Books: John Muir was using ‘factiness’ long before Stephen Colbert

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Stephen Colbert still deserves credit for “truthiness.” But it turns out its relative “factiness,” which Colbert purported to coin early last year, was already in use in the 1870s. This is from a letter written by naturalist and Sierra Club founder John Muir after his first meeting with the great botanist Asa Gray in 1872:

He is a most cordial lover of purity and truth, but the angular factiness of his pursuits has kept him at too cold a distance from the spirit world.

Clearly Muir had a different meaning in mind than Colbert’s “twisting the facts to distract yourself from the truth” (got that from the Urban Dictionary). But still: John Muir got to factiness first.

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The quote is from A. Hunter Dupree’s wonderful 1959 biography of Gray, a Harvard professor who was Charles Darwin’s friend and most important scientific ally in the New World. It’s one of the first books I’ve finished since emerging from the state of perpetual frazzlement that accompanied the writing of my book (the latest on that is that we’re talking about a May-June 2009 publication date, and a different title).

I ran across the Gray biography at a nursery-school spring fair a few blocks from home. The most compelling part of it for me was not so much Dupree’s account of the collaboration between Darwin and Gray as the chapters describing Gray’s rise as a scientist in a country that did not yet have research universities or any real scientific establishment. When Gray was young it was all still very ad hoc. He was trained as a medical doctor, and spent his early career scrimping and lining up job after scientific odd job to enable him to work more or less full time as a botanist. He was hired as the very first professor at the University of Michigan, and was sent to Europe to buy the university’s initial collection of library books. On that voyage he also introduced himself to most of Europe’s important botanists. When he got back, though, a financial crisis had put plans for the university on hold, so he had to look elsewhere for employment. A few years later he ended up at Harvard, where he had to squeeze in time for research between running the college’s botanical garden and teaching bored Harvard undergrads.

Anyway, big fun. How can you not love a book that contains such lines as “The 1870s and 1880s were an Augustan age for taxonomic botany”?

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