Ritvo, Harriet 1946–

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Ritvo, Harriet 1946–

PERSONAL: Born September 19, 1946, in Cambridge, MA; daughter of Martin (a lawyer) and Zelma (a scientist) Ritvo. Education: Harvard University, A.B., 1968, Ph.D., 1975; attended Cambridge University, 1968–69.

ADDRESSES: Office—Department of History, E51-285, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 77 Massachusetts Ave., Cambridge, MA 02139. E-mail[email protected]

CAREER: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Cambridge, MA, editor and staff associate, 1976–79; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, assistant professor, 1980–85, associate professor, 1985–91, professor of history, 1991–, Arthur J. Conner Professor of History, 1995–, head of history faculty, 1999–.

AWARDS, HONORS: Fellowships from Yale Center for British Art, Yale University, 1984, Stanford Humanities Center, Stanford University, 1985–86, National Humanities Center, 1989–90, 2002–03, and National Endowment for the Humanities, 1989; Guggenheim fellow, 1990; Whiting Writers' Award, Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation, 1990; fellow, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2005.


The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1987.

(Editor, with Jonathan Arac) Macropolitics of Nineteenth-Century Literature: Nationalism, Exoticism, Imperialism, University of Pennsylvania Press (Philadelphia, PA), 1991.

The Platypus and the Mermaid, and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1997.

Author of foreword, The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication, by Charles Darwin, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1998; contributor to other books, including An English Arcadia: Landscape and Architecture in Britain and America: Papers Delivered at a Huntington Symposium, Huntington Library (San Marino, CA), 1992. Contributor of numerous essays and reviews to periodicals.

WORK IN PROGRESS: The Dawn of Green: Manchester, Thirlmere, and the Victorian Environment.

SIDELIGHTS: Harriet Ritvo is a historian who specializes in nineteenth-century Great Britain. In The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age and The Platypus and the Mermaid, and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination, she examines the development of modern science, one of the supreme interests of the Victorians. Some of Ritvo's reviewers have dubbed her method postmodern, because she compares and contrasts popular and learned writings of the past, treating both equally as indicators of social class, education, and the political realities of the day rather than considering one more true than the other. Furthermore, Ritvo's books may be considered by some to be postmodern in that they lack, according to her critics, a clearly stated theme. Instead, the author insinuates an overarching motif concerning the cultural basis of scientific inquiry. Ritvo's approach is sometimes called offbeat or quirky, and her prose is an unusual mix of technical or scholarly jargon with humorous puns and an often ironic tone. While some have described her approach as too far-ranging to be anything but superficial, others consider her juxtaposition of high and low source materials to yield fascinating insights into the Victorian worldview.

In The Animal Estate, Ritvo examines the various attitudes of the English toward the animal kingdom and what these attitudes reveal about the British of the Victorian era. The author devotes chapters to cattle and dog breeding, the development of the animal protection society and the fight against rabies, and the invention of zoos and of hunting for sport. "Each chapter contains surprising observations and insights that reinforce the social origin of properties attributed directly and 'objectively' to nature," reported Stephen Jay Gould in his critique for the New York Review of Books. For example, Ritvo finds in large landowners' relish for breeding enormous cattle a symbol of the staying power and might of their class. She also notes that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals targeted the kinds of animal abuse favored by the lower and criminal classes, such as bear baiting, rather than those of the upper classes, such as fox hunting, and thus argues that it symbolized the struggle for class control.

"Ms. Ritvo is a historian of the 'unmasking' school, for whom the past must never be taken on its own terms," observed John Gross in the New York Times. "Much of what she says is obviously true, and she musters a good deal of unfamiliar and often deeply interesting evidence." However, Ritvo also has a penchant for using "reductive jargon" in her arguments, Gross commented, adding a wish that she had examined more closely her own rhetoric in her analysis of the rhetoric Victorians used. Gould called The Animal Estate his favorite book of 1987 and suggested: "All but the most unrepentant positivist from my own scientific camp will understand and embrace Harriet Ritvo's major theme that all forms of human relationship with animals must record (at the least) human hopes and preferences imposed upon nature, or (at most) elaborate metaphors of human society read into the lives of animals." He had just two negative comments; one amounted to a desire for more scientific information in her illustrative examples, which, Gould wrote, would provide a fascinating conclusion to the anecdotes she relates only to discard once their metaphors have been extracted. "My only other frustration arises simply from my high opinion of the book," Gould concluded. "I'd like to know more."

Ritvo received similar praise as well as criticism in the reviews of her next work on this subject, The Platypus and the Mermaid, and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination. In this work, Ritvo examines in depth the various ways people in the nineteenth century classified animals. "As Ritvo points out, scientific classification arose partly out of a desire to inject some order and system into the vast, messy aggregations of seashells, mounted birds, and pickled fetuses that populated the curio cabinets of seventeenth-century aristocrats," remarked Matt Cartmill in a review for Natural History. Ritvo's research leads her to discuss not merely the various scientific attempts to classify the animal kingdom, including most famously those of Linnaeus and Darwin, but also the more popular ways of dividing animals, such as into the categories of those we do and do not eat. In keeping with the approach of her earlier work, the author examines both the academic and the popular systems of classification for what they reveal about the minds of those who invented or upheld them. Some critics thought this led the author down a bewildering path, as though a book on chemistry placed as much emphasis on making biscuits as on valence theory, as Cartmill noted. Some also saw a need for more science in Ritvo's method. Ritvo's "approach is both the strength and the weakness of the book," observed Sherrie Lyons in Science, and like other reviewers expressed a desire to see a concluding chapter in The Platypus and the Mermaid that would have clarified some of Ritvo's objectives. While acknowledging the book's flaws, critics such as Lyons also found much to enjoy: "This book provides an extremely rich and detailed collection of vignettes il-lustrating the many ways that Victorians thought of animals, making for thought-provoking and entertaining reading."



Natural History, October, 1997, Matt Cartmill, review of The Platypus and the Mermaid, and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination, p. 12.

New York Review of Books, March 3, 1988, Stephen Jay Gould, review of The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age, pp. 7-10; November 20, 1997, pp. 38-41.

New York Times, October 30, 1987, John Gross, review of The Animal Estate, p. C36.

Science, January 2, 1998, Sherrie Lyons, review of The Platypus and the Mermaid, and Other Figments of the Classifying Imagination, p. 38.