Whether as sublime landscape, malignant wilderness, or a site for environmental conflicts and eco-tourism, tropical nature is to a great extent an American and European imaginative construct, conveyed in literature, travel writing, drawings, paintings, photographs, and diagrams. These images are central to Nancy Leys Stepan's view that a critical examination of the "tropicalization of nature" can remedy some of the most persistent misrepresentations of the region and its peoples.Picturing Tropical Nature reflects on the work of several nineteenth- and twentieth-century scientists and artists, including Alexander von Humboldt, Alfred Russel Wallace, Louis Agassiz, Sir Patrick Manson, and Margaret Mee. Their careers illuminate several aspects of tropicalization: science and art in the making of tropical pictures; the commercial and cultural boom in things tropical in the modern period; photographic attempts to represent tropical hybrid races; anti-tropicalism and its role in an emerging environmentalist sensibility; and visual depictions of disease in the new tropical medicine. Essential to Stepan's analysis are the responses to European projections of artists, scientists, and intellectuals living in tropical regions. She examines the long-standing Brazilian fantasy of the tropics as a racial democracy, and offers an evaluation of the impact of tropical plants and European conceptions of the jungle on the anti-mimetic, modernist aesthetics of the brilliant landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx. In a fascinating inquiry into the aesthetic and political, Stepan demonstrates the conflicts over meaning that have shaped the emergence of the tropics, and in doing so questions the nature of representation itself.
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Nancy Leys Stepan is Professor Emeritus of History at Columbia University. She is the author of Eradication, "The Hour of Eugenics": Race, Gender, and Nation in Latin America and Picturing Tropical Nature, all from Cornell.Review:
"A fascinating examination of how the tropics have come to be represented since the eighteenth century, drawing mostly on a marvelous array of materials from Brazil. . . . Some of the images she brings to light are truly gruesome, but she uses them well to demonstrate how the tropics became 'a place of peculiarity'―and how indelible many of these perceptions remain."―Foreign Affairs, Vol. 80, No. 6, September/October 2001
"In Picturing Tropical Nature, Nancy Leys Stepan offers a beautiful and fascinating portrait of a subject many people have rarely taken the time to consider."―Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 78, No. 1
"In this lucid and well-researched book, Nancy Leys Stepan, an expert on both Latin America and the history of race . . . analyzes the range of visual practices through which South American nature was represented in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Organizing her study around depictions of tropical nature, diseases, and races, Stepan convincingly argues that the entire Victorian understanding of the tropical was profoundly shaped by sophisticated visual strategies and genres, and that South America, more than any other region, functioned as the site of tropical nature par excellence."―Robert D. Aguirre, Wayne State University, Victorian Studies, 45:4, Summer 2003
Nancy Leys Stepan, whose books on race and eugenics have been rightly acclaimed, has now moved into the field of analysis of illustrations to add to this growing literature on the tropics. . . . Stepan marshals some intriguing material, and it is all handled with verve and style. The sections on medicine and medical photography are particularly acute."―John M. MacKenzie, University of Aberdeen, American Historical Review, February 2003
"Important historical scholarship offers insights by examining underdeveloped subjects, periods, or areas; by demonstrating new methodological approaches; or by drawing connections between seemingly disparate fields and disciplines. Picturing Tropical Nature, by Nancy Leys Stepan, succeeds on each of these levels. With images of the South American tropics as her focal point, Stepan demonstrates the significance of this neglected region and several largely ignored scientists, while locating the common ground between environmental history, history of science, and history of medicine. . . . In short, Picturing Tropical Nature breaks new ground in revealing the significance of images in the analysis of scientific, medical, and cultural beliefs regarding tropical spaces, peoples, and diseases. One can only hope that others will follow Stepan's lead and begin to explore the fertile territory of imagery in the tropics."―Frederick R. Davis, Journal of the History of Biology, 35, 2002
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