History and Time
Nathan K. Hensley and John Patrick James, “Soot Moth: Biston Betularia and the Victorian End of Nature”
The darkened form of the common peppered moth, biston betularia f. carbonaria, known colloquially as the “soot moth,” was virtually unknown in England prior to 1800. The first reliable field specimen was collected outside of Manchester in 1848, plucked from the heart of Victorian England’s rapidly expanding coal economy. With their black abdomen and wings, these darkened morphs contrasted starkly with what had once been the more frequent form: a white-bodied moth lightly speckled with black and brown. As scientific studies now show, the black morph appeared as a result of industrial manufacture, first around major production centers and later around London. This article traces those studies to argue that the emergence of this particular form of melanistic moth signals a sharp pivot in Britain’s environmental history: its appearance augurs a new fossil modernity, in which coal replaces wood and animal fats as the primary source of English energy, and as stored sunlight, archived as coal, takes center stage as the driver for an endless steam-powered project of worldmaking. Tracing studies of “industrial melanism” to its origins at the beginning of this extractive, fossil-fueled modernity helps us see the soot moth’s emergence as a watershed moment in the history of life and a new chapter in humankind’s relationship to the category of nature.
The difference engine is a case study in what media archaeologists see as a diversity of temporalities entangling the production and functionality of technological media. Only an unfinished prototype, what was called “Babbage’s beautiful fragment” existed of Babbage’s designs during his lifetime. Even so, many machinists created their own variations of the difference engine after Babbage’s death. This phenomenon, and the many troubles Babbage himself ran into regarding the materials used to create the difference engine, demonstrates that the machine’s functionality exceeded its inventor’s intentions and awareness.
This article focuses on the publication of Darwin’s final book (1881) in the context of Darwin’s larger attempts to resist the habitual anthropocentrism of human beings. It begins with Darwin’s discussion of animal cognition and the senses of worms. It concludes with his emphasis on the significant effects worm digestion has on the landscape and the fertility of the earth. The article links Darwin’s Worms Edwin Abbott’s 1884 novella Flatland, arguing that both texts are engaged in dismantling human perceptions that stem from possessing a highly visual brain, and that both throw doubt on the belief that a single objective world exists independent of particular observers.
Denae Dyck and Marjorie Stone, “The ‘Sensation’ of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Poems before Congress (1860): Events, Politics, Reception”
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Poems before Congress paradoxically addresses a political event that never took place: a meeting of European powers to discuss the “Italian question” planned for January of 1860. Nevertheless, the collection addresses several momentous historical developments, including the Second Italian War of Independence in 1859, the intervention of Napoleon III of France in the Italian struggle, and the international conflict his intervention precipitated. Indeed, the book’s publication and the sensation it created in themselves constitute a plurality of events, since the collection appeared under differing titles in England and America and encountered differing responses in each country. Contrary to the still dominant critical view that the volume was almost universally denounced, its reception was shaped by diverse locations, shifting chronological contexts, and conflicting political affiliations. Close analysis of the reviews underscores the importance of these wider contexts, which influence what otherwise appear to be primarily literary or aesthetic judgements. At the same time, analysis of varying responses to not only “A Curse for a Nation” but also “Napoleon III in Italy” and other poems in the volume demonstrates a number of recurring points of contention. These include the collection’s title, the politics of interventions across national borders, English liberalism, the nature of democracy, cosmopolitanism versus nationalism, women writers in relation to politics, poetic form, and, most of all, EBB’s representation of Napoleon III—the issue that is front and centre in most of the 1860s reviews and that shaped, in turn, reactions to all the rest.
Elizabeth Berkowitz, “The 1910 ‘Manet and the Post – Impressionists’ Exhibition: Importance and Critical Issues”
“The 1910 ‘Manet and the Post-Impressionists’ Exhibition: Importance and Critical Issues” summarizes both the key historical aspects of the 1910 “Manet and the Post-Impressionists” exhibition, and the historiographic disputes that have arisen in relation to it. This article addresses the degree to which the term and art historical category “Post-Impressionism,” coined for this exhibition, represents a critical construction, rather than a genuine stylistic demarcation. In addition, this article counters the scholarly misperception that the vitriolic response to the 1910 exhibition was a product of British cultural ignorance of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century continental Modern art.
While Thomas Hardy was invited to submit something to a special number of Scribner’s Magazine that was published to celebrate the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the story he submitted, “The Fiddler of the Reels,” focuses on several characters whose lives are impacted by the Great Exhibition of 1851. The focus on the two world’s fairs might lead readers to believe that Hardy was an advocate of the kinds of scientific and technological progress that such spectacles tended to celebrate. However, Hardy’s story demonstrates the power of more primitive forces and actually undermines such an easy belief in progress. By ending with a character that clearly represents primal forces that are never suppressed, the story demonstrates that the power of the primitive past is never far from the surface and may emerge at any moment to triumph over the representatives of the present.
1792 witnessed the publication of the complete version of Erasmus Darwin’s The Botanic Garden, a lengthy nature poem that surveyed the state of science in its day. The Botanic Garden proved immensely popular on its publication but later fell out of favor as the Anti-Jacobin took aim at its liberal politics. This paper focuses on one of the most notorious sections of the poem, in which Darwin describes his plan to change the world’s climate via iceberg destruction. The argument traces the reception of Darwin’s climate imagery from its initial reception through its redeployment in the poetry of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Although The Botanic Garden and its plan for climate intervention might be framed in terms of what philosophers call the “negative event”—an event that fails to happen—Darwin was essentially correct in his assertion that the technologies of the industrial revolution could be used to change the climate of the globe.
The 1820 settlement scheme to South Africa marks an important conjuncture both for the colony’s internal development and for the rhetoric of immigration in the internal politics of Britain. Examining the rationale for the venture in light of the seminal historical event of the age—the Peterloo Massacre of 16 August 1819—and in light of Romantic notions of the “Noble Savage,” this entry attempts to demonstrate how concerns surrounding the South African scheme came to be entangled within larger debates over joblessness, slavery, class struggle, and inanition in early nineteenth-century British culture. Limiting its focus to a reading of The Emigrant’s Cabin (1822, 1834), a poem by the settler-poet Thomas Pringle (1789-1834), the entry argues that 1820 settler rhetoric navigated debates over labor through a novel engagement with time. By imagining a two-tiered system of labor time in the poem—one for settlers, based on unemployment relief and freedom from the oppressive pace of industrial life; and one for the African labor force on the eastern Cape farms, based on missionary discipline, a proto-Victorian program of “improvement,” and freedom from slavery—Pringle’s verse helped foster a British cultural identity in the Cape that resonates even today.
The event now known as “the voyage of the Beagle” comprises Charles Darwin’s circumnavigation as ship’s naturalist on the second of three surveying voyages by H.M.S. Beagle; the writings published as his first book, the Journal of Researches; and the genesis of his theory of evolution by natural selection. Writing between regimes of world-knowledge, Darwin mediates scientific observation through the language of aesthetics, and seeks to understand the convergence of disparate scales of geological and human history.
Trying to locate the Napoleonic Wars as an event, or a constellation of events in time and space, only reveals the historical dislocations produced by war on a global scale. Like many of the wars of the twentieth century, the Napoleonic wars illustrate how warfare, seemingly the most conventional object of history, defies history’s most conventional questions: when, where, who? Yet these particular wars also pose distinctive difficulties to our efforts to pin them down. This essay examines how the Napoleonic wars, in their scale, their repetitions and infiltration of cultural forms, keep history – and the historical event – an open, persistent question.