This, the fifth in a series of posts extracted from my book Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral, introduces the book’s main figure, Alexander Agassiz. In the book I track Alex from birth. In this abridged serialization, I skip that and we pick him here as a 12-year-old boy. Abandoned for the time by a father who has gone to America to make his fame, Alex finds himself caring for a mother who takes ill — and then, rather suddenly, in a new life in America.
To read it all, or if you ‘re impatient, kindly buy the book. Or feel free to dip in here and come back next week, where we’ll find Alexander’s father facing off against Charles Darwin.
5. Alex Comes of Age
from Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral© David Dobbs, all rights reserved
Of the year that Alexander lived in Freiburg, so few facts survive that it’s hard to know what to make of them. He arrived sometime in the second half of 1847, not yet twelve years old, to find his mother living “in most straitened circumstances,” as George Agassiz would later put it, in a tiny apartment near the Schwaben Tour, a tower over one of the city gates.
Apparently never robust, Cécile was now ailing. Still, Cécile reportedly loved Freiburg, an extraordinarily charming town that was then perhaps at its most alluring. “She greatly loved the quaint old walled cathedral town and its beautiful surroundings,” her grandson George relates from the distance of two generations and an ocean, and “although now an invalid, she was still able to take short excursions into the country,” where she would draw the flowers brought to her by her daughters or the beetles, caterpillars, and butterflies captured by Alex. “The Freiburg winter,” he continues,
with its bracing and sunny air, was an especially happy time for the children. Alexander now became a proficient skater, an art in which as a young man he excelled…. The boy and his mother spent many happy hours, while she sat in one of the high-backed sleds of that region, which he skillfully guided through the gay crowd of all ages who glided gracefully over the ice.
This is hard to credit. At the age of twelve, having spent the previous 18 months in limbo as his parents parted ways, by all reports sensitive and prone to melancholy anyway, Alex probably felt something short of “especially happy” that winter. The transition from the window-smashing youth to the smiling skater seems forced. Possibly Alex himself held to that memory and passed it down because his skating supplied a pleasure rare in what otherwise must have been a dark winter.
Other tidbits refer to botanical outings with his Uncle Alexander, apparently a generous and kind man, and consultations with Braun’s colleague the zoologist Carl von Sieblold, who helped Alex classify his bugs, extracting as a fee an occasional choice beetle. These stimulations, along with being reunited with his mother and sisters, must have brought Alex some lift, and perhaps he indeed felt some of the sunny optimism that the relayed skating memory suggests.
Yet the winter was grim enough to spoil forever his love of music — a significant loss, given his mother’s cultivation of his taste for it. His bane that winter, he later recalled, was his violin tutelage. He had never loved the instrument, and he took his lessons now in the early morning in a cathedral so cold, he later told his children, that he could scarcely hold his bow. His teacher, perhaps frustrated with Alex’s lack of enthusiasm, would correct his worst mistakes by rapping him on the knuckles with his bow.
What would have become of Alex had his mother lived? Quite possibly he would have stayed in Freiburg, become a naturalist, likely quite prominent, and had a distinguished and perhaps even a brilliant career in Europe.
His European days, however, were cut short by the bacilli multiplying in Cécile’s lungs. As spring ripened, so did her symptoms. The lethargy and cough of early tuberculosis expanded to the fever and bloody hack of the disease’s lethal bloom. The children almost certainly absorbed the bacilli as well, but it did not seem to take, as is often the case with older children, and they remained healthy, though doubtless increasingly frightened. Alex assumed the running of the household, keeping the simple accounts and going to market each day, dutifully continuing his studies and violin practice. But the disease had her. She died that summer of 1848.
Alex’s uncle took in Alex and his sisters, and an exchange of letters across the Atlantic soon settled their fates. Louis, extremely busy convincing Harvard to build him a museum, could not come fetch his children. The girls went to live with their aunts in Neuchâtel while Alex stayed in Freiburg with his uncle.
In spring of 1849, however, Alex’s cousin on his father’s side, Dr. Charles Mayor, decided to move to the United States, and it was arranged that Alex would meet him in Paris and sail with him from Havre to Boston. Though his feelings on leaving Freiburg can only be imagined, his actions as reported by George 75 years later provide some hint. At the Freiburg train station he removed his violin from its case, set it on the platform, and smashed it beneath his feet.
When Alex arrived in America in June of 1849, he found Louis riding the headiest surge of his American success. His father was also elated over the woman he introduced to Alex as his stepmother-to-be, Elizabeth Cabot Cary.
Well-educated, musical, bilingual, attractive, warm-hearted, and 27 years old (as near in age to Alex as to Louis), Liz Cary was about the best thing that could have happened not just to Louis but to Alex. By all accounts she took Alex to heart immediately, and he, grateful after his recent trials for such an unequivocal commitment, remained dedicated to her all his life. In later years he called her his best friend as well as his mother. As for Louis, marrying Liz Cary proved one of the smarter things he ever did, for it furnished private stability and happiness for himself and his children and secured his acceptance into the highest layers of Boston society. For Elizabeth Cabot Cary was born of the Cabot family, one of the richest and most established of the oft-mingled clans (Cabots, Lowells, Feltons, Shaws, and others) who dominated Boston finance and society.
Liz Cary also possessed astonishing grace, intelligence, empathy, strength, and energy, and she managed to enhance and enjoy Louis’s ambitions while curbing his domestic excesses. She greatly stabilized (one is tempted to say civilized) the home in which Alex lived. When Alex arrived, Louis’s house held a menagerie that included snakes, an eagle, and a Maine bear that was a gift from Henry Thoreau. Presumably a symbol of nature’s noble simplicity, the bear did not simplify anything, of course, though it did offer unpredictable entertainment, as when during a dinner party it slipped its chains in the basement, raided the wine cask, and stumbled upstairs to disrupt the party. It later ended up on the dissecting table.
When Cary moved in, the animals and all of Louis’s aides save Burkhardt moved out, and Alex, soon joined by his sisters, settled into the best-regulated home they ever had. (Some animals eluded immediate capture. Several weeks after moving in, Cary found a fugitive snake in one of her shoes. Louis, hearing her shout of protest, said he was wondering where that snake had got to.)
Even sans animaux, the place remained busy, for Cary and Agassiz, a sort of elite dream couple, became a node of Cambridge and Boston’s social world. With Cary’s help, Louis had conquered Brahmin Boston as thoroughly as he had Harvard. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in for a Boston visit from his own web in Concord, had heard enough of Louis from Thoreau and others that he knew him at first sight:
I saw in the cars a broad-featured, unctuous man, fat and plenteous as some successful politician, and pretty soon divined it must be the foreign professor who has had so marked a success in all our scientific and social circles, having established unquestionable leadership in them all; and it was Agassiz.
Emerson soon joined the circle, becoming part of Louis’s elite Saturday Club. On other nights, Cabots, Feltons, and Lowells came for dinner, and the place often swarmed with less formal visitors. Alex sometimes came home from school to find his father jawing with the great mathematician Benjamin Peirce, who lived across Quincy Street from Agassiz and became a close friend. Their bond seemed one of opposites. Peirce was a ferociously unapologetic intellectual elitist (he once delighted in being publicly called a nabob), a notoriously opaque lecturer, and a brilliant mathematician, while Louis espoused intellectual egalitarianism, lectured with singular lucidity, and could scarcely add. They agreed, however, that the universe was a divine creation; that it could be understood by those few who could perceive the rules of God’s order; and that they ranked high among those few. Peirce, amused that his computationally challenged friend had a mathematically talented son, would often conjure some math puzzle for Alex to solve. Alex usually solved it, which suggests both his intelligence and Peirce’s feelings for him, for Peirce could stump anyone and usually chose to. Alex would witness an even more unpredictable mixture of lucidity and obscurity when the Saturday Club gathered, with Agassiz and Peirce joined by John Lowell, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other luminaries who would talk deep into the night.
In this setting Alex began a more pacific, productive part of his life, though one hardly boring or routine. Once past his initial shyness and difficulties with English, he made quick friends with his fellow students and the children of Cary’s friends. In winter he liked to skate, and in summers he accompanied his father, stepmother, and sisters to Nahant, an island northeast of Boston where the Cabots and other bluebloods summered. There he developed a love of marine biology that grew all his life. He and his sisters sometimes accompanied his father and Cary on collecting or lecturing trips farther afield. In his first years in the U.S. he traveled all up and down the eastern seaboard; to the Gulf Coast; to the Keys for the 1851 reef study; to South Carolina the following two winters when his father had lecturing stints in Charleston; and to many universities and scientific institutions between Boston and Washington, D.C. By the time he was halfway through college he was an accomplished field worker and had met most of the country’s scientific elite.
Alex took great advantage of the many opportunities this new world offered, resisting distraction and showing remarkable resilience and concentration. Already he could work as few others could. The youth was showing the characteristics that would distinguish the man:
The thoroughness and ease with which he worked, his great reserve, his sudden explosions of indignation, his quiet and entire devotion to those he loved, his occasional outbursts of mirth, as delightful as they were unexpected, his unfailing charm — all these belonged to the Swiss boy no less than to the scientific man of cosmopolitan friendship and fame.
Enrolling at Cambridge High school soon after he arrived, he graduated two years later, in spring 1851, at age 16. That fall he entered Harvard. He excelled in all sciences and in math, having more luck than most in following Peirce’s lectures. Yet while he spoke five languages, he showed little interest in formally studying any of them, and he assiduously avoided philosophy. Like Benjamin Peirce, who loved math because it was the most rigorous instrument for testing theories, he sought knowledge where it could be found and confirmed with most certainty. As his son would later phrase it, “He devoted himself to the knowable, and left groping among the intangibles to others.”
We can only speculate as to how much of this agnosticism was in reaction to his father’s promiscuous theorizing. Each side of Alex’s family had harbored doers as well as thinkers (Cécile had a second brother who was a mining engineer, and Louis’s brother was a merchant), so perhaps Alex merely inherited a practical bent. Yet it invites speculation that a child so thoroughly exposed to philosophical curiosity should seem averse to it. His uncle Alexander — much beloved, and Alex’s most substantial intellectual influence in the years before he came to America — was an adherent of Naturphilosophie, and Louis, though claiming a rigorous empiricism, spun elaborate speculative structures from his findings and talked at no end of philosophical matters.
Alex steered decidedly clear of all this, even as an undergraduate, when such musings come most naturally. This hard-nosed literal-mindedness, which he would retain his entire life, fit firmly into an apparent abjuration of his father’s excesses of character and work. Where Louis was loud, impulsive, expansive, and distractible, Alex was quiet, steady, held his cards close, and worked with a diligence — actually finishing things — that his father had sustained only briefly and only in his youth. Perhaps when one has a father as flamboyant as Louis Agassiz, the best rebellion is quiet conservatism. Or perhaps Alex simply saw the trouble Louis’s extravagance created and chose a more controlled path. He had certainly suffered enough shocks when he had to ride Louis’s.
In any case, Alex approached his schoolwork with remarkable energy and discipline. While not the bon vivant his father was, he had a quieter sort of charm beneath his subdued but acutely attentive demeanor. One friend he made in South Carolina the winter of 1851-52, a young woman four years older than he, recalled later that “he was so different from other boys, and so delightful, a most charming boy — just at the age when boys are so seldom charming.” (He was then 16.) Though reserved, he was socially confident. Having long produced small plays with his sisters, he joined Harvard’s Hasty Pudding theatrical club, and he rowed bow on a famed crew that also included Charles William Eliot, who as president of the university from 1869 to 1909 would become one of the most important figures in American higher education. (At only medium height and around 140 pounds, Alex would seem an unlikely oarsman; but he was of impressive physical strength all his life.)
Living in the big Oxford Street house with his family, going to class across the street with his father and his father’s colleagues during the day, Alex did not exactly move beyond his father’s sphere while attending college, nor beyond the complications rising from Louis’s chronic overextension. As his college years ended he found himself teaching in a girls’ prep school that Liz Cary had founded. Cary started the school partly out of a strong interest in education (she later became Radcliffe College’s first president) but also because Louis, even with his new salary and lucrative speaking calendar, was again spending more than he earned. Cary, determined to provide a household income independent of Louis’s, founded the Agassiz School for girls and recruited Alex to teach there. He dutifully took the job even while he studied chemistry briefly and then reenrolled in the Lawrence Scientific School for another graduate degree, this one in natural history. For the next two years he fit a half-time teaching position at the girls’ school amid his studies.
Many 20-year-old men would relish holding forth before rooms full of bright young women, but Alex hated it. Unlike his father he found teaching neither easy nor enjoyable. In fact he seemed increasingly resistant to the charms of both academe and natural history as professions. He told his close friend Theodore Lyman that he had entered engineering school because he didn’t want to be a poor biologist or have to teach all his life. Now, as he finished his natural history degree, that feeling of entrapment seemed to resurface: He had his degree (three, in fact — an undergrad degree in zoology and master’s equivalents in engineering and natural history) but faced the sort of underfunded, overextended existence he so hated seeing in his father. He was also in love, having fallen for one of his students, Anna Russell, the daughter of blueblood family friends. He wanted to marry her, but marrying and then staying on at the museum and making ends meet by teaching, either at the girls’ school or at his father’s school, felt like a trap.
Louis set up an escape route: Alexander Dallas Bache, a good friend of Louis’s who was the director of the U.S. Coastal Survey, happened to need a capable, sea-leggéd scientist and engineer to help survey the Pacific Northwest coast. It was a connection job, but Alex, educated in geology, oceanography, and engineering and an experienced coastal cruiser, was superbly qualified. The position seemed promising. Bache, emphasizing the military and commercial advantages of well-surveyed waters, had drawn massive government resources to the Survey, and its work was highly regarded. But the cruise Alex went on during the fall of 1859 suffered such bad weather, and Alex so resented the bureaucratic inefficiencies of a government operation, that when cold weather halted operations for a time he took a leave rather than seeking another immediate assignment; government work, it appeared, did not suit him. In San Francisco, waiting a boat to start the long trip home via Panama (which still had to be crossed overland), he spent almost a month catching, drawing, and cataloguing perch and medusae. He became so absorbed that he didn’t want to leave, and indeed he did not leave until he had written dozens of pages of description to “Mon cher papa” and a monograph on West Coast perch. Then, perhaps deterred by the thought of returning to Boston’s winter, he accepted an invitation from the superintendent of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company, whom he had befriended on his westward passage over the isthmus, to be his guest in Acapulco and Panama. In both places he did yet more collecting and wrote more long letters to Louis, scores of pages of lovely pen work and maps and drawings of sea creatures — medusae, crabs, crustaceans, sea worms and sea slugs, shrimp — each numbered and tied to a description at letter’s end. They were casual, newsy letters home, but they were also natural history papers almost ready for publication, and he in fact later worked some up and published them.
His Coastal Survey job, meanwhile, remained available. But as the weeks passed, the job seemed to hold less attraction. Though the work was sometimes exciting, the pay was poor, and he missed his fiancée. As he collected, catalogued, drew, and described, it became clear that engineering, whatever its practical and pecuniary attractions, would never hold him the way biology did. Like a boat coming round, his thoughts and plans turned toward home, and more seriously toward marriage.
The only problem was money. Anna Russell came from yet another rich merchant family, but she and Alex had agreed they should live independently. She had even taken to living more simply in his absence, as if in preparation for life with a naturalist. But though she was willing to live less comfortably, neither she nor Alex were ready to live penniless. He needed a salary.
Here his good friend and classmate Theodore Lyman stepped in. Like many of the friends Alex had made through family and school, Theo Lyman was rich, and as a fellow zoologist and graduate of the Scientific School, he saw natural history as a vital enterprise. He also felt (as Henry Adams would echo years later) that Alex was the best of the class both at Harvard and at the Scientific School. It bothered him that a lack of funds should keep his gifted friend from pursuing science. Lyman knew of Louis’s chronic, maddening overextension and his erratic ways, and he felt sorry for how Alex suffered them. So he proposed a solution: Louis Agassiz had finally talked Harvard, along with the Massachusetts legislature and several private donors (including the Lyman family), into financing the establishment of a permanent museum for the Scientific School’s growing collections. Construction on the new Museum of Comparative Zoology had in fact begun while Alex was away. This new museum would need curators to organize its collections, and Lyman had already volunteered to serve as a curator of mollusks. Facing an arduous task (for Louis had acquired many, many mollusks), Theo convinced Alex to let him fund another curatorial position so that Alex could work alongside him. Lyman put up $1500 a year (the sum Harvard had offered Louis just 10 years before) to fund the position. This was not a plush salary, and would in fact require that Alex (and Russell, after they married) live with Louis and Liz Cary for a while to make ends meet. But it was enough to make a start.
Louis Agassiz, Creationist Magpie
*This series of excerpts is an experimental act of re-publication; over the next several week I will run a dozen or so of these, partially serializing the book. Each post will stand on its own as an intriguing story within a larger context: the struggle of some of history’s smartest and most determined people, including Charles Darwin, to figure out how to do science — to look at the world accurately, generate ideas about how it works, and test those ideas in a way that gives you reliable answers. This was usually (certainly not always, as we’ll see) a polite debate. Yet it was also, always, a high-stakes war about what science is, and that war continues today. In this case it revolved around two of the 19th century’s hottest scientific questions: the origin of species, and the origin of coral reefs.
Read what Oliver Sacks and others have to say about Reef Madness.
Buy Reef Madness at your favorite US independent bookstore or at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes and Noble, or Google eBook Store.