The More Things Change?

Coues, signature

It’s Elliott Coues‘s birthday today, an event celebrated by precisely no one. Nil nisi bonum, of course, and there is a great deal indeed of good to be said of the man and his work — but his daemon (to use a good Couesian word) was an irascible one, and it all too often got the better of him in print.

I’ve been rereading the editorial columns Coues published during his stint at The Osprey, Theodore Gill‘s journal of ornithology and natural history. As his most recent biographers remind us, Coues was fatally ill while he served as editor in chief; while that fact may help to explain the “arrogance and animosity” of Coues’s editorials, it does not make them any less shocking.

Take, for example, Coues’s out-of-the-blue scratching of a 25-year-old old scab in the April 1897 number of the magazine. Without any apparent motivation, Coues goes back a full quarter of a century to rehearse an unseemly squabble between Charles Bendire and the Smithsonian Institution in the person of Spencer Baird.

Coues takes the opportunity to label Bendire — dead just two months — a “bumptious and captious German” who discovered insult and offense at every corner, and to remind his reader, entirely gratuitously, that Thomas Brewer, the co-author of Baird’s History of North American Birds, was a “narrow-minded, prejudiced, and tactless person.”  

Happily for science, Baird and Bendire reconciled. And whose “friendly intervention” do we have to thank for that? Coues modestly informs us:

I was the one who turned Bendire over to Baird, shortly after my original discovery of him, and … this intermediation led directly to the consummation with which all are now familiar,

namely, the incorporation of Bendire’s collections into the “unrivaled oological cabinet in the National Museum.”

Given that Bendire, Baird, and Brewer were all safely dead, Coues should have been able to get away with his story. But there were still among the living those who protested.

In just weeks, the incomparably named Manly Hardy wrote from Maine “as an old friend of Major Bendire.” Hardy adduces a letter in which Bendire describes Brewer as “one of the best friends I had” and goes on to regret that Coues, for whom Bendire “on several occasions expressed … his intense dislike,”

has never forgiven me for the strong friendship I always showed for Dr. Brewer. He is not satisfied even now [February 1883, three years after Brewer’s death] to let him rest in his grave and loses no opportunity to belittle him whenever he can.

Beyond that, Hardy notes that as late as 1883 Bendire was still of two minds about donating his eggs to the Smithsonian. And as to Coues’s

claim of “discovering” Major Bendire, the Major’s friends always have supposed that he discovered himself…. Dr. Coues had about as much to do with discovering Major Bendire as the dog did in discovering the moon — the moon shone too brightly for his peace of mind, and he barked at it.


Coues was down — but not out. He responded with a long series of excerpts from his own correspondence with Bendire and with Baird (he admitted, on reviewing the record, that “there was more Baird and less Brewer in it than I intimated”), which demonstrated to his satisfaction that he had been “exactly right.” As to Hardy’s “silly” and “gratuitous” objections,

Who this person may be I have no idea, except that I lately edited for him a paper on some Maine birds which was published … after I had taken the trouble to make it presentable by fixing up its bad spelling and worse grammar.

And Coues remained resolute in his criticism of Bendire’s prickly punctilio and Brewer’s “foolishness”:

Everybody knows that Dr. Brewer made a fool of himself about the [House] Sparrows for years, and the fact that he then died does not alter the other fact of what he did when he was alive…. I do not find that Maj. Bendire’s recent demise alters one iota the merits of his quarrel of 1872-73…. Dying makes a great difference to the person chiefly concerned, but has no retroactive effect upon the events of his life, and only sentimentalists allow it to influence their estimate of personal character.

On that principle, then, Happy Birthday. I guess.