The New Student's Reference Work/Réclus, Jean Jacques Élisée

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Réclus (rā-klū), Jean Jacques Élisée. In 1830, a whole decade before Humboldt published Cosmos, his successor in the science of geography was born in a Protestant parsonage in the village of Ste. Foy-la-Grande, near Bordeaux, France. Having no money to gratify his taste for travel, Réclus was forced to find wonders at home. So he questioned his native bogs, moors and streams as to their world-old adventures and dug for the answers. He had two years at school in Berlin, which he spent in studying the natural sciences and in learning how to test physical phenomena. Returning home, he got into politics and into trouble and, fortunately for the world, was sent into exile by Napoleon III. Falling in with California goldseekers, he crossed our unexplored region of plains and mountains, and went back to publish a classical description of it that made him famous in science and literature and decided his life-work. He was past 40, and again in exile for meddling in politics, when he wrote La Terre (The Earth). This was followed by The Ocean. Monumental works in themselves, these volumes became merely introductory to his Géographie Universelle (21 volumes, 21,000 pages) that has been translated into every modern language. It was his life-work, occupying him from the age of 40 to 66. The work differs from most scientific treatises. To the profoundest knowledge and exactness Réclus brought the imagination of a poet, the literary style of a Ruskin. Many, indeed, most of the laws governing natural phenomena, were determined before Réclus, but he brought them all together and unified all. He summed them all up in this image of the earth on which we live. “A grain of dust in the fathomless abyss of creation, ever actuated by ceaseless motion, describing in ether a series of elliptical spirals, whirling with the velocity of a cannon-ball, shooting forward with the swiftness of light and rocking back and forth in its headlong flight—as if to salute the stars in passing.”

Absolutely scientific in its last analysis, only a poet could so transform dry facts. This great work, so plain, as easy to understand as a book of travels, as fascinating as a collection of romances, should be among the first to be purchased by any library, however small. Réclus died at Brussels on July 4, 1905. No biography of him has, as yet, appeared in translation.