Tuesday, February 03, 2015

`Last of the Real Americans'

In “For Basil Bunting” (Thasos and Ohio: Poems and Translations 1950-1980, 1986), Guy Davenport calls the man whose surname sounds like an adverb “Pumpelly of the golden beard / last of the real Americans.” It was from Davenport I first learned of Raphael Pumpelly (1837-1923), though his name also shows up in the clutter of Pound’s Cantos. In Davenport’s finest poem, “The Resurrection in Cookham Churchyard,” he writes: “Tall Pumpelly the traveler woke, / Through mullein and mole burrow broke.” Pumpelly also makes cameo appearances in The Geography of the Imagination (1981), as in “The Anthropology of Table Manners”: 

“Raphael Pumpelly tells in his memoirs of the West in the good old days about a two-gunned bearded type who rolled into a Colorado hotel with a viand wrapped in a bandana. This he requested the cook to prepare, and seated at a table, napkined, wielding knife and fork with manners passably Eastern, consulting the salt and pepper shakers with a nicety, gave a fair demonstration of a gentleman eating. And, with a gleam in his eye and a great burp, he sang out at the end, `Thar, by God, I swore I’d eat that man’s liver and I’ve done it!’” 

You can find Pumpelly’s anecdote of cannibalism in Chapter XIV, “In Search of Adventure,” in the two-volume My Reminiscences (1918). By education, Pumpelly was a geologist and by temperament an explorer in the nineteenth-century swashbuckling sense. Belatedly following Davenport’s clues, I’ve read a biography by Peggy Champlin, Raphael Pumpelly: Gentleman Geologist of the Gilded Age (University of Alabama Press, 1994). Her Pumpelly is chronically and restlessly industrious. According to Champlin, Pumpelly rejected the “growing professionalization of geology” that had reduced its academic study to “a dry, routine science that bored teachers and students alike.” Champlin titles her final chapter “The End of Geology’s Heroic Age” and likens Pumpelly to his contemporaries John Wesley Powell, Clarence King and Robert Peary. 

Born in Owego, N.Y., he graduated from the Technische Universität Bergakademie Freiberg in Germany. At age nineteen, he lived among the shepherds in the mountains of Corsica. After mining in Arizona, he worked as a surveyor in Japan, China, Mongolia and Siberia, and later in Michigan and Missouri. He taught mining science at Harvard. He explored the Dakota, Montana and Washington territories. In his sixties, he visited Turkestan for the Carnegie Institution, employing what Champlin calls “the  methods of geology, physical geography, climatology, archaeology, and anthropology in an interdisciplinary study of the effect of the environment on the development of a primitive culture.” And he wrote about his travels in scholarly treatises and popular exploration narratives. It’s easy to see why Davenport would admire him, share his disenchantment with academia and judge Pumpelly the “last of the real Americans.” Yet again, Davenport proves himself the truest of teachers. Without his example, Pumpelly would have remained for me a cipher with a funny name. In his essay on Louis Agassiz, collected in The Geography of the Imagination (1981), he writes: 

“The obscurest subject in the curricula of American colleges is the intellectual history of the United States. Like American history itself, intellectual achievement has been stylized into an episodic myth in which the mind has no real prominence. Patrick Henry has become a single sentence; John Randolph has disappeared. The American scholar [Raphael Pumpelly] who found in his eightieth year the vestige of mankind’s first cultivation of cereals is as unknown to American history as the tactician who drove Cornwallis into Washington’s hands.” 

In the same essay, Davenport places Pumpelly among the scholars “whose neglect is disturbing to contemplate.”


Dick Cornflour said...

A metamorphic mineral is named after Pumpelly. All geology students know it, though probably nothing of him. The mineral's type-specimen is from a mine near my house.

drizzz said...

Thank you for bringing Pumpelly to my attention, I'm looking forward to reading "My Reminiscences". According to Wikipedia he died in Rhode Island, birthplace of another literary geologist, Clarence King. If you haven't read "Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada" I highly recommend it.