Popular Science Monthly/Volume 38/April 1891/Sketch of Daniel Garrison Brinton

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
1196400Popular Science Monthly Volume 38 April 1891 — Sketch of Daniel Garrison Brinton1891Charles Conrad Abbott




A FEW years prior to the widely spread interest in American archæology that is now taken, there was published in Philadelphia a small duodecimo volume of two hundred pages entitled Notes on the Floridian Peninsula, concerning which its author states in his preface, "The present little work is the partial result of odd hours spent in the study of the history. . . of the peninsula of Florida" A "little" book, in one sense, it is true, but far from it in all others, and it remains to-day our best résumé of the archæology of that wonderful peninsula. The author of this volume, but twenty-two years old at the time of its appearance, is the subject of the present sketch—Daniel Garrison Brinton.

Dr. Brinton was born May 13, 1837, at Thornbury, Chester County, Pa., and is of English descent on both the paternal and maternal side. His ancestor, William Brinton, came from Shropshire, where the family had lived for many generations. He became an early member of the Society of Friends, and emigrated to the colony of Pennsylvania in 1684. His descendants have generally continued their attachment to Quakerism.

The life-long interest which he has taken in the study of the American Indians may have been owing to the fact that on his father's farm was a "village site" of some ancient encampment of the Delaware Indians. Many a day of his boyhood was passed in collecting from this and similar localities the broken arrow-points, the stone axes, and the fragments of pottery which marked the presence of this older and mysterious race. The study of McClintock's Antiquarian Researches, a now almost forgotten volume, fixed and expanded this taste. The work, however, to which he attributes beyond all others a formative influence on his youthful tastes was Humboldt's Cosmos, the English translation of which by Colonel Sabine was his favorite reading at the age of fifteen and sixteen. The poetic hues in which this great master knew how to garb the dry facts of science, and the wonderful skill with which he developed the intimate relationship of lower and inorganic existence to the thoughts, aspirations, and destiny of man, stimulate the imagination with the force of a great epic.

Dr. Brinton graduated at Yale College in 1858, and studied medicine in the Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia, where he took the degree of M. D. in 1860. After a year, spent chiefly at Paris and Heidelberg, he was recalled by the events of the war and entered the army as Surgeon of United States Volunteers. After serving in the field as Medical Director of the Eleventh Army Corps, he was sent to Quincy and Springfield, Ill., as superintendent of hospitals, where he remained until the close of the war. In 1867 he was tendered the position of editor of the Medical and Surgical Reporter, at that time the only weekly medical journal in Philadelphia. This position he held uninterruptedly until 1887.

In 1884 he was appointed Professor of Ethnology at the Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, and in 1886 Professor of American Linguistics and Archaeology in the University of Pennsylvania. At both the institutions named he delivers a course of lectures every winter, which are highly appreciated by the public, as the numbers attending them attest. His subject-matter, being both ethnologic and archaeologic, necessarily covers an enormous field; but Brinton very successfully exercises the faculty of conciseness, yet never at the expense of lucidity.

Dr. Brinton's contributions to scientific literature began, as already stated, in 1859, when he published The Floridian Peninsula, its Literary History, Indian Tribes, and Antiquities, the result of some months' travel in that State. His next work of importance was The Myths of the New World: a Treatise on the Symbolism and Mythology of the Red Race of America (New York, 1868; second edition, 1876). Other volumes which have appeared from his pen are The Religious Sentiment, its Source and Aim: a Contribution to the Science of Religion (New York, 1876); American Hero Myths: a Study in the Native Religions of the Western Continent (Philadelphia, 1882); Essays of an Americanist (Philadelphia, 1890); Races and Peoples; Lectures on the Science of Ethnography (New York, 1890); and has now in press a work entitled The American Race; a Linguistic Classification and Ethnographic Description of the Native Tribes of North and South America. It is the first attempt ever made to classify all the Indian tribes by their languages, and it also treats of their customs, religions, physical traits, arts, antiquities, and traditions. The work comprises the results of several years of study in this special field.

Of the ethnological papers by Dr. Brinton the National Legend of the Chahta-Muskokee Tribes, Notes on the Codex Troano, The Lineal Measures of the Semi-civilized Nations of Mexico and Central America, On the Xinca Indians of Guatemala, and The Books of Chilan Balam, are specially prominent, as are the strictly archaeological papers, such as The Probable Nationality of the Mound-builders, in which the author favors the theory that the mound-builders of the Ohio Valley were of the same race as the Choctaws, and probably their ancestors; On the Cuspidiform Petroglyphs, or Bird-track Sculpture of Ohio; and the later Review of the Data for the Prehistoric Chronology of America. Dr. Brinton has given attention, too, to folk-lore, as a subject worthy of scientific treatment, and published The Journey of the Soul, a comparative study of Aztec, Aryan, and Egyptian mythology, and also The Folk Lore of Yucatan.

This goodly list, of which any scientific worker might well be proud, if the results of a long life, by no means covers the ground of Brinton's scientific and literary activity. He has been both publisher and editor of the Library of Aboriginal American Literature, of which eight volumes have appeared, six of which are edited by Brinton. The titles, given in order of their publication, are: The Chronicles of the Mayas, The Comedy-Ballet of Güegüence, The Lenâpé and their Legends, The Annals of the Cakchiquels, Ancient Nahuatl Poetry, and The Rig Veda Americanus. These works are all of unquestionable merit, notwithstanding they have been subjected to considerable adverse criticism. This is not to be wondered at, as works of this character, if edited in a pronounced manner, by one having strong opinions that are plainly expressed, are sure to meet with some opposition, which reflects, however, nothing upon the skill with which they are edited, and is, we hold, a pretty certain indication of their value as contributions to knowledge. Were further testimony to this wanting, it is shown in the fact that this series obtained for its author the prize medal of the Société Américaine de France; this being the only instance in which it has been decreed to an American writer.

In linguistics Dr. Brinton has published during the past two decades, Grammar of the Choctaw Language, by Rev. Cyrus Byington, edited by Brinton; Contributions to a Grammar of the Muskogee Language; The Ancient Phonetic Alphabet of Yucatan, describing Lauda's so-called Maya alphabet; The Arawack Language of Guiana, in which the author shows that the nations of the Bahamas and Antilles at the discovery were of the Arawack stock; this essay contains an analysis of the primitive language of Hayti On the Language of the Natchez, wherein the writer identifies the language of the Natchez as largely a dialect of the Chahta-Muskokee family; the Names of the Gods, an exegetical study of the Popol Vuh, or national book of the Quiches of Guatemala; A Grammar of the Cakchiquel Language of Guatemala; American Languages and why we should study them; The Philosophic Grammar of American Languages, as set forth by Wilhelm von Humboldt, with the translation of an unpublished memoir by him, on the American verb; On Polysynthesis and Incorporation; Notes on the Manque, an extinct dialect formerly spoken in Nicaragua; The Taensa Grammar and Dictionary, in which are shown the fraudulent claims of the alleged Taensa language, introduced by Parisot; The Study of the Nahuatl Language; The Phonetic Elements in the Graphic System of the Mayas and Mexicans; The Conception of Love in some American Languages; On the Ikonomatic Method of Phonetic Writing; and, in 1889, associated with Rev. Albert Seqaqkind Anthony was issued a Lenâpé-English Dictionary, based upon a manuscript of the last century, preserved in the Moravian church at Bethlehem, Pa.

In general linguistics he has contributed several papers to the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society on the possibility of an international scientific tongue, the chief arguments in which were summed up in a pamphlet published in 1889 on the Aims and Traits of a World-Language.

In the great conflict between scientific thought and religious dogma, Dr. Brinton has always occupied a pronounced position. His volume on the Religious Sentiment begins by an absolute rejection of the supernatural as such, and explains all expressions of religious feeling as the results of familiar physical and mental laws. These opinions he further emphasized in an address on Giordano Bruno, published in 1890, a philosopher to whose theories he had paid considerable attention in early life.

While singularly devoid of taste or faculty for music—which may perhaps be attributed to six generations of Quaker ancestry—Dr. Brinton has always cherished an ardent love of poetry. He is Vice-President of and a frequent contributor to the Browning Society of Philadelphia, which numbers nearly seven hundred members; he is also a friend and disciple of Walt Whitman, and has published an essay explaining his eccentric versifications.

In November, 1889, the Archaeological Association of the University of Pennsylvania was organized, and Dr. Brinton at once became a leading spirit in its councils, and by personal labor and influence materially advanced its progress. The formation of a museum is necessarily slow work, and too often fails through misdirected energy; but this has not been the fate of the undertaking in question. Looking upon such a museum as valuable in proportion to its collections being the result of exploration intelligently conducted, Brinton insisted, from the Very outset, that by such means, rather than by the purchase of collections or single specimens, should the work be carried on. His wise counsel has prevailed, and as material for the illustration of archaeological lectures, the university now possesses hundreds of objects of which every available fact with reference to their history is known.

Dr. Brinton's scientific work covers so broad a field that it is difficult for any one person to follow him wheresoever he leads; but if it be a safe guide to accept the general trend of criticism among archaeologists, ethnologists, and those learned in linguistic lore, he has touched upon no subject without throwing light thereon, and to-day, still young in years and vigorous both of mind and body, is preparing for further labors. American science and American letters may be proud of such a worker, for his position, both as a scientist and a littérateur, is no uncertain one.

Besides the two positions that he holds in Philadelphia, to which reference has been made, Dr. Brinton is President of the American Folk-lore Society and of the Numismatic and Antiquarian Society of Philadelphia; member of the Anthropological Societies of Berlin, and Vienna, and of the Ethnographical Societies of Paris and Florence; of the Royal Society of Antiquaries, Copenhagen; the Royal Academy of History of Madrid; the American Philosophical Society, the American Antiquarian Society, etc.

The aboriginal race of Tasmania, of which only a single survivor remains—if she be really of pure blood, which is doubted—was one of peculiar interest, for it continued down to our own times at a degree of culture hardly equal to that of the palaaolithic flint-workers. The making of rude stone implements and of baskets were almost the only arts they possessed. They made fire by the stick and drill; for ornaments they had strings of shell; and for weapons only the spear and the waddy. Their huts were slight, and they had no knowledge of agriculture. Dr. Tylor says that their life may give some idea of the conditions of the earliest prehistoric tribes of the Old World, except that they had a milder climate than the others and no large animals, and were in some arts rather below them. All the information respecting these people has been collected by Mr. H. Ling Roth for his book upon them.