Essays

The Price of Suffering: William Pynchon  and The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption

The Price of Suffering: William Pynchon and The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption

William Pynchon, earliest colonial ancestor of the novelist Thomas Pynchon, was a key figure in the early settlement of New England. He also wrote a book which became, at the hands of the Puritans it riled against, one of the first to be banned and burned on American soil. Daniel Crown explores. more

Notes on the Fourth Dimension

Notes on the Fourth Dimension

Hyperspace, ghosts, and colourful cubes — Jon Crabb on the work of Charles Howard Hinton and the cultural history of higher dimensions. more

Richard Spruce and the Trials of Victorian Bryology

Richard Spruce and the Trials of Victorian Bryology

Obsessed with the smallest and seemingly least exciting of plants — mosses and liverworts — the 19th-century botanist Richard Spruce never achieved the fame of his more popularist contemporaries. Elaine Ayers explores the work of this unsung hero of Victorian plant science and how his complexities echoed the very subject of his study. more

Bad Air: Pollution, Sin, and Science Fiction in William Delisle Hay’s The Doom of the Great City (1880)

Bad Air: Pollution, Sin, and Science Fiction in William Delisle Hay’s The Doom of the Great City (1880)

Deadly fogs, moralistic diatribes, debunked medical theory — Brett Beasley explores a piece of Victorian science fiction considered to be the first modern tale of urban apocalypse. more

Dr Mitchill and the Mathematical Tetrodon

Dr Mitchill and the Mathematical Tetrodon

One of the early Republic's great polymaths, New Yorker Samuel L. Mitchill was a man with a finger in many a pie, including medicine, science, natural history, and politics. Dr Kevin Dann argues that Mitchill's peculiar brand of curiosity can best be seen in his study of fish and the attention he gives one seemingly unassuming specimen. more

Tribal Life in Old Lyme: Canada’s Colorblind Chronicler and his Connecticut Exile

Tribal Life in Old Lyme: Canada’s Colorblind Chronicler and his Connecticut Exile

Abigail Walthausen explores the life and work of Arthur Heming, the Canadian painter who — having been diagnosed with colourblindness as a child — worked for most of his life in a distinctive palette of black, yellow, and white. more

When the Birds and the Bees Were Not Enough: Aristotle’s Masterpiece

When the Birds and the Bees Were Not Enough: Aristotle’s Masterpiece

Mary Fissell on how a wildly popular sex manual — first published in 17th-century London and reprinted in hundreds of subsequent editions — both taught and titillated through the early modern period and beyond. more

Machiavelli, Comedian

Machiavelli, Comedian

Most familiar today as the godfather of Realpolitik and as the eponym for all things cunning and devious, the Renaissance thinker Niccolò Machiavelli also had a lighter side, writing as he did a number of comedies. Christopher S. Celenza looks at perhaps the best known of these plays, Mandragola, and explores what it can teach us about the man and his world. more

Cat Pianos, Sound-Houses, and Other Imaginary Musical Instruments

Cat Pianos, Sound-Houses, and Other Imaginary Musical Instruments

Deirdre Loughridge and Thomas Patteson, curators of the Museum of Imaginary Musical Instruments, explore the wonderful history of made-up musical contraptions, including a piano comprised of yelping cats and Francis Bacon's 17th-century vision of experimental sound manipulation. more

The Mystery of Lewis Carroll

The Mystery of Lewis Carroll

The author of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, which sees its 150th anniversary this year, remains to this day an enigmatic figure. Jenny Woolf explores the joys and struggles of this brilliant, secretive, and complex man, creator of one of the world's best-loved stories. more

A Bestiary of Sir Thomas Browne

A Bestiary of Sir Thomas Browne

Hugh Aldersey-Williams takes a tour through Thomas Browne's Pseudodoxia Epidemica, a work which sees one of the 17th-century's greatest writers stylishly debunk all manner of myths, in particular those relating to the world of animals. more

The Nightwalker and the Nocturnal Picaresque

The Nightwalker and the Nocturnal Picaresque

The introduction of street lighting to 17th-century London saw an explosion of nocturnal activity in the capital, most of it centring around the selling of sex. Matthew Beaumont explores how some writers, with the intention of condemning these nefarious goings-on, took to the city's streets after dark, and in the process gave birth to a peculiar new literary genre. more

The Empathetic Camera: Frank Norris and the Invention of Film Editing

The Empathetic Camera: Frank Norris and the Invention of Film Editing

At the heart of American author Frank Norris' gritty turn-of-the-century fiction lies an essential engagement with the everyday shock and violence of modernity. Henry Giardina explores how this focus, combined with his unique approach to storytelling, helped to pave the way for a truly filmic style. more

Scurvy and the Terra Incognita

Scurvy and the Terra Incognita

One remarkable symptom of scurvy, that constant bane of the Age of Discovery, was the acute and morbid heightening of the senses. Jonathan Lamb explores how this unusual effect of sailing into uncharted territory echoed a different kind of voyage, one undertaken by the Empiricists through their experiments in enhancing the senses artificially. more

Forgotten Failures of African Exploration

Forgotten Failures of African Exploration

Dane Kennedy reflects on two disastrous expeditions into Africa organised by the British in the early-19th century, and how their lofty ambitions crumbled before the implacable realities of the continent. more

Black on Black

Black on Black

Should we consider black a colour, the absence of colour, or a suspension of vision produced by a deprivation of light? Beginning with Robert Fludd's attempt to picture nothingness, Eugene Thacker reflects* on some of the ways in which blackness has been used and thought about through the history of art and philosophical thought. more

Ignorant Armies: Private Snafu Goes to War

Ignorant Armies: Private Snafu Goes to War

Between 1943 and 1945, with the help of Warner Bros.' finest, the U.S. Army produced a series of 27 propaganda cartoons depicting the calamitous adventures of Private Snafu. Mark David Kaufman explores their overarching theme of containment and how one film inadvertently let slip one of the war's greatest secrets. more

Sex and Science in Robert Thornton’s Temple of Flora

Sex and Science in Robert Thornton’s Temple of Flora

Bridal beds, blushing captives, and swollen trunks - Carl Linnaeus' taxonomy of plants heralded a whole new era in 18th-century Europe of plants being spoken of in sexualised terms. Martin Kemp explores* how this association between the floral and erotic reached its visual zenith in Robert Thornton's exquisitely illustrated Temple of Flora. more

The Eternal Guffaw: John Leech and The Comic History of Rome

The Eternal Guffaw: John Leech and The Comic History of Rome

At the beginning of the 1850s, two stalwarts from the heart of London-based satirical magazine Punch, Gilbert Abbott à Beckett and John Leech, cast their mocking eye a little further back in time and published The Comic History of Rome. Caroline Wazer explores how it is not in the text but rather in Leech's delightfully anachronistic illustrations that the book's true subversion lies, offering as they do a critique of Victorian society itself. more

Neanderthals in 3D: L’Homme de La Chapelle

Neanderthals in 3D: L’Homme de La Chapelle

More than just a favourite of Victorian home entertainment, the stereoscope and the 3D images it created were also used in the field of science. Lydia Pyne explores how the French palaeontologist Marcellin Boule utilised the device in his groundbreaking monograph analysing one of the early-20th-century's most significant archaeological discoveries - the Neanderthal skeleton of La Chapelle. more

When Chocolate was Medicine: Colmenero, Wadsworth, and Dufour

When Chocolate was Medicine: Colmenero, Wadsworth, and Dufour

Chocolate has not always been the common confectionary we experience today. When it first arrived from the Americas into Europe in the 17th century it was a rare and mysterious substance, thought more of as a drug than as a food. Christine Jones traces the history and literature of its reception. more

Julia Pastrana: A “Monster to the Whole World”

Julia Pastrana: A “Monster to the Whole World”

Julia Pastrana, a woman from Mexico born with hypertrichosis, became one of the most famous human curiosities of the 19th century, exhibited the world over as a "bearded lady" while both alive and dead. Bess Lovejoy explores her story and how it was only in 2013, 153 years after her passing, that she was finally laid to rest. more

Illustrations of Madness: James Tilly Matthews and the Air Loom

Illustrations of Madness: James Tilly Matthews and the Air Loom

Mike Jay recounts the tragic story of James Tilly Matthews, a former peace activist of the Napoleonic Wars who was confined to London's notorious Bedlam asylum in 1797 for believing that his mind was under the control of the “Air Loom” — a terrifying machine whose mesmeric rays and mysterious gases were brainwashing politicians and plunging Europe into revolution, terror, and war. more

Wild Heart Turning White: Georg Trakl and Cocaine

Wild Heart Turning White: Georg Trakl and Cocaine

To mark the 100th anniversary of the death by cocaine overdose of Austrian lyric poet Georg Trakl, Richard Millington explores the role the drug played in Trakl's life and works. more