Envisioning the Tropics: Domesticating Exotic Places through Nineteenth-Century Popular Natural History

Saturday, January 8, 2011: 12:10 PM
Suffolk Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
William Kimler , North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC
A new vision of the tropical world, combining adventure, wildness, beauty, and promise, began with Alexander von Humboldt and the subsequent engagement by British and North American travelers in the American tropics. Scientific explorers as naturalist-authors attempted to transmit several messages about these unfamiliar zones. Their travel narratives routinely topped the publishers’ lists, and were important constructors of an ecological image of tropical environments.  Travelers entered the tropical zones with a mental construct of danger, grandeur, and imperial potential. Naturalists and adventurers were first on the ground, and their texts and visual productions generated a popular fascination and imagination with the tropics that intermingled wonder, esthetic pleasure, dreams of economic uses, and theoretical curiosity. One particular image embedded in all of these categories was the long-persisting idea of hyperactive, luxuriant nature and endless abundance. To the consumers of their narratives, naturalists presented the exotic quality of the tropics while simultaneously domesticating them through material understanding.  Home audiences wanted to know those exotic places and inhabitants, and they acquired a picture through natural histories and travel narratives, subscription sets of engravings and watercolors, illustrated newspapers, museum displays, botanical gardens, hothouse plants, popular lectures, and panoramic paintings.  Slowly a broader public experienced foreign places, outside the immediate experience of the consumers of the information, through commerce and colonies.  In this paper, I focus on the popular accounts of natural history, a few widely seen engravings and paintings, and imported objects on display in museums. Visual material created a distinctive imagined place, in conjunction and sometimes in conflict with the texts themselves.  The visual narrative refashioned the wild to domesticated, the exotic to familiar, in a popular understanding of the richness and potential of tropical nature.
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