Thursday, October 30, 2014

Stranger Than Fiction: James Smithson's Legacy

The Stranger and The Statesmen by Nina Burleigh has a subtitle "James Smithson, John Quincy Adams, and the making of America's Greatest Museum, The Smithsonian." So when I saw it at the book sale at the West Branch library I had to pick it up.

"Not another John Quincy Adams book" groaned my husband.

There is precious little John Quincy Adams in the book. JQA saw the Smithson bequest as an opportunity to fulfill one of his presidential goals: to build an observatory. Or at least a center for scientific research and public education, something badly needed in America at the time. It was an uphill battle. No one really cared. The money was spent in buying bad bonds and was nearly lost. The intellectual Adams understood the need. Being the champion of lost, but "right", causes was his forte. He took on the role of defender of Smithson's intention.

There is not a whole lot about James Smithson (born James Macie) because little is known about him. All of his papers were destroyed in a fire at the Smithsonian before they were cataloged and studied. The man was an enigma in his lifetime. He was the illegitimate son of the man who became Duke of Northumberland and a wealthy widow named Macie. James was small, a loner, in poor health, intelligent, and intensely focused on his narrow interest in the chemistry of rocks. No records of relations with women exist. He loved gambling. He spent most of his life on the continent.

No one has ever understood his decision to give his inheritance to a country with which he had no connections. Young America was no haven of the arts and science. The people were pragmatic and more interested in practical and applied science.

The books offers a detailed view of Smithson's times. There are plenty of strange characters and lots of amazing insights into society of his time. I cringed and guffawed, truly glad I did not live in such a barbaric time when children were thrust into cold baths to "harden" them, women went nine weeks between hair arranging, tuberculosis left men medical eunuchs, and the White House had an outdoor privy.

Burleigh's writing is lively and she keeps things interesting. But the book is limited in scope, and incomplete in its history of the museum. We learn more about Smithson's society than about his legacy.

For a CSPAN interview with the author see http://www.c-span.org/video/?178941-1/book-discussion-stranger-statesman
For an excerpt that appeared in Smithsonian Magazine see http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-stranger-and-the-statesman-148893159/?no-ist

The Stranger and The Statesman
Nina Burleigh
William Morrow 2003
ISBN 0060002417