Percival Lowell: The Culture and Science of a Boston Brahmin

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This engaging and wide-ranging biography casts new light on the life and careers of Percival Lowell. Scion of a wealthy Boston family, elder brother of Harvard President Lawrence and poet Amy, Percival Lowell is best remembered as the astronomer who claimed that intelligent beings had built a network of canals on Mars. But the Lowell who emerges in David Strauss's finely textured portrait was a polymath: not just a self-taught astronomer, but a shrewd investor, skilled photographer, inspired public speaker, and adventure-travel writer whose popular books contributed to an awakening American interest in Japan.

Strauss shows that Lowell consistently followed the same intellectual agenda. One of the principal American disciples of Herbert Spencer, Lowell, in his investigations of Japanese culture, set out to confirm Spencer's notion that Westerners were the highest expression of the evolutionary process. In his brilliant defense of the canals on Mars, Lowell drew on Spencer's claim that planets would develop life-supporting atmospheres over time.

Strauss's charming, somewhat bittersweet tale is the story of a rebellious Boston Brahmin whose outsider mentality, deep commitment to personal freedom, and competence in two cultures all contributed to the very special character of his careers, first as a cultural analyst and then more memorably as an astronomer.

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Editorial Reviews

Owen Gingerich
David Strauss's biography gives us the entire Percival Lowell. We learn of his mistresses, his Boston clubs, his visits to the exotic, romantic Orient and his attempt to make his mark as an adventure-travel author, and finally of his astronomy and the resultant feuds with the professional astronomical establishment. In Strauss's hands, Percival Lowell is a compelling figure, whose story provides a rich insight into the nature of Boston society and the Boston Brahmins at a time when New England culture was becoming overshadowed by the New York aristocracy. I'm convinced that this is an important book.
Booklist - Gilbert Taylor
In the history of planetary astronomy, Lowell will be always remembered for the cranky conviction that Mars had canals and, hence, intelligent life. Rather than view Lowell through the prism of his projects, Strauss portrays him as a sort of freelance repudiator, though still a psychological captive, of late-nineteenth-century Boston's wealthy circles...The biography opens a portal into Lowell's mind.
New Scientist - David Hughes
A good biography keeps two elements in delicate balance: what they did and why they did it. David Strauss...has got it exactly right in Percival Lowell...Strauss's gripping and erudite biography is a marvellous portrait of this American aristocrat and maverick of science, and his conflicts and achievements. They really don't make astronomers like that anymore.
American Scientist - Marc Rothenberg
In this biography David Strauss depicts a highly complex figure...Strauss's analysis of the internal and external factors at play in Lowell's astronomical career is illuminating. By approaching Lowell as a figure in American cultural history, rather than just a participant in the history of science, Strauss has enriched our understanding of both fields.
Kirkus Reviews
This well-tempered biography of the noted astronomer places Percival Lowell's scientific and cultural pursuits in the context of his rebellion against the parochialism and increasing irrelevancy of the Boston Brahmin worldview. Strung like a harp, aloof, and confident to the point of arrogance, Lowell (1855—1916) was willfully out of step even as he sought respect and recognition. Scion of the Lawrence and Lowell cotton fortunes, he tried to break out of the Boston Brahmin class, whose importance was being eclipsed by the newly rich oil and steel industrialists of New York and Philadelphia. Strauss (History/Kalamazoo Coll.) suggests that Lowell adopted a cosmopolitanism he believed would secure his cultural relevance and allow him access to the national stage. Unfortunately, everywhere he tread he imposed the philosophy of his idol Herbert Spencer, whose Social Darwinism was itself as much in eclipse as the Brahmins' prestige. As a result, Lowell harvested little but ridicule from his crude hierarchy of races, his assertion that there was life on Mars, and his quest for Planet X. In an era of increasing specialization, Lowell was a gentleman amateur polymath. He never garnered serious professional attention, and the astronomical observatory he personally financed in Arizona would never be on a par with the great research institutions. Thus, as Strauss wryly points out, he took on the same provincialism he disdained in the Brahmins. In his final years, far from being a loose cannon in the world of privilege, he became an archconservative,"promoting a Brahmin ideology of elitism and strident nationalism" from his bully pulpit at the Flagstaff Observatory. It would be easy tosimplyderide this blustering figure, but Strauss takes a harder, more fulfilling approach, appreciating Lowell's ability to stir major scientific and cultural controversy while clarifying just why he was so often wrong. A sharp and ultimately crushing portrait, despite the author's obvious affection for Lowell as a human being. (6 halftone photos)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674002913
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 2/15/2001
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 422,395
  • Product dimensions: 6.56 (w) x 9.59 (h) x 1.29 (d)

Meet the Author

David Strauss is Professor of History, Kalamazoo College.
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Table of Contents


Introduction: Percival Lowell and the Boston Brahmins

I. The Private Lowell

1. The Making of an Improper Bostonian

2. Lowell and His Peers

3. Preparation of a Polymath

4. New Careers

II. Lowell as Spencerian

5. Cosmic Philosopher

6. Image-Maker

7. Psychical Researcher

8. Cosmogonist

III. Lowell as Astronomer

9. From"Astronomical Picnic" to Observatory

10. Lowell's Campaign for the Canals of Mars

11. The Establishment Responds

12. The Search for Recognition

Conclusion: A Proper Bostonian on Mars Hill



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