Journal
“A spirited history.” —The New Yorker
“This is truly a remarkable piece of work, and I was totally drawn in. Leach has captured a very important aspect of history as I am sure no one else could have. Along the way it reveals the origins of our obsessions and their trajectory. The breadth and depth of this will stay with me a long time, and I hope the book will be read widely.” —Bernd Heinrich, author of Winter World
“Leach is in pursuit of big ideas about art, science, evolution, collecting, economics, and technology.” —The Boston Globe
“[Leach] uses the rapid expansion of American interest in butterflies after the Civil War as a way into man’s arduous process of understanding his place in the order of things. . . . Leach describes the science of this period as a ‘fascinating mix of scientific confidence and human longing,’ and this book treats both aspects with equal care and well-researched precision.” —The Daily Beast
“Today’s butterfly people will be enthralled. . . . The wonder Leach evokes will captivate all who appreciate the natural world.” —New Scientist
“A brilliant work of history.” —Bookforum
“Masterful and beguiling. . . . A literary cabinet of wonders packed with scientific discoveries, historic artifacts, and artistic revelations to delight scholarly and casual readers alike. No mere flight of fancy, the book is an original consideration of American science, economics and aesthetics set in a time of profound cultural change.” —Washington Independent Review of Books
“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.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Fascinating. . . . An unusual, pinpointed slice of American life.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Astute and exciting. . . . A unique celebration of nineteenth-century American butterfly fanatics. . . . [Leach] delivers new understanding of our past and present.”—Booklist (starred review)
“Shimmering . . . Entrancing. . . . Mingles the resurrection of mostly forgotten figures with social, economic, and intellectual history. . . . Rivalries and even bitter animosities emerge; reputations are flayed, personal feelings pinned. But behind all this is a genuine longing to see, to know, and to understand.” —New Criterion