William Leach, professor of history at Columbia University, was 9 when he began collecting butterflies in a graveyard and along a railroad line that ran near a streambed in his hometown. “It was a very powerful experience,” he told Pasatiempo. “I can’t remember anything else in my childhood that was as dramatic or intense or as dirty, full of ticks, sweat and bee stings — the kinds of things you disregard as a kid when you want something. You overcome obstacles that you wouldn’t overcome in the interest of getting something beautiful, something glorious. It’s my feeling that all childhood experience, good and bad, resonates forever. I stopped collecting at some point, but I never forgot what collecting meant to me. It’s always been a continuous thread that tied me to the times when I was most alive.”
Leach’s youthful obsession gave him insight into a fascination that seemed to grip the entire country during the 19th century, and it resulted in his latest book, Butterfly People: An American Encounter With the Beauty of the World (Vintage/Random House). His earlier works Country of Exiles: The Destruction of Place in American Life and Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of New American Culture explored economic and cultural influences that have shaped the American experience. His first book was True Love and Perfect Union: The Feminist Reform of Sex and Society. “Those other books are all personal to me,” Leach said. “Some part of my biography generated all of them. Each is somehow rooted in my childhood.”
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