Butterfly People: An American Encounter with the Beauty of the World (Vintage) isn’t really about butterflies. Well, it is. But, also, it is not. More to the point, though, it sears deeply into the lives of middle class America in the 19th century when a newly industrial population began having the leisure to explore the natural world in ways that hadn’t been possible ever before.
The capture and collection of these “flying flowers” became a national pastime, heralding a time of change in America in every imaginable way. But first — and at the heart — the creatures who moved so many to such passion. Author William Leach, a one-time collector himself — understands better than most and draws us a picture:
In the nineteenth century, many Americans … encountered the butterflies, among the most evolved in terms of beauty, by some accounts, of all creatures. By beauty here is meant not merely the wings, however beautiful they may be, but the metamorphosis (from the Greek for “changing form”) and life history of the insect from the egg and caterpillar to the pupa and adult, as well as the butterfly in relation to a world full of other life.
Columbia University history professor Leach has proven himself to be an able storyteller before. His Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (1993) was a National Book Award finalist.
I loved Butterfly People for Leach’s deft ability to bring a whole time and culture to vivid life. As with the best of history, Butterfly people not only brought a whole period to fascinating life, it made me examine aspects of myself and my attitudes to the natural world though a lens that had been altered, perhaps forever. ◊
Aaron Blanton is a contributing editor to January Magazine. He’s currently working on a book based on his experiences as an American living abroad.