MBL Falmouth Forum Presentation: Revisting Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science


March 7, 2014, at 7:30 PM in Lillie Auditorium


Christoph Irmscher, Provost Professor of English, Indiana University

Listen to Irmscher’s interview on WCAI’s “Living Lab” program:


“Distinctly undelightful” is how Irmscher describes Agassiz in this evocative new biography. He confesses that he struggled to reconcile the prejudices, the authoritarianism and the brilliance of his subject, asking, “Can we love Agassiz?” It is a strange and complex question. “Do we need to love Agassiz?” we might reply. But the question, though odd, is a particular one in science biography. Agassiz and his peers stand in the shadow of Darwin’s extraordinarily liberal, kindly, generous good nature. Alongside Darwin, some of these men look selfish, mean-minded and bigoted. They are difficult to like.

But irreconcilable contradictions make for interesting biographies. And Irmscher doesn’t allow the “undelightful” aspects to disappear in the service of myth making. Instead, he draws out the complexities of his subject and helps us to see them as part of the fabric of 19th-century science. There’s no airbrushing in “Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science.”–  Rebecca Stott, from The New York Times Sunday Book Review, 1/31/13


Christoph Irmscher recently published a biography of the nineteenth-century anti-Darwinist Louis Agassiz,  Louis Agassiz: Creator of American Science. The book has been widely reviewed and was Editor’s Choice of The New York Times Book Review in February 2013.

Christoph Irmsher teaches and writes about nineteenth- and twentieth-century American and Canadian literature and culture. One long-standing interest is ecocriticism, specifically early American nature writing—hence the book on The Poetics of Natural History, an edition of the writings of John James Audubon, and the ecocritical anthology, A Keener Perception, which Irmscher co-edited with the art historian Alan Braddock. Another abiding passion is nineteenth-century American poetry. In Longfellow Redux, he tried to understand a period in which poetry was meant to be read by a broad, transnational audience.

In recent years, Irmscher has worked extensively with public institutions, the National Park Service, the Field Museum in Chicago, the Maine Historical Society, and Harvard University’s Houghton Library, where he guest-curated the 2007 Bicentennial Longfellow exhibit (the companion book for the exhibit is Public Poet, Private Man, published by the University of Massachusetts Press). Irmscher was a consultant for, and appeared in, two award-winning documentaries on John James Audubon, the “American Masters” film directed by Lawrence Hott, and A Summer of Birds, directed by Christina Melton.

Irmscher is now at work on a new biography of writer, poet, and activist Max Eastman, tentatively titled When Love Was Red. His  personal website can be found at www.christophirmscher.com.