Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Cape Ann Museum and the Gloucester Sea Serpent

I spent an afternoon last week in the Cape Ann Museum. To some extent, I had to seek it out – there isn’t much talk of it, and while it’s located in downtown Gloucester, the exterior of the building is unassuming (I drove past it even though I knew the address and was specifically looking for it). It was well worth the visit. The museum itself is larger than it appears from outside, with three floors filled with art and artifacts related to the area and its history: fine art, crafts, vessels, reconstructions,…- a nice mix that doesn’t overwhelm. It’s like a more focused local version of Salem’s Peabody-Essex Museum, which I also adore.

I started, as was recommended, on the top floor with the temporary exhibit, which is currently “Presence/Absence: New Work by Bruce Herman.” Not my favorite, to be honest, and I didn’t care for its religious themes, but I give them credit for including more contemporary works. I hope they take that impulse further, both with the temporary exhibits and with the permanent collection. In the regular galleries, there were several individual pieces that stood out: Marsden Hartley’s Rocks, Dogtown (c.1930s), Jan Matulka’s Two Seashells (c.1929), Charles Hopkinson’s paintings of his daughters, photographs and works (like George Elmer Berry’s Granite and Marble Monument (1884)) related to quarrying, a section on Philip Saltonstall Weld, carved haddock bones, and more. But the Fitz Henry Lane gallery, the museum’s centerpiece, was superb and deserving of its top billing. The light, the colors, the precision! I would love to see exhibits in New England museums present maritime artwork within its political context, but that couldn’t possibly detract from the high quality of these beautiful paintings.

One piece in the museum that caught my eye was a small illustration – I believe it was for a magazine – of the Gloucester Sea Serpent. I wasn’t familiar with this story, but the details are fascinating. A series of sightings of a giant sea serpent in the area in 1817 – embellished and sensationalized in local papers - attracted the interest of the Linnaean Society of New England, which commissioned a series of depositions of “witnesses.” The Society collected the depositions, ignoring inconsistencies and other issues, and when a small snake was discovered on a beach in nearby Essex, they identified it as a new genus, Scoliophis atlanticus - a juvenile example of the giant sea serpent!

It would be easy to conclude simply that the amateur and professional scientists involved merely succumbed to popular fervor and leave it at that. But Chandos Michael Brown’s “A Natural History of the Gloucester Sea Serpent: Knowledge, Power, and the Culture of Science in Antebellum America”* more insightfully situates the sea serpent investigations within the context of science and status struggles in the early American republic. “For a brief moment,” Brown offers,
it appeared that American naturalists had established the existence of a new genus off the shores of North America - an accomplishment that simultaneously attested to the bounty of American nature and to the genius of American science. Ambitious and resourceful, these naturalists succeeded in introducing American evidence into the contemporary, largely European debate over the hypothesis of animal extinction. Wishing only to transform the relation of American science to the learned savants of the Old World, the Boston naturalists could not have anticipated that in the process they also would discover how precarious was their status in their own land. The episode further illuminates a peculiar feature of the practice of science in America: an activity shaped, in varying degrees, by the often conflicting claims of national pride and regional loyalty. Therefore, any natural history of the Gloucester sea serpent also must adumbrate the contest for cultural authority that engaged the attention of many American intellectuals during the formative years of the early republic.
Brown describes not only the reluctance with which Christians and deists of the era met evidence of extinction (and in some cases naturalistic investigation itself), but more centrally the concerns that seemed in part to motivate scholars to embrace the notion of a giant sea serpent prowling the waters off Massachusetts. This “discovery” appeared at a moment in which New England intellectuals were seeking to demonstrate that their locality/region/nation’s wonders and science were worthy of being taken seriously by the European scientific establishment (not to mention the US government). Unfortunately for them, they clung in this instance to a personality and status-driven idea of evidence in which challenging the credibility of the personal testimony of “gentlemen” or observations couched in scientific language was perceived as a personal attack as well as to a heroic conception of science that seemed to prize bold ventures above patient empirical work.

It doesn’t appear that anyone’s reputation was ruined or finances destroyed, so I don’t feel guilt at finding the story charmingly funny. At most, it seems to have been a source of some embarrassment – especially after the Linnaean Society’s report was so flatly dismissed by Henri de Blainville, editor of the Journal de physique - and likely an object lesson for some. Interestingly, the sea serpent reports were mocked at the time, especially in the South. In 1819, Charleston writer William Crafts, who had attended Harvard and knew well the culture he poked fun at, composed a satirical play, The Sea Serpent; or, Gloucester Hoax: a Dramatic jeu d'esprit in Three Acts, from which Brown quotes some. I wish I had the whole play to read, since it sounds just wonderful. It’s a wry sociology of the sea serpent “hoax,” “which captures in the satiric movement of its own plot the greater dramas that preceded it: the thoughtless boosterism of New England culture and the self-serving promotion of the Linnaean Society, the heedless nationalism of American naturalists, and finally, the consequences of an ill-considered quest for knowledge.”

The play contains a great exchange between the characters “Linnaeus” and “Skepticus.” In the end,
Linnaeus is chastened by the revelation of his own willful misapprehension and cautions others, in the fashion of Francis Bacon, to
Deem nothing true that is not proved - nor then
Believe it all - but doubt and doubt again
Falsehood's a floating superficial thing,
but truth is deeper than the deepest spring.
But “Seraphina, the daughter of Linnaeus,” Brown notes,
has the final word, which she addresses to the Linnaean Society and to other impetuous naturalists of the young Republic, who in their desire to impress merely court humiliation:
So fares it always with the advent'rous race,
Who banish nature - and give monsters place;
Imagine miracles without their need,
Look wise in fancy - but are dupes indeed.
A very intelligent play. Somewhat sad, then, that Brown closes with a criticism of Crafts. He suggests that the “critique of a science driven by cultural chauvinism and mis-directed national pride” expressed specifically in the Scepticus-Linnaeus discussion, while showing Crafts’ skill as a writer, “must have pleased him more than it could any conceivable audience for the play.” More generally, “[t]he pity,” according to Brown, “was that he chose to satirize - within the limited district of Charleston - rather than to engage his Northern brethren.” This sounds vaguely insulting toward Charleston theater audiences, and I’m not so sure Crafts chose the limited reach (who would?). But I don’t agree with the claim that public satire is not a form – and often a very effective form – of engagement with a motivated pseudoscience.

*American Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 3 (Sep., 1990), pp. 402-436.

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