The Natures of John and William Bartram

Overview

John Bartram (1699-1777), the first native-born American to devote his entire life to the study of nature, was an eminently practical man, a scientist devoted to the rigorous description of living things. Among his subjects was the Venus flytrap, along with hundreds of species of plants and animals, fully one quarter of all the plants identified and sent to Europe during the colonial period. His son William (1739-1823) was a pioneering naturalist who documented his travels through the Florida wilderness in prose ...

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Overview

John Bartram (1699-1777), the first native-born American to devote his entire life to the study of nature, was an eminently practical man, a scientist devoted to the rigorous description of living things. Among his subjects was the Venus flytrap, along with hundreds of species of plants and animals, fully one quarter of all the plants identified and sent to Europe during the colonial period. His son William (1739-1823) was a pioneering naturalist who documented his travels through the Florida wilderness in prose and drawings that inspired a generation of Romantic poets. William's lyrical Travels is read today, while John's work is not.

As he follows the Bartrams through their respective careers—and through the tenderness and disappointment of the father-son relationship—Thomas P. Slaughter examines the ways each viewed the natural world: as a resource to be exploited, as evidence of divine providence, as a temple in which all life was interconnected and sacred. The Natures of John and William Bartram is a major work of natural and human history—beautifully written, psychologically insightful, and full of provocative ideas concerning the place of nature in the imagination of Americans, past and present.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"An outstanding work of scholarship that tells us much about a natural world that no longer exists but that our age should know."—Philadelphia Inquirer

"Slaughter has broken the confines of ordinary narrative history. . . . Books about the business of fatherhood and the trials of sonhood are very rare, and this is a fine one."—Boston Globe

"A fascinating page-turner that should not be missed."—Michael Kammen, Cornell University

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Pioneer American naturalists John Bartram 1699-1777 and his son William 1739-1823 emerge as precursors of Thoreau, Emerson and modern environmentalism in this intense, beautifully written dual portrait. Both men were eccentric individualists. John, Royal Botanist to King George III for the North American colonies, was a dissenting Pennsylvania Quaker disowned by his Friends group because he drew parallels between Confucius and Jesus and rejected Christ's divinity. Nature artist/botanist William, a lifelong depressive unable to fulfill his father's expectations, fled from creditors, failed business ventures and a lone, unconsummated love affair to devote himself entirely to nature. Travels, his classic account of his expedition through the South in 1773-1777, inspired the poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth. This father-son relationship mingled love and hate. Whereas John despised Native Americans Indians killed his father, William revered their art, religion, government. And unlike John, an ambitious explorer in the service of empire, William turned to unspoiled nature seeking redemption, believing that humans share emotions and intellect on a continuum with other animals. Rutgers historian Slaughter uses the Bartrams' journals and letters to fashion a stunning meditation on how we reconstruct the natural world. Illustrated with William's impassioned, precise drawings of animals and plants. Oct.
Library Journal
In this biography, which he prefers to call a "story," Rutgers historian Slaughter Bloody Dawn, Oxford Univ., 1994, and editor of William Bartram: Travels and Other Writings, Classic Returns, LJ 5/15/96, explores the lives and careers of Pennsylvania Quakers John Bartram and his son William. John 1699-1777, a farmer and self-taught botanist who shipped native American plants to contacts in Europe, was ultimately responsible for a quarter of such plants introduced from the New World in colonial times. William 1739-1823 struggled and failed to make his way in the world of commerce but finally found a patron who sponsored his travels in the then-wilderness from North Carolina south to Florida. There he used the skills he gained from trips with his father to explore, botanize, and describe the natural wonders he found, information later published as his Travels. While the writings of both men remain in print today, few if any complete biographies are available, so this fills a gap in early American natural history. The book also succeeds as a penetrating look at father-son relationships of the period. The lack of extensive background and context may leave readers unfamiliar with the milieu a bit at sea, but this is amply compensated for by the rich psychological insights Slaughter brings to his account of the Bartrams' lives. Recommended for academic and comprehensive public libraries.Beth Clewis Crim, Prince William P.L., Va.
Kirkus Reviews
A fine exploration of the history of natural history, focusing on the Bartrams of Pennsylvania, father and son.

Historian Slaughter (Rutgers Univ.; Bloody Dawn, 1991) takes as his subjects two men whose contributions to the growth of American natural science are inestimable. They could not have been less alike, Slaughter notes. John (16991777), "the first native-born American to devote his entire life to the study of nature," was the eminently practical and business-like scientist, given to taxonomic exactitude and rigorous description; it was he, Slaughter relates, who first identified the Venus flytrap, noting its characteristics with almost prurient attention. He courted public recognition, and regularly issued opinions on matters of the day, especially the "Indian problem" ("they skip from tree to tree like monkeys," John wrote) and the education of slaves (which he opposed). For all his faults, Slaughter notes, John Bartram was responsible for describing hundreds of species of plants and animals, fully "one quarter of all the plants identified and sent to Europe during the colonial period." Perhaps in rebellion against his tight-laced father, William (17391823), a retiring man who repeatedly failed at business, tended toward a poetic, dramatic view of nature—-and Slaughter maintains that William's famous book, The Travels, is somewhat untrustworthy as a result. Yet William's homespun, slightly naive view of nature is the one that carried the day over his father's more rigorous approach. Slaughter persuasively argues that Henry David Thoreau, long thought to be sui generis, should instead be viewed as an heir of William Bartram's, and he notes the influence William had on the English Romantics, especially Coleridge. Slaughter suggests as well that to William can be traced the entire tradition of homegrown writing about natural history, as practiced today by the likes of Barry Lopez and Terry Tempest Williams.

An invigorating, accessible contribution to the study of early American science.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812219340
  • Publisher: University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/28/2005
  • Series: Pennsylvania Paperbacks
  • Pages: 328
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Thomas P. Slaughter is Andrew V. Tackes Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame. He is editor of William Bartram: Travels and Other Writings and author of Exploring Lewis and Clark and Apostle of Abolition: A Spiritual Biography of John Woolman.
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