Trilobites and the Culture of Wonder in Antebellum America
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This thesis examines a “culture of wonder” in the United States from 1800-1850 through the exploration of invertebrate fossils, especially the trilobite, in historical sources. A short discussion of Charles Willson Peale’s Repository allows the reader to understand the culture of wonder at the beginning of the time period under review. Wonder, this paper argues, is a trope that can help uncover larger trends in American culture, including the democratization of knowledge and rejection of expertise, the establishment of American identity and success, and an emerging American fascination with collecting. Each of these trends are examined individually, using trilobites and other invertebrates as an illustrative tool in each case. These objects are a perfect case study because they were a potent manifestation of the idea of wonder: evidence of past marine life that could be found in the soil of American farms, they were a representation of divine creation and mystery. At the same time, they were collectible and accessible to everyday Americans. To illustrate the change in the culture of wonder over the time period in question, the analysis closes with a discussion of P.T. Barnum’s American Museum as a comparison to Peale’s establishment. Ultimately, the culture of wonder represents the impulse by antebellum Americans to find something special in and about America and the American way of life.
Table of Contents
Introduction -- The democratization of wonder -- The wonder of America -- Collecting wonder
M.A. (Master of Arts)