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Short Takes

‘Louis Agassiz,’ ‘Wise Men’ and ‘Swoon’

LOUIS AGASSIZ:

Creator of American Science

By Christoph Irmscher

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 434 pp., illustrated, $35

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Good news, guys: You do not need tons of money or a perfect physique to land a lady. In fact, some of history’s most notorious ladies’ men were odd-looking, professionally unsuccessful, or both. Yet all boasted intangible gifts that attracted and held female attention — charisma, intensity, creativity, intelligence, sensuality, and vulnerability among them. Sexual prowess is always appreciated, but what women really prize, this book argues, is a man who genuinely likes and respects women.

Prioleau, whose previous book examined what makes a great seductress, makes her case with lots of examples — a kind of Who’s Who of red-hot lovers — and peppers her argument with references to scientific studies and romance novels. The pop science seems sketchy, as pop science will: Romance “requires the complex coordination of three different brain systems,” leaving readers wondering what a brain system is, or which three are involved. The biology is easier to parse when the author refers to one famous Don Juan as a “cocksman.” This is fluff, but it’s fun, too — and who knows? A man looking to unleash his inner Casanova could find some good tips.

WISE MEN

By Stuart Nadler

Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown, 335 pp., $25.99

Louis Agassiz was our first celebrity scientist — upon his death in 1873, Harvard College canceled classes, Boston newspapers put out black-bordered special editions, and his autopsy was reported as a topic of national interest. Today Agassiz is remembered, if at all, as a wrongheaded anti-Darwinist and scientific racist (upon the latter grounds, the Cambridge elementary school formerly named for him was renamed in 2002). In re-examining the life of Agassiz, Christoph Irmscher affirms these impressions, while illuminating Agassiz’s role in evangelizing for science as a popular, even democratic, pursuit. Contradictory at his core, “Agassiz will not sit still for his portrait,” Irmscher says; still, this biography captures not only a man but also his time and place. It’s a delight to read.

One of the book’s many pleasures is its picture of 19th century Cambridge and Harvard, home to not only Agassiz but also his friend Longfellow (whom Irmscher affectionately describes as “the easily impressed poet”), student William James, and scores of fellow scientists. Agassiz had arrived at this scene after an early life and career in Switzerland (his first scientific love was glaciers, unsurprisingly); in part because of his marriage to the former Elizabeth Cabot Cary, a child of Beacon Hill, he found himself welcomed into a Boston society marked by “proud parochialism, an unrepentant narrow-mindedness that rejected outside influences and ensured family cohesion.” Elizabeth Agassiz is one of the book’s most fascinating characters — after running a school for well-born girls (including Emerson’s two daughters), she became founding president of Radcliffe College in 1894. Both Louis and Elizabeth were brilliant and charming, and both expressed the noxious racial attitudes common to their time and place. One of Irmscher’s chief arguments here is that seeing Agassiz as uniquely racist only obscures “how widespread and deeply rooted opinions like Agassiz’s were,” even among abolitionists.

SWOON:

Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them

By Betsy Prioleau

Norton, 339 pp., $26.95)

Fathers and sons and love and money. These are the elements — combustible, complicated — that make up Stuart Nadler’s first novel, “Wise Men.” The book’s spiritual home is a house on Cape Cod, “a sanded dot on the map between Wellfleet and Truro,” which Arthur Wise buys with some of the riches he’s received as a star lawyer. Sudden wealth brings out the meanness in Arthur, just as it sucks his wife into vacuous spending; for their son, Hilly, the money’s an embarrassment, a source of guilt and isolation. As the summer of 1952 unspools, Hilly grows close to the family’s black handyman and his fiercely beautiful niece, Savannah. Amid the booze and racism and secrets festering in the Wise homestead, it all ends as badly as you might expect.

The book jumps ahead 20 years, then 60, always anchored to the forbidden love story at its core, which becomes genuinely moving. Yet Nadler seems to lose the grip on his story at times, introducing details that strain credulity. Does any lawyer attract the kind of press that Arthur Wise does in this book, where he is apparently a household name and still covered avidly by People magazine two decades after his career-making lawsuit? These false notes are a distraction, blemishing an otherwise charming read.

Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.
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