- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 18, 2006


By Robert Wilson

Scribner, $26, 320 pages, illus.

The name Clarence King is hardly recognized today, but in his own heyday, the late-19th century, he was well known and widely admired. A scientist, he published, in 1878, his “Systematic Geology,” regarded in its own time as a masterly contribution to the field by his fellow scientists and is still respected.

But he was also an explorer of the American West and it was his very readable, popular and mesmerizing “Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada” (1872) that made his name very nearly a household word throughout the United States.

The book was read by the young Theodore Roosevelt growing up back East who decided that he, too, wanted to experience the adventures King had relished and written about with such vigor among the Indians, buffalo and rugged mountains on the other side of the Mississippi. After all, there are few men who, like King, get a high California peak named after them while still alive in commemoration of their exploits.

King also had famous friends, who added to his own luster. He was close to writer Henry Adams and Adams’ wife Clover, and to statesman John Hay and his wife Clara. Together, they were known as the “Five of Hearts,” a group whose witty and clever conversation was legendary in Washington, DC in the last half of the 19th century. King appears in Adams’ autobiography, “The Education of Henry Adams,” where Adams dubbed him “a bird of paradise… rising in the sagebrush.” Another friend, the novelist Henry James, called King “the most delightful man in the world.”

In “The Explorer King,” Robert Wilson, editor of The American Scholar, takes up King’s life from his birth in 1842 in Rhode Island through his peak years in his 20s and early 30s (the 1860s and early 1870s) when he made his major trips out West and collected his most important scientific data.

Limiting the book to King’s first three decades makes sense. They were the years of his greatest productivity and by far the more interesting period of his life. The decades of decline — King, who died, of TB, in 1901 in Phoenix — pale by comparison.

Full of directed energy, ambition and genuine achievement in his early years, King appeared drained of vigor and direction during his last three decades. Grandiose plans to exploit the West’s mineral wealth fell flat, as did often-stated promises to write more books to match the success and popularity of his earlier work.

But it is very unfair to condemn King for the failure, as an older man, to live up to the the extraordinary life he lived as a young scientist and explorer. The standards the youthful King set were very high indeed, and surely no man (or very few) could have maintained throughout life the level of activity and creativity he worked at through his early 30s.

King was born into a New England family of China merchants. But his father died when King was a boy, and he was reared by his mother. A strong interest in science led him to enroll at Yale, one of the very few American schools offering courses in such fields as geology and astronomy in the mid-19th century.

But he quickly learned that science majors were second-class citizens, even in New Haven: The traditional classical education, Latin and the humanities, still prevailed. This did not deter King, who loved his chosen field. “Science is almost a revelation,” he once explained. “I don’t love the practical minutiae of the lower details … although I work at those for discipline.”

What he liked most of all, he wrote, were “the lofty laws of creation, the connection of the material with the human, the esthetic, and the eternal, and the cosmic relations of God’s earthly planes” he thought science made clearer to him.

Among the sciences he came very soon to prefer geology, largely because it was “the only branch of science that could have held me to its active, persistent pursuit,” he told a close friend.

Studying geology as King wanted to study it meant that he wouldn’t be confined to a laboratory or library. He would be out of doors living, in his own words, “in close contact with Nature in her wildest and most savage moods.” He would learn, by personal contact, “where vast dynamic forces have in past ages crumpled the earth’s crust and brought huge mountain ranges into being… .”

King was, in Mr. Wilson’s well-chosen words, “the scientist with the soul of a romantic.” He loved nature for its power and mystery, once telling his mother that being a good geologist required the imagination of a novelist. What he meant was that to read the earth’s surface for signs of what had happened in the remote past one needed rare intuition and insight, as well as intellectual derring-do, in addition to raw scientific data.

But King could also handle the raw data impressively. The expeditions he undertook along with other scientists in California and other parts of the West mapped areas previously uncharted, and made detailed records of fossils, mineral deposits, and flora and fauna.

His career peaked with the great diamond hoax of the early 1870s. Two men from Kentucky claimed they had found diamonds, rubies and other gems in an unspecified region of the West. They salted the area with uncut diamonds they bought in London, for a while convincing investors to put money into mining the stones.

King figured out where the gems were supposed to be, despite efforts on the part of the scammers and investors to keep it secret. He visited the spot and quickly saw that it offered no real mineral wealth and revealed the hoax publicly to the world. He became, for a while, very famous.

The author mentions, but does not dwell on, King’s secret marriage to a black woman by whom he had five children. The discovery of the relationship after King’s death cast a shadow over his name at a time when such marriages were regarded as scandalous. Mr. Roberts tells King’s story with grace, and admiration, and gives us a real sense of the man’s achievements.

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