Wednesday, July 26, 2006

"WILLIAM HENRY HOLMES and the Rediscovery of the American West"

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.


Cowtown Pattie said...

Sounds like something I would love to read...thanks!

Reid Farmer said...

Holmes is a representative of what archaeologists now term the "Classificatory-Descriptive" phase of American archaeology. This was a period in the late 19th century when there was progress in describing artifacts and remains in an objective systematic manner for the first time. You are right, Holmes was on the wrong side of many issues, most notably siding with Ales Hrdlicka in believing that people first came to the New World after the Pleistocene. There is an old cartoon still seen in some Anthro departments that shows Hrdlicka standing at the Bering Straits with his hands up to stop the Siberians from migrating across. The bright side of that was that they demanded rigor in the data presented and real proof. When the real proof was found of Folsom points imbedded in Pleistocene bison ribs, it carried the day.

Holmes' insistence on organization and systmatic rigor was something the profession needed - actually STILL needs. His bureaucratic work at the Smithsonian and the BAE with Powell and Thomas gave archaeology one of its two homes in that period, along the the Peabody Museum at Harvard. That also was a valuable contribution.

It gave a base that the students that Boas was training at Columbia (like Kroeber) could expand on as the 20th century progressed.

Boas is now revered as the founder of modern anthropology in this country. I was fortunate enough to meet his daughter Franziska when I was working on a dig in Georgia in the mid-1970s. She was retired from a liberal arts college where she had taught dance. It was fascinating hearing her tell stories of her father and of her classmate at Barnard, Margaret Mead, whom she detested. She thought Mead was an ambitious liar who manipulated her father. Interesting perspective and not the first to make that charge.

BTW didn't know if you were aware that the science fiction writer, Ursula K. LeGuin, is Alfred Kroeber's daughter. More anthropological trivia

prairie mary said...


I very much appreciate this comment of yours. What you say is "in the book." Fernlund is a meticulous writer who is not above wit. I think he is a coming officer of the Western History Association.

The more I look at the 19th century "disciplines" -- which as you say are still "undisciplined" around the edges -- the more I see how arbitrary they can be. All knowledge today now begins to seem a connected and seamless flowing whole, which makes it even more important for a person to be sure of their vantage point, motives and goals.

I met Margaret Mead once -- she was old. I'm the same age and name as her daughter -- look a little like her. One cannot be that daring and passionate, willing to take risks, without making enemies.

As for Ursula LeGuin, she is a familiar face around my hometown, Portland, OR., and often could be spotted in the feminist bookstore near my apartment in the Nineties. Once I flew down from Vancouver, B.C., a couple of seats behind her and was VERY aware that we were flying over "Earthsea" with the real wizard in the plane with us. It's a flight that is a small plane, follows the coastline, and travels at dusk. I would not have been surprised to see her meld out the window and stand on the wing!

Prairie Mary

Reid Farmer said...

I spoke with Margaret Mead once, though can't really say that I met her. I was sitting in the audience for a symposium at the American Anthropological Association meetings in 1973. The session hadn't started yet and there were lots of people in the room standing in the aisles talking. Suddenly the room got quiet and the crowd parted like the Red Sea as Mead came stalking down the aisle using that big staff of hers. She came and sat next to me. We exchanged some banal pleasantries, but I was still an undergraduate and too intimidated to say much. She had a lot of charisma

prairie mary said...

Reid, I'd say that qualified as a "meeting!" I was in a long line of teachers at a conference in Minneapolis. It has always seemed significant to me that Margaret Mead started out as a minister's wife -- a suitably humble post for powerful people. But she never could "subdue herself" into at least the appearance of humility. All her husbands were significant contributors to science -- hardly wimpy! But she was one of the few women I can think of who had something like "short person's syndrome" -- most are male like Napoleon! That "thumbstick" was a consciously chosen intimidator that someone advised her to carry. They also warned her not to get too thin. A family member, I think -- male.

Prairie Mary