“William Henry Holmes and the Rediscovery of the American West” by Kevin J. Fernlund (U of New Mexico Press, ISBN 0-8263-2127-5) takes advantage of the not entirely serendipituous coincidence between the career of Holmes and the development and professionalization of scientific disciplines based on exploration, especially of the American West. The idea is that once Lewis & Clark showed that there was a lot of big space out there, then a swarm of interested parties went to see what occupied the space, deriving regions and analyzing geology, ancient civilizations, existing peoples, and material culture such as pots and weapons. On the dark side, which serendipity by definition is not supposed to have, most of the parties are self-interested and assume with confidence that they are the measure of all things that they meet.
Holmes began as a scientific artist, rendering landscapes, which one might not think was a matter easily distorted until Fernlund gently persuades us that to meet the Grand Canyon assuming it is a narrow gorge will cause the artist to find a place to draw it as a narrow gorge, while someone more open to the immensity (Holmes) might rise with talent to the challenge of portraying it in that way.
To draw landscape is to analyze the forms, which soon leads to theories of how the forms -- well -- "formed": volcanic upwellings, sedimentary deposits interspersed with ancient forests, compression ridges jumbling the sediments, and so on. Pretty soon Holmes is proposing and defending these theories.
Having been to and fro in the land so much, Holmes easily sees that the indigenous peoples are very much responsive to the places where they live and he becomes embroiled in anthropology. He is so determined to “make points” about flintknapping that he permanently disables one arm while pounding on a boulder. This doesn’t keep him from making major contributions through investigating old mines and quarries of the peoples of the east coast.
Always the thread of art continues as he draws so carefully and clearly, sometimes recording scenes in watercolor, but rarely in oil. Eventually he becomes a national curator of art.
After the first beginnings and a cursed academic adventure in Chicago, his scientific career is entirely in Washington, D.C. where he finds his home in institutions such as the Smithsonian rather than in universities. Always an orderly man, as time goes on he becomes ever more impeccable, “professional,” punctilious, and intolerant of contradiction. If angered enough, he leaves off his three-piece suit disguise and attacks with an old-fashioned two-handed man-splitter, taking on people like Boas or Kroeber who are today minor saints in many quarters which has probably not helped his popularity.
This is a quietly thorough and extensively documented book, but witty throughout. It can’t be read carelessly and is most meaningful where the reader already has a little background. The saddest chapter is the last, in which Holmes realizes something that we all should remember: the great revelation of the Maya remains, huge stone pyramids and temples completely overgrown with jungle, almost immediately began to erode and fade when the foliage was cut away. One wonders whether in “claiming the frontier” with all our plowing and sifting, we haven’t exposed the subtlety and grandeur of the place -- maybe even the time -- to destruction.
Once, the American West was a place where any intelligent, energetic person could go to make a name for him or herself, one way or another, without having to beg for funding or kowtow to a committee. No more. We’re still working on some of the same issues that Holmes addressed, like when the first peoples come to this continent, but most of these questions are now addressed with much technical data and specialized methods. Nevertheless it is still true that the vision of how to look with understanding at all this accumulated stuff requires hands-on contact and an ability to think out of the box. For Holmes the box gradually formed around him, looking quite a lot like a bureaucratic office.
Nevertheless, Holmes worked hard and well, took risks and survived, and was part of the evolution of the sciences in the Americas from the late 19th century to the early 20th. Beyond that, without romanticizing he created artwork that still has great beauty as well as insight into the nature of the West and its deep past. He was a creature of his times who was eventually captured by a place: Washington, D.C. It’s a cautionary tale.