William Bartram: Interpreter of the American Landscape

William Bartram: Interpreter of the American Landscape

William Bartram: Interpreter of the American Landscape

William Bartram: Interpreter of the American Landscape

Excerpt

In 1791 William Bartram, a Philadelphia botanist, published an account of his Travels through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the Country of the Choctaws; Containing an Account of the Soil and Natural Productions of these Regions, together with Observations on the Manners of the Indians. The book was promptly reprinted in England and Ireland, was translated into German, Dutch and French, and is still interesting enough to be reprinted in our own day (1928) in Mr. Mark Van Doren American Bookshelf. During its long life the book has made a strong impression upon discriminating readers, and its influence upon the thought and literature of almost a century and a half is a phenomenon deserving the attention of the student of literary history. While Bartram himself claimed that he wrote his account primarily as a contribution to natural science, to furnish information on "the various works of Nature," on "whatever may contribute to our existence . . . whether it be found in the animal or vegetable kingdoms" (Introduction, p. xiii), it nevertheless has qualities that have appealed to others besides scientists. Literary men especially have been stimulated by it, and their eulogies have largely prevented the work from sinking into oblivion.

Coleridge, for example, thought it "a work of high merit every way" and drew from it, for his Biographia Literaria, an analogy to Wordsworth's genius. Chateaubriand borrowed from it extensively for his works depicting the American scene. Carlyle asked Emerson if he had read "Bartram's Travels" and expressed a belief that "All American libraries ought to provide themselves with that kind of book; and keep them as a kind of future biblical articles." More than half a century later, Professor Lane Cooper wrote to the Nation in an attempt to stimulate the reprinting of "Bartram's fascinating narrative," and still another quarter of a century later Professor John LivingstonLowes . . .

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