The Bounds of Wonder in the Victorian Microscope
This book on Victorians’ fearful romance with the microscope scrutinizes a paradoxical figure, the microscope as beautiful but flawed mechanism; as one microscopist comments in 1878, “There never has been, nor will there ever be made, an instrument of precision that does not embody inherently some radical weakness, some dangerous fault.” I examine the skeptical sublime, when microscopists juxtapose a visionary, romantic language invoking wonder and a cautionary, realist language outlining humans’ limitations. This dual mode offers two perspectives on a single scene: an observer probing the infinitesimal through a gleaming brass tube. In domestic and imperial, professional and mass culture, the microscope and its infinite, disjunctive space helped construct a modern observer at once detached, anxious, and disciplined; enthusiastic, mass-mediated, and sensational. The book surveys 19th-century scientific, literary, religious, and popular texts.
Research for the book has been supported with assistance from FSU, the Wellcome Foundation, the Huntington Library Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. I will be completing it in 2017-18 with the assistance of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Here is a chapter list for the book:
Beauty and Difficulty.
1. Sublime visions: The wonders of the microscope.
2. Test-objects, “triples,” and the production of verisimilitude.
3. Exquisite, imperfect: Rewriting the eye as mechanism, from Paley to Darwin.
4. Microscopic writing and re-creating wonder.
Vastness and vertigo.
5. The vastness of the very small: Empire, mastery, and microscopic space.
6. Microscopic vertigo: The microscope narrative and the imagination.
7. Adulteration, revelation: Filth, sanitation, and “microscope fever.”
8. “A new species of pleasure” in the magic lantern: What Victorians really learned from the oxy-hydrogen microscope.