An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World
Pantheon Books, Hardcover, 9780375422935, 388pp.
Publication Date: April 9, 2013
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.
“An extended look at a tiny realm of American entomological history, but with insightful views of larger historical, scientific, and ecological issues.” –Commercial Dispatch
“This research is illuminating: it’s fascinating.” —Washington Post
“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. 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.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Fascinating . . . This is an unusual, pinpointed slice of American life enlivened with fragments of correspondence and reproductions of plates from classic books of the period.”
"William Leach's Butterfly People is a beautiful journey into the lives of America's pioneering lepidopterists. It stands apart in excellence from other books in the genre. Leach is a master historian and fine writer. Highly recommend!" Douglas Brinkley is Professor of History at Rice University and author of The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America
“William Leach shows us that butterflies and the people who loved, studied, and profited from them were at the center of much that was new in American aesthetics, science, and ethics at a time of far-reaching social, cultural, and economic change. Not simply an absorbing history of America’s nineteenth-century natural history collectors, Butterfly People is also a moving and enlightening elegy for American nature and for America itself as it crossed the threshold of industrialization.”
—Hugh Raffles, author of Insectopedia
“In this unprecedented account, William Leach shows us how a handful of diligent students of the most beautiful and delicate insects allowed the science of evolution to celebrate beauty, not to explain it away. Butterfly People is a comprehensive and marvelous book, revealing in great detail how naturalists become scientists through their love and experience of the creatures they study.”
—David Rothenberg, author of Survival of the Beautiful
“Who but another butterfly collector would want to read a book about America’s pioneer butterfly collectors? Anyone interested in the development of American science in the context of evolving American values and culture. Leach, an eminent historian, presents vivid portraits of these fascinating and complex people, who did so much to advance the emerging Darwinian biology and biogeography of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. (Along the way, the reader learns a lot of biology painlessly, too.)”
—Arthur M. Shapiro, University of California, Davis author of Field Guide to the Butterflies of the San Francisco Bay and Sacramento Valley Regions
“If you have loved butterflies, you will love this book. If you haven’t yet, you might begin here. Butterfly People is a book about the pursuit of beauty: the story, like the subject, is irresistible.”
—Robert D. Richardson Jr., author of Emerson: The Mind on Fire
“With scintillating precision and original, paradigm-shifting interpretation, Leach tells intriguing life stories . . . . Leach astutely considers how pursuing butterflies ‘placed people inside the fullness of nature,’ engendering crucial ecological understanding, even as escalating industrialization caused environmental destruction. Replete with forays into the creation of butterfly guidebooks and art, the mania for exotic specimens, and a history of the butterfly net, Leach’s astute and exciting inquiry into a time of heightened awareness of ‘the beauty of the world, in both its natural and its artificial forms,’ delivers new understanding of our past and present.” —Booklist, starred review
“Beautifully printed, bound, and packed with stunning color reproductions of prints…Leach is in pursuit of big ideas about art, science, evolution, collecting, economics, and technology…pays fine homage to the great butterfly works of the past.” –Boston Globe
“In this sprawling examination, Mr. 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.” –Wall Street Journal
“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…William Leach, too, sees natural history as a clear lens focused on universal beauty. His book, as scintillating as a Morpho wing, will likely send readers out on more than one sunny afternoon, sketchbook in hand, to seek butterfly encounters of their own.” –Washington Independent Review
“A brilliant work of history.” –Bookforum
“Today’s butterfly people will be enthralled…the wonder Leach evokes will captivate all who appreciate the natural world.” –New Scientist
“A gaily painted, comfortably owlish history of American butterfly collection’s heyday…Leach has a way with the butterfly’s beauty. Its flashing iridescence is no simple matter, but a work of smoke and mirrors; not pigment, but prisms. It is a trick of light—here now, but not if you change your angle of approach—capturing beauty’s heavenly complexity, and the way it touches on human longing, on—as Aristotle thought when he called butterflies psyche—our soul.” –Peter Lewis, BN.com review
“Absorbing…it turns out you can tell the history of America from the unspoiled beauty and endless possibility that greeted immigrants through the wrenching technological and economic change of the past century to the ecological uncertainties we face today. It’s a wonderful tale. A butterfly followed by a little boy with a net runs through it.” –Dallas Morning News
“A spirited history.” –New Yorker