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American Curiosity

Cultures of Natural History in the Colonial British Atlantic World

Susan Scott Parrish

Cloth: 978-0-8078-3009-3 ($58.95)
Paper: 978-0-8078-5678-9 ($26.95)

Copyright 2006
University of North Carolina Press

A Prize-Winning Book

  • Jamestown Prize (2005)
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson Award, Phi Beta Kappa (2006)

Colonial America presented a new world of natural curiosities for settlers as well as the London-based scientific community. In American Curiosity, Susan Scott Parrish examines how various peoples in the British colonies understood and represented the natural world around them from the late sixteenth century through the eighteenth. Parrish shows how scientific knowledge about America, rather than flowing strictly from metropole to colony, emerged from a horizontal exchange of information across the Atlantic.

Delving into an understudied archive of letters, Parrish uncovers early descriptions of American natural phenomena as well as clues to how people in the colonies construed their own identities through the natural world. Although hierarchies of gender, class, institutional learning, place of birth or residence, and race persisted within the natural history community, the contributions of any participant were considered valuable as long as they supplied novel data or specimens from the American side of the Atlantic. Thus Anglo-American nonelites, women, Indians, and enslaved Africans all played crucial roles in gathering and relaying new information to Europe.

Recognizing a significant tradition of nature writing and representation in North America well before the Transcendentalists, American Curiosity also enlarges our notions of the scientific Enlightenment by looking beyond European centers to find a socially inclusive American base to a true transatlantic expansion of knowledge.

About the Author

Susan Scott Parrish is associate professor of English at the University of Michigan.


The sheer variety and complexity of the colonial cultures of science uncovered by Parrish indicate that the period, long ignored in ecocritical studies, repays scholarly attention by becoming, in the words of one later visitor to wonderland, 'curiouser and curiouser'.


[Advances] historical understanding of colonial natural history in ways that specialists have demanded but not pursued, and will force them to rethink the categories they employ.

--Journal of the Early Republic

Full of fascinating moments and of telling intersections.

--American Historical Review

A major contribution to many fields . . . should appeal to an interdisciplinary audience.

--New England Quarterly

Marvelous, meticulous, and original. . . . An outstanding work of historical recovery, beautifully executed, closely argued, and laden with telling quotations. . . . Richly suggestive, if not fundamental, for future studies.

--William and Mary Quarterly

A treasure trove of visual and written sources. . . . A fresh and valuable addition to the field. . . . Offer[s] an authoritative study which will appeal to scholars working in a wide range of disciplines.

--Journal of American Studies

[A] fascinating and important study of the natural world. . . . Parrish explores a topic not much discussed by early Americanists, and she does so convincingly and intelligently.

--Canadian Journal of History

Brilliant chapters. . . . Wide-ranging research. . . . Parrish describes in remarkable detail the work of a large number of curious North Americans. . . . [American Curiosity] is a significant contribution to prerevolutionary social and intellectual history.

--Bloomsbury Review

Fills an important niche for the academic.

--Northeastern Naturalist

An essential book for anyone with an interest in how natural knowledge was acquired, circulated, and understood within the eighteenth-century Atlantic world.

--Winterthur Portfolio