Cover image for Percival Lowell : the culture and science of a Boston Brahmin
Percival Lowell : the culture and science of a Boston Brahmin
Strauss, David, 1937-
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Publication Information:
Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 2001.
Physical Description:
xi, 333 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
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QB36.L849 S77 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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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.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

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. To develop the theme of Lowell as a creature of his culture, Strauss rejects chronological presentation in favor of a three-pronged approach to the man--a strategy that may test the patience of Mars-interested readers. First, Strauss examines Lowell's dislike of his stiff-necked surroundings, which he expressed by rejecting marriage within the Boston Brahmin caste and by his expatriate residence in Tokyo. Next, he discourses on Lowell's expatiations on East Asian culture, evolution, and, of course, Mars. Last, Strauss discusses Lowell's financing and running of his observatory in Arizona and his battle to keep Harvard's paws off of it. Despite its unconventional organization, the biography opens a portal into Lowell's mind that should sate curiosity about its subject. --Gilbert Taylor

Choice Review

Strauss (history, Kalmazoo College) offers an account, but not a conventional biography, of Percival Lowell. Rather, he reflects his subject against the fin de siecle Boston Brahmin background of which Lowell was part. We see Lowell in his wealthy Boston milieu and follow his interest and travels in Japan and the Far East. Later, his many writings on a variety of themes from scientific to poetic reveal the polymath he became. Dates are minimized; indeed, his dates of birth and death are nowhere stated. His greatest fame came from his allegation that the canals of Mars were evidence of an intelligent race there, a claim discredited in time. Readers new to astronomy may find a conventional biography more suitable; nowhere, e.g., is a full explanation given for Mars being observable only on rare occasions. However, Lowell's collaborations and feuds are well documented, as is his continual thirst for adventure. Lowell's opposition to astronomy blending into physics united his detractors; only lately has his view come full circle, as sciences other than physics must be called on to explain planetary features discovered by space probes. A fascinating glimpse of the Boston society and culture of his era and of the formative years in which 20th-century astronomy was shaped. Undergraduates. A. R. Upgren Wesleyan University

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 Con