The Explorer King : Adventure, Science, and the Great Diamond Hoax--Clarence King in the Old West
In this, one of the year's most compelling biographies, Robert Wilson paints a brilliant portrait of Clarence King -- a scientist-explorer whose mountain-scaling, desert-crossing, river-fording, blizzard-surviving adventures helped create the new West of the nineteenth century.
A sort of Howard Hughes of the 1800s, Clarence King in his youth was an icon of the new America: a man of both action and intellect, who combined science and adventure with romanticism and charm. The Explorer King vividly depicts King's amazing feats and also uncovers the reasons for the shocking decline he suffered after his days on the American frontier.
The Yale-educated King went west in 1863 at age twenty-one as a geologist-explorer. During the next decade he scaled the highest peaks of the Sierra Nevada, published a popular book now considered a classic of adventure literature, initiated a groundbreaking land survey of the American West, and ultimately uncovered one of the greatest frauds of the century -- the Great Diamond Hoax, a discovery that made him an international celebrity at a time when they were few and far between.
Through King's own rollicking tales, some true, some embroidered, of scaling previously unclimbed mountain peaks, of surviving a monster blizzard near Yosemite, of escaping ambush and capture by Indians, of being chased on horseback for two days by angry bandits, Robert Wilson offers a powerful combination of adventure, history, and nature writing. He also provides the bigger picture of the West at this time, showing the ways in which the terrain of the western United States was measured and charted and mastered, and how science, politics, and business began to intersect and influence one another during this era. Ultimately, King himself would come to symbolize the collision of science and business, possibly the source of his downfall.
Fascinating and extensive, The Explorer King movingly portrays the America of the nineteenth century and the man who -- for better or worse -- typified the soul of the era.
Clarence King (1842-1901) was the Indiana Jones of the 19th century. His dangerous 1864 passage across the Sierra Nevadas in California was hailed as ushering in "a new era in American mountaineering," during which his discovery of metamorphosed fossils helped determine the age of the Sierra Nevada gold belt-time-saving information for prospectors. In 1872, his debunking of fantastic claims of a "diamond field" in northwestern Colorado made him a national hero. King also wrote several landmark studies of mining, geology and mountaineering. American Scholar editor Wilson has produced an affectionate account of King's life that emphasizes the inevitable hardship of exploration as much as King's scientific achievements. King represented "a new paradigm of the western adventurer... the scientist-explorer, who seeks knowledge rather than territory or riches." Wilson judiciously sifts through the record of King's exploits. Almost as if he cannot bear to document his subject's long, slow decline, when he himself became obsessed with extracting riches from the earth, Wilson stops the story at King's uncovering of the Great Diamond Hoax. Wilson adds to our picture of the Wild West: one populated less by bloodthirsty bandits and ruthless ranchers than by earnest, upstanding men defined by their curiosity and courage. (Feb.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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February 06, 2006
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Excerpt from The Explorer King by Robert Wilson
The Little White House
In the early months of 1881, in a boxy three-story mansion on Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C., a small group of friends fell into the rhythm of meeting nearly every day at teatime for witty, often scathing conversation about the city that churned along around them. The Greek Revival structure where they met, white with a modest portico supported by Ionic columns, was known in the neighborhood as the little White House, and it faced that other more imposing White House just across the square. The smaller residence was rented by Henry Adams, whose grandfather and great-grandfather had inhabited the larger one, and by Henry's wife, Clover. The couple had just returned to Washington after eighteen months in Europe while Henry researched a history of the United States in the years when Jefferson and Madison were president. During the two winters of an earlier residence in the city, when Henry was working on a biography and a novel at a yellow house draped in wisteria a block east on H Street, Clover and Henry had stood back from Washington society, which then as now was all about job seeking and job keeping. They favored a smaller circle of friends selected for their ability to engage and amuse them. This exclusivity had caused their social stock, already fairly high given Henry's lineage, to rise; an invitation to either of the H Street houses was valued in proportion to the difficulty of achieving it. Even senators were sometimes snubbed, although Henry James probably goes too far when in his story "Pandora" he has a character based on Henry Adams say, "Hang it . . . let us be vulgar and have some fun -- let us invite the President." Adams himself said, "Socially speaking, we are very near most of the powerful people, either as enemies or friends."
The inner circle within this wider group of friends consisted of one other couple, John and Clara Hay, and one bachelor, Clarence King. When they could, the five of them met each day at five o'clock during the winter of 1881, and would often share dinner and then talk well into the evening. John Hay was ending a brief term as assistant secretary of state, and Clara, the daughter of a rich businessman from Cleveland, was living in town with him that winter. Hay had first come to Washington two decades earlier as a young man, employed as personal secretary to the new president, Abraham Lincoln, and had resided in the White House until the assassination. In the intervening years he had worked in the diplomatic corps in Europe, written editorials for the New York Tribune, published several books, including a popular collection of poems, and begun a massive biography of Lincoln that would occupy him for a decade. After his marriage to Clara in 1874 he moved with her to Cleveland to help her father tend to his millions. When Hay went to Washington for the State Department job in 1879, he left Clara and their young children behind, and took a room at Wormley's, a comfortable hotel on 15th and H streets.