A total eclipse, is a primal transcendent experience.
It’s no coincidence that David Baron author of The Beast in the Garden has released American Eclipse about the total solar eclipse of 1878 across the American West now as the nation eagerly prepares for yet another rare total solar eclipse on August 21st. But precipitous timing isn’t the only reason Baron wrote American Eclipse. He is a self-confessed umbraphile who’s been chasing eclipses since experiencing his first one in Aruba in February, 1998. He completely understands the magical, cosmic allure of such phenomenon and the irresistible attraction it holds for so many. But there’s a dark side as well; some see eclipses as signs of the apocalypse and this inspired a shocking father-son suicide in Texas that fateful July day in 1878.
The solar eclipse of 1878 lasted for only three glorious minutes; Baron’s book is over 200 pages. How you ask does he do it? Baron’s focus is actually not the eclipse itself breathtaking though it was, but how anticipation of the eclipse became a world wide frenzy that inspired countless travelers to head out West to observe the phenomenon for themselves. Among the scientists, spectators, National Weather Bureau personnel and more, Baron pays especial attention to three. Pompous astronomer and asteroid hunter James Craig Wilson who brings his telescope and wife out West hoping to prove his theory of the planet Vulcan believed to be between Mercury and the Sun. Maria Mitchell, America’s first female astronomer who led an all women’s team out West in hopes of advancing women’s education and entry into the sciences. And Thomas Alva Edison already a legend with over a hundred patents to his name, but craving respect and recognition from the scientific community hoped to prove the efficacy of his tasimeter in measuring solar radiation. Three very distinct and disparate personalities that Baron makes come alive for us along with numerous other figures as well.
Baron also gives us a brilliant, vivid rendering of the times. The Eclipse may have happened out West but its observers came from the East and their journeys often had their origins in events that took place years before. Baron takes us from the American Centennial celebrations in Philadelphia, to the corridors of academia, to Edison’s famous workshop at Menlo Park, to majestic mountains of the Rockies. Of course in 1878, the Wild West was indeed still wild, and the rugged, often dangerous conditions that greeted would be astronomers only adds to the sense of tension and excitement of the story. It’s the best kind of true history account that entertains as much as it educates.