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Defending the Master Race: Conservation, Eugenics, and the Legacy of Madison Grant Hardcover – December 31, 2008

4.7 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Spiro's unfortunately-titled new book is a comprehensive examination of a powerful but nearly forgotten American figure, Madison Grant. A chief proponent of conservation, Grant spearheaded the creation of several national parks but also, as one of the most fervent proponents of science-based racism, introduced the world to the concept of the "master race." Grant's theories had an immeasurable effect on the turn-of-the-century world; a patrician academic who never held elected office, Grant nevertheless became a close confidante to several presidents, helping shape national policy on issues including conservation to immigration. Spiro also explores the complex history of the international eugenics movement and how it influenced organizations from the Nazi party to Planned Parenthood. Spiro's text is organized by theme, sacrificing clear chronology for a better grasp of Grant's pervasive influence-a worthwhile trade that keeps the narrative comprehensive and enlightening, peeling back layers of history to expose America's casual racism and the disturbing ways American law set the precedent for Nazi atrocities. A superb re-introduction to one of America's most complex modern figures, Spiro's account can only be faulted for a tendency to dig too deeply, occasionally stalling in minutiae.
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“Spiro’s text is organized by theme, sacrificing clear chronology for a better grasp of Grant’s pervasive influence—a worthwhile trade that keeps the narrative comprehensive and enlightening, peeling back layers of history to expose America’s casual racism and the disturbing ways American law set the precedent for Nazi atrocities. A superb reintroduction to one of America's most complex modern figures.”—Publishers Weekly


“In this exhaustively researched biography, Spiro masterfully details Grant’s ideas and accomplishments with wit and style. . . .Grant has long deserved better than he has gotten from historians and at long last Jonathan Spiro has given Madison Grant exactly what he deserved.”—Journal of the History of Biology


“In spotlighting the connection between wildlife management and eugenics, Spiro has put his finger on something important. The obsession with improving breeding stock linked Grant with Hitler on the right and with other more respectable eugenicists on the left, including Margaret Sanger (who promoted birth control) and Theodore Roosevelt (who hated it).”—The New Republic


“Accessible and engaging . . . Spiro’s biography recaptures an important strain of early twentieth-century American thought and reflects the complexity of its connections to other major ideas of the period.”—Pacific Historical Review
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 508 pages
  • Publisher: Univ. of Vermont Press; 1st edition (December 31, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1584657154
  • ISBN-13: 978-1584657156
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.5 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 2.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,166,704 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Henry Berry on February 9, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Madison Grant threw his energies equally into conservation and eugenics. He wrote the book on eugenics The Passing of the Great Race seeing the blond-haired, blue-eyed Nordic race as the top, more desirable race. He was a cofounder of the Eugenics Committee of the U.S.A. and American Eugenics Society. Grant's racial positions extended to sterilization of those he regarded as inferior races. And he worked on racial policies and practices with Southern segregationists.

Grant stood out in the field of conservation too. He was identified with Theodore Roosevelt in helping to create the country's magnificent national parks. He was a leader in zoological organizations; and he founded the Bronx Zoo. For his decisive role in preventing the complete destruction of California's giant sequoia trees, he had one species named after him.

Spiro does not try to reconcile nor rationalize these two salient interests and activities of Grant. He does not even see them as contradictory. Grant was not conflicted over his beliefs, passions, and activities. For Grant was a robust, socially active, well-to-do, well-connected individual of the latter 1800s and early 1900s in the Teddy Roosevelt mold naturally taking a lead in fields he felt strongly about and felt were beneficial for society. Like Roosevelt, he hunted big game while at the same time working toward a major zoo where animals could be preserved and appreciated by the public. The basis of his racial views was a strong America.
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Format: Hardcover
Jonathan Spiro has written an amazing book and I'm impressed on how it operates on so many levels. It is immensely readable and provides a fascinating look at how Madison Grant began as one of the chief proponents of the conservation movement yet ended up being a tremendous influence on Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. But it is far more than just a book about Grant and really gives great insight into the social history and the mindset of early 20th century America and Europe.
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Jonathan Spiro has written a masterpiece! His book is much more than a biography of Madison Grant. The first 100 pages alone would make a lucid book on the history of the conservation movement in the U.S., with fascinating details of who did what. Other authors have begun their discussion of Madison Grant emphasizing his part in promoting eugenics, with less emphasis on his role in saving America's biological legacy. By starting with Grant's central role in conserving America's wildlife and forests, in the context of his being a member of the New York elite at a time of maximum immigration, Spiro has helped me to understand how an educated, caring person could have embraced the extreme racism of eugenics. He is a rare author that has created a page-turner from a exceedingly complex topic that is easily made overwhelming or boring. He is a genuine story-teller.
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A common cartoon theme has a conflicted person with a devil sitting on one shoulder and whispering in that ear, and an angel doing likewise on the other. Madison Grant is perhaps the most extreme example imaginable of such a conflicted person. He was arguably the single most important figure in jump-starting the conservation movement in the United States and had a heroic role in saving the California redwoods and the bison. He was also arguably the most vicious "pseudoscientific" racist of the Twentieth Century, and his book "The Passing of the Great Race" (1918) influenced American society and policy for the worse for decades and ultimately became a mainstay of Nazi ideology--a personal favorite of Hitler. Grant preferred to remain behind the scenes as much as possible. He was a masterful organizer and manipulator of public opinion and the political process for good and for evil. His typical modus operandi was to create multiple organizations with broadly-interlocking directorates, flooding media and public discourse with what appeared to be an irresistible "critical mass" of quality judgments. He was the puppet master who engineered the extreme and explicitly racist restrictions on immigration enacted in the 1920s. The notion that immigration restriction was an "environmental" or "resource conservation" issue, which he pushed in tying his two passions together, is still heard today. In fact, the current debate on immigration reform recycles many themes Grant and his various allies and fronts exploited some 90 years ago to great effect. That in itself is troubling.
Today's conservationists would justly honor Grant's memory were conservation his only legacy. Instead, the linkage between conservation and bigotry is a legacy nearly all of us would prefer to forget.
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As documented but without explanations from science, the State Department, the president, and Gallup polls did not call for Eastern Europeans to consider the United States an emergency refuge. With Grant and his cohorts like Charles Davenport, Margaret Sanger, Henry Fairfield Osborn, publisher Maxwell Perkins, and even the “mirror-man” Marcus Garvey, the 1920s were made into the anti-immigration decade. This work allows me to make a connection that others have perhaps not, that of racial anthropology, which boomed in the ten years dating from the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. It has also brought to mind that the era of 1914 to 1941 could rightfully be considered an American lifetime.
Madison Grant, as hyperbolic as this may sound, is an exponential version of Charles Lindbergh (not in the book). Lindbergh had his two sides, public adoration and being booed in Iowa. Grant shied away from the spotlight but his anti-Semitic and charlatan science, can be matched or overshadowed by incredible accomplishments of environmentalism. The Redwoods, the bison, the national parks, the Bronx Zoo, and distinct animal species otherwise from six continents owe their revival to no one person more than Grant, and as the book concludes much of this effort from a bed-ridden Grant in severe arthritis pain. Grant not only invented the “Nordic” myth, he invented world-wide environmentalism at a time when others like him believed in conservation only for this big game hunts.
This book also covers that strange evolution of Roosevelt, from Theodore the outdoorsman to Franklin of the Jew Deal. Based on that turn, there is no credibility given to that half of the book of race study.
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