Sunday, November 7, 2010


I mentioned the other day that Beatrice Forbes-Robertson Hale was making me realize the connection between my research on Berssenbrugge and my research on Moore. I'm now realizing that comment probably made no sense to anybody but me, so here's a bit of an explanation.

My Berssenbrugge essay is about a book titled Nest (2003), which pushes hard on the idea of domestic spaces as nests and the analogy between human and animal dwellings. My essay recurs, quite naturally, to Gaston Bachelard's chapter on the nest in The Poetics of Space, which rather self-consciously conjures up sentimental images of cozy avian nuclear families (self-conscious because Bachelard has already admitted that anthropomorphizing birds is embarrassing and absurd).

My recent trawl through early twentieth-century books on girlhood, including Forbes-Robertson Hale, is making me realize how pervasive the image of the nest is in late discourses of domesticity circa 1900. Forbes-Robertson Hale's novel The Nest-Builder is a good example of that.

But it's not just that birds are used to describe the home; the home is also used to describe birds. What I hadn't realized earlier was the tightness of the connection. Ornithology circa 1900 (and this is where my Moore research comes in) was divided between an all-male profession located in universities and natural history museums and a thriving amateur bird-watching culture that was largely female. While there were many male amateur bird enthusiasts, the division between professional and popular ornithology was distinctly gendered in discourse as in membership.

It should not be supposed that the hobbyists were not serious, nor that their observations were inconsequential for the professional ornithologists. For one thing, the Audubon Society ladies were in many ways the public face of ornithology, since it was their writing and illustrations that dominated popular handbooks, texts for children, journalism, and the like, so the professional ornithologists had to reckon with them one way or another. One of the most amusing parts of researching my Marianne Moore chapter (and there were many amusing parts) was reading the spluttering reviews of popular bird books in The Auk, the organ of the American Ornithologists' Union, circa 1900. For another thing, the hobbyists were quite as serious as the professionals, and often observed specimens and behaviors in the wild before their professional counterparts did. Since the first observed specimen carried (and still carries) a good deal of importance in nomenclature, this meant that professional ornithologists, to their chagrin, sometimes had to cite the amateurs' findings in publications with hilarious titles--and by hilarious, I mean domestic.

Here are a few titles by the popular writer Olive Thorne Miller (pen name of Harriet Mann Miller): Little Brothers of the Air (1892); Four-Handed Folk (1896, on mammals rather than birds); The Bird Our Brother (1908); and of course, In Nesting Time (1888). Birds and other animals are consistently described in generally anthropomorphic and specifically familial terms. The book flap text for In Nesting Time is revealing:
These fifteen papers have such tempting titles as "Baby Birds," "A Tricksy Spirit," "A Stormy Wooing," "Friendship in Feathers," etc.; and give such wonderful revelations of bird ways and bird character as no one but a close observer would ever even imagine that our feathered friends could develop, or hardly even possess. That Mrs. Miller has given much attention to these subjects is well known; and all readers of her articles in current magazines must likewise be aware of her pleasant mode of arriving at the information which she gives so charmingly, with such sympathy, and a vivacity suited to the nature of her little companions. It has long been her wont to domesticate wild birds for a time, that she might study their dispositions and idiosyncrasies--if a bird may be said to have such; and the things that happened, the deeds that were done, the petty spites, jealousies, loves, manoeuvrings, exhibitions of craft and almost of forethought on the part of goldfinch, mocking-bird, bluebird, thrush, and others, as set forth in these pages, are as entertaining as a book of adventures. It is a most loving record, and we are assured that the sketches are "scrupulously true in every particular."
Birds here are not merely anthropomorphized; they are domesticated, made into home-dwelling creatures with "petty spites, jealousies, loves, manoeuvrings...." Moreover, this is a textual record, we are told, of literal processes of domestication, as Miller takes wild birds into her home for observation. The book flap text oscillates between enthusiasm for the domesticated quality of Miller's textual birds and Miller's "sympathy" with them, on the one hand, and skepticism that Miller's domestic language has anything to do with the reality of birds, on the other, so that the blurb ends on a strange deflection: a claim that the contents of the book are "true," distanced by quotation.

Okay, so it comes as a surprise to nobody that amateur ornithology circa 1900 anthropomorphizes animals. I mean, we still anthropomorphize animals all the time. And it's also totally unsurprising that descriptions of animals are used to naturalize human social structures; that, too, still happens all the time. What's striking is the specificity with which birds and nests are used to figure human domestic life in particular, and vice-versa, through a branch of the sciences that was distinctly feminized. Birds are also, by the way, the first specimens that museums used for "life groups," the lifelike dioramas of specimens posed in simulacra of their habitats ("homes"?) that are now the norm. (This is owing to the ease of stuffing them in a lifelike way in the later nineteenth century; I found out way too much about taxidermy researching Marianne Moore.)
Cuthbert Rookery diorama, American Museum of Natural History
The language of nests, when applied to humans, is always about regulating family and femininity, naturalizing a configuration of affective, social, and spatial bonds. But it can never not be about animals at the same time. What Marianne Moore in one way and Mei-mei Berssenbrugge in another way do is reinsert the animal as such into that discourse. For Moore, the animal introduces the alien into human life; for Berssenbrugge, that the animal is all too familiar--a pet, or even a "furry child," as Donna Haraway puts it--lays bare our embarrassing willingness to conscript animals for our emotional satisfaction. They place the animal at the scene of gender-making, but they also point toward the way that the animal, too, is made by (human) gender--that we do not know a nest that does not remind us of capital-H Home, that we are never not "dressing up our pets."

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