Crichton’s ‘Dragon Teeth’ and the fossil frontier

According to his widow, the seeds of Michael Crichton’s posthumously published Dragon Teeth began to germinate in the 1970s.  That was long before the appearance of his most famous work about an island theme park with genetically engineered dinosaurs.  But Dragon Teeth is not so much a forerunner of Jurassic Park as a spiritual cousin to his other works of historical fiction, The Great Train Robbery and Pirate Latitudes.  Just as his techno-thrillers have enough scientific ballast to create a sense of verisimilitude that no other modern suspense novelist has surpassed, Dragon Teeth is grounded in the history of science and the late nineteenth-century West.  This is a story based on actual events, populated by figures who were once very real.

Image from michaelcrichton.com

Most prominent among these historical figures are rival naturalists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope, whose bitter professional and political feud dominated American paleontology in the late nineteenth century.  The relationship between Marsh and Cope was initially cordial, with the two men collecting specimens together and naming species for one another.  In the 1870s, however, their collegiality gave way to competition, and finally open conflict.  They bribed one another’s collectors, employed spies, sabotaged each other’s professional and political appointments, and smeared one another in the public press.  The “Bone Wars,” as historians of science term the feud, ended only with Cope’s death in 1897.  In their haste to beat one another to the punch, Cope and Marsh rushed their assistants’ discoveries into print, generating taxonomic confusion that present-day paleontologists are still trying to sort out.  But their competition did bring to light dozens of new species, including some of the dinosaurs that are dearest to the popular imagination: BrontosaurusApatosaurusStegosaurusAllosaurus, and Triceratops.

Crichton’s protagonist is William Johnson, privileged son of a Philadelphia family and a Yale freshman who signs on to a Marsh expedition in 1876.  Stranded in Wyoming, he falls in with a collecting party led by Cope and heads to the badlands in search of dinosaurs.  Johnson is Crichton’s creation, but Cope did lead a fossil hunt into the badlands in America’s centennial year.  Many of the incidents related in the novel did indeed occur on that expedition, as chronicled by the enterprising bone hunter (and devoted Cope disciple) Charles H. Sternberg in his 1909 autobiography.  Sternberg appears as a secondary character in Dragon Teeth; so do other individuals who signed on to dig for Cope.

Other, more conventionally well-known historical figures, localities, and episodes from the history of the trans-Mississippi West also figure in Dragon Teeth.  In fact, it would be accurate to call this book a “fact-based Western novel” in addition to a work of historical fiction.  The battlegrounds of the Bone Wars were the great fossil beds of the trans-Mississippi frontier, and the discovery and exploitation of these fields coincided in time with the “Old West” of cowboys, Indians, and buffalo.  In his effort to get Cope’s specimens back East, Johnson crosses paths with gunslingers, hostile tribesmen, raucous boomtown miners, swindlers, and bandits—all the conventional perils that popular memory associates with the American West.

The book employs American frontier mythology in another sense, too.  Johnson goes West not out of scientific curiosity, but to satisfy a wager with a classmate.  For Crichton, as for so many other writers who have made the frontier their subject, the West is thus a place of seasoning, a dangerous environment in which a fellow might test his mettle and make something of himself.

If the novel’s account of Cope’s ’76 expedition hews to the historical record, the book does take some liberties.  Crichton himself lists some of them in an author’s note.  Most puzzling—to me, anyway—is his attribution of a notable dinosaur genus to Cope’s expedition that is familiar to paleophiles as a Marsh discovery.  Crichton states that Sternberg’s autobiography claimed this animal for Cope, but I take Sternberg’s remark as an attempt to claim priority for Cope’s dinosaur work in general, rather than crediting him with bringing he specific animal in question to light.  Crichton also seems to place this discovery in sediments from the Cretaceous Period, when the animal lived millions of years earlier, during the Jurassic.  In addition, the characters in Dragon Teeth use the correct absolute dates for the fossils they find, but the development of radiometric dating techniques came after the events in the novel.  (As late as the early twentieth century, some paleontologists ascribed a date of only three or four million years to the last dinosaurs.)  Finally, Crichton’s Sternberg has no qualms about using profanity.  Given the man’s intense and sincere religiosity, the strikes me as unlikely.

But these are quibbles, the stuff of paleo-geekery.  Dragon Teeth is an absolute delight.  It doesn’t feature as much of the rumination on the possibilities and limitations of science, technology, and knowledge that is a Crichton hallmark, but it’s an engaging yarn.  I think good historical fiction should be a bit like an artistic reconstruction of an extinct animal.  You take the hard bits of verifiable evidence, you flesh out the bones with some careful inference, and then you let your imagination go to work.  That’s what Crichton accomplished with this book.  The story bounces along like a stagecoach through a landscape full of thrills and wonders.  And as with all of Crichton’s posthumously published books, turning the last page will leave you with a bittersweet feeling—you’re elated by the ride you’ve just taken, but you remember that you were in the hands of a singular creator who left us far too soon.

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Filed under Gratuitous Dinosaur Posts

Historic happenings at Knoxville museums this weekend

There’s plenty for history buffs to do in Knoxville over the next couple of days.

UT’s McClung Museum of Natural History and Culture has a brand new exhibit opening on Friday.  Fish Forks and Fine Furnishings: Consumer Culture in the Gilded Age focuses on the proliferation of consumer household goods that accompanied industrialization, trade, and travel in the late nineteenth century.  The McClung’s permanent collection has a ton of fascinating material from this period, so there should be some really neat objects on display.  The museum is hosting a lecture on the era by historian Pat Rutenberg on July 16 at 2:00, so check that out if you’d like to learn more.

On Saturday and Sunday, we’re having our annual Statehood Day Living History Weekend at Marble Springs.  Admission is free, and we’ll have reenactors and interpreters  on hand for demonstrations and talks at the historic buildings.  If you haven’t been to the site, or if you’ve taken the standard tour but have never been to one of our living history events, this is one of the best occasions to visit.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Headed to the archives

I’m delighted to announce that I’ll be engaged in some archival work this summer, thanks to the generosity of a couple of funding sources.  The David Library of the American Revolution has awarded me a residential fellowship, so I’ll be headed up to Pennsylvania soon to pore over their incredible microfilm collection.  (Hope I can muster the discipline to get my research done while being in striking distance of so many Rev War sites.)

I was also fortunate to receive an Archie K. Davis Fellowship from the North Caroliniana Society, which will give me an opportunity to examine Revolutionary War records in the Old North State.  I’m very grateful to both the DLAR and the NCS for these research funds; I wouldn’t be able to access materials critical to my dissertation without this support.

Oh, and if you’d like to read a short description of my project and look over my CV, you can now do so at the UT Department of History’s website.

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GDP: Rolling out the new armored dinos

Well, that’s another academic year wrapped up.  It’s been a heck of a news week for armored dinos, so let’s kick off the summer with a Gratuitous Dinosaur Post.

Scientists just described a brand-new ankylosaur—those walking tanks from the Cretaceous Period—called Zuul crurivastator.  The species name means “destroyer of shins,” which is appropriate for an animal bearing a massive, bony club at the end of its ten-foot tail.  The genus name comes from the dog creature in the original Ghostbusters movie, and there’s indeed a resemblance.  It’s not just a new dino, but one of the most complete ankylosaur specimens ever found.

And as they say on the commercials, “But wait!  There’s more…”

National Geographic is running a piece on another incredible armored dino specimen.  This one’s a nodosaur, a close relative of Zuul and its kin, but without the tail club.  It, too, is stunningly complete, so much so that it looks less like a fossil and more like an animal that just fell asleep and turned to stone.  The keratin sheaths on its spikes, the individual armored plates, scales, tendons—all beautifully preserved.  What’s especially cool is that researchers might be able to use microscopic structures in the skin to reconstruct its coloration.  It doesn’t have a name yet, but I’ve got a suggestion…

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Leaders, wars, and the survey course

Last week we administered a survey/quiz in our Western Civ course, asking students which of the topics we’ve covered interested them the most.  The results were a little surprising, at least to me.

Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon, via Wikimedia Commons

The most common answers involved subjects that many academic history tend to downplay: wars and leaders.  More students claimed they wanted to learn about strategies, battles, kings, queens, and presidents than anything else.  They wrote that they’d enjoy taking an entire course on the origins of World War I, the major campaigns of World War II, Napoleon, or the Romanovs.  What captivated these young scholars was the same sort of material that many academic historians dismiss as old-fashioned.

What accounts for these students’ responses?  I think it boils down to two factors.  First, political power—especially the relationship between modernity and monarchy—was an organizing theme that undergirded the course as a whole.  Our professor spent quite a bit of time analyzing the ways personalities, institutions, and change intersected, and he did so in such a captivating manner that students couldn’t help but want to explore these questions further.  In other words, good teaching leads to engagement with the subject matter.  It was a valuable lesson for us TAs, who will be thinking about how to organize our own courses in the future.  As I said a few months ago, the opportunity to observe great professors in the classroom is one of the biggest benefits of grad school.

The second reason so many of the students found wars and leaders so engrossing has to do with the subject matter itself.  At the end of the day, it’s hard to deny that battles, alliances, campaigns, and the lives of powerful men and women are pretty darned interesting.  After all, these were the very topics that prompted the first historians of classical antiquity to take up their pens: Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, Plutarch, and so on.  And in our own time, the commercial success of military historians and biographers such as Andrew Roberts, Rick Atkinson, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Antony Beevor, and Antonia Fraser speaks to the enduring appeal of this approach.

These were the sort of topics I used to feel guilty about spending time on as an adjunct.  As much as I loved lecturing on Xerxes, Alexander, Catherine the Great, Napoleon, the Crimean War, and Operation Barbarossa, going into detail on leaders and wars always seemed like an indulgence.  Every semester I chipped away at my coverage of conflicts and great men and women.  Maybe I should’ve let them be.  When we start making those hard choices about what to omit from our survey courses, perhaps we should leave space for these subjects that still take hold of the imagination, even the imagination of Generation Z.

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Enjoy dinner while supporting Knoxville’s history

UPDATE 4/27/17: Marble Springs won the SOUP grant!  It’s going to go a long way toward helping us get materials we need for school group tours.  Thanks to all you folks who turned out and voted for us!

This one’s for you folks in the Knoxville area.  The South Knoxville Alliance is hosting another SOUP fundraiser at Dara’s Garden on Thursday, April 27.

We will open the doors at 6:00 pm, collecting a $5.00 donation from attendees. At 6:30, 4 preselected individuals or groups will present an idea or project they would like to carry out. Each presenter (or group) has 4 minutes to inform, impassion and inspire the audience. They then have 4 minutes to answer questions from the audience. Dinner is then served while attendees digest, discuss and deliberate over the projects presented. They then cast a ballot for the project they would like most to fund.

When the evening nears a close, the ballots are counted and the group that has the most votes takes home the money from the door to help fund their project. Democracy meets Charity…

Marble Springs State Historic Site will be making a pitch for funding to support some of our programming.  The more history buffs and supporters we have at the event to vote, the more likely we are to win the door take, so hopefully we’ll see lots of you there!

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Glenn Beck is offering history internships. Seriously.

Ever dreamed of the chance to study history with a guy who thinks the Dead Sea Scrolls are remnants of texts that Constantine suppressed, that Native Americans carved Hebrew inscriptions, and that Parson Weems is a reliable source of information on George Washington?

Well, if you’re between the ages of 18 and 25, you—yes, friend, YOU!—are eligible for a two-week internship at Beck’s Mercury One library.

You’ll have to apply first, of course.  They’re not just taking any Tom, Dick, or Harry from off the street.  But if you make the cut and fork over $375, you get access to Beck’s collection of original documents and “the opportunity to gain a wealth of knowledge from our speakers and guest lecturers.”

While you’re there, maybe David Barton will sign your copy of the book his publisher recalled.  Start getting those CVs ready!

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