Butterflies and Apes

Peter Wood

Paul Du Chaillu was the young man who ventured inland from the coast of Gabon in 1856 on a quest to be the first European to encounter the njena, the supposedly ferocious beast we now call the gorilla. That same year, William Henry Edwards, grandson of Jonathan Edwards, decided as “to go down the butterfly path,” which would lead in time to his becoming (according to a later scholar) “the greatest butterfly student which this country has ever produced or probably ever will.”

Du Chaillu has come out of historical retirement to take a bow in Monte Reel’s enthralling new book, Between Man and Beast: An Unlikely Explorer, The Evolution Debate, and the African Adventure That Took the Victorian World by Storm. Edwards plays a leading role in William Leach’s shimmering Butterfly People: An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World. Du Chaillu and Edwards make a nice contrast. The gorilla-hunter was a “diminutive” man of obscure origins, self-educated, and forced to live by his wits. Edwards was (to judge by his photograph) robust, from an illustrious family, educated at Williams College, and a successful capitalist who invented the coal barge and lived off his extensive West Virginia mines. Du Chaillu was an adventurer who coveted recognition as an explorer and scientist. Edwards was an enthusiastic industrialist (“what an utter blank the world would be, if iron did not exist”) enthralled with butterflies and determined to spare “no expense” for the color plates in his three volume Butterflies of North America.

But there are commonalities between the two men as well. They were amateurs in an age where major contributions to human knowledge could still be made by individuals outside the scientific establishment. They were both meticulous in their observations. And they were both brave. Du Chaillu shot down charging 400-pound male gorillas at close range. Edwards’ light-winged quarry posed no threat, but a nine-month voyage up the Orinoco in 1846 wasn’t for the faint of heart. Both started out hunting birds in a search for previously unidentified species.

Gorillas and butterflies have one more thing in common. They are so rich in metaphoric possibilities that hardly anyone can resist the temptation to draft them into rhetorical service. Reel’s book revels in the record of gorilla-inspired vituperation, including Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s 1861 jibe at Lincoln as “the Original Gorilla.” Leach relates how the coal-mining industrialist Edwards named one of his diaphanous discoveries the Nokomis fritillary, “daughter of the moon,” after Hiawatha’s grandmother in Longfellow’s poem.

The amateur zeal of Du Chaillu and Edwards is nicely echoed by Reel and Leach, who have added to the growing genre of historical inquiry that mingles the resurrection of mostly forgotten figures with social, economic, and intellectual history. What is truly on the page in these books is the thirst for knowledge and discovery as a personal undertaking. Rivalries and even bitter animosities emerge; reputations are flayed; personal failings pinned. But behind all this is a genuine longing to see, to know, and to understand. Reel and Leach give us, in these different characters, compelling reminders that the postmodernism of the contemporary university is a starvation diet.

Of course, I can’t resist the metaphoric possibilities either. For the last six weeks I have been busy with the follow-up to the release of What Does Bowdoin Teach? the 360-page examination of a single college that I wrote along with my colleague Michael Toscano. Some of the responses remind me of what Du Chaillu discovered the first time he came face to face with a gorilla. The beast gave a tremendous roar and came running straight at him. Du Chaillu didn’t wait to find out what would happen next. He fired and dropped the gorilla a few feet away. Later he discovered that a gorilla’s charge is mere intimidation. The animal breaks away at the last second. This has been Bowdoin’s official response to What Does Bowdoin Teach?: a roar, a charge, and—never mind. The unofficial response, coming mostly from Bowdoin students, by contrast, has been more like a flight of butterflies. The swirling display is impressive, but it is hard to discern a point other than “look at me.” One alumnus in particular stands out as a sort of Nokomis fritillary who flits into every blog and newspaper story as a reminder that the lightness of being is sometimes literal.

Having paid that bill and added in the gratuity, let me give the last word to the entrancing tales of the real-life gorilla and butterfly hunters. Genuine scholarship comes not necessarily from credentialed scholars but also—and sometimes more impressively—from people independent of the establishment. Du Chaillu and Edwards exemplify that kind of achievement.

This article originally appeared in the blog of The New Criterion, Arma Virumque on May 13, 2013.

Image: Western lowland gorilla female in a cloud of butterflies (© Anup Shah/Corbis)

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