The “tropics” have haunted the North Atlantic imperial imagination. The foliage, fruits, birds, animals, and peoples of these regions have satiated the appetites for exotica of physicians, naturalists, painters, curiosity seekers, and the sexually shy. The local inhabitants of the tropics, to be sure, have not been passive consumers of the various representations of their lands promiscuously put in circulation by the various European and the United States visitors. Nancy Leys Stepan has written a fascinating account of the history of this parallel (but not dialogical) set of representations, and her focus is Brazil in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Nineteenth-century naturalists, travelers, and painters socialized North Atlantic audiences into a number of conventions about tropical fauna and flora that would later prove very difficult to dislodge. Illustrations crammed widely dispersed fauna and flora into a single habitat, and travelers emphasized adventure,...

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