Reading the Roots: American Nature Writing before Walden

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Reading the Roots is an unprecedented anthology of outstanding early writings about American nature—a rich, influential, yet critically underappreciated body of work. Rather than begin with Henry David Thoreau, who is often identified as the progenitor of American nature writing, editor Michael P. Branch instead surveys the long tradition that prefigures and anticipates Thoreau and his literary descendants.

The selections in Reading the Roots describe a diversity of landscapes, wildlife, and natural phenomena, and their authors represent many different nationalities, cultural affiliations, religious views, and ideological perspectives. The writings gathered here also range widely in terms of subject, rhetorical form, and disciplinary approach—from promotional tracts and European narratives of contact with Native Americans to examples of scientific theology and romantic nature writing.

The volume also includes a critical introduction discussing the cultural, scientific, and literary value of early American nature writing; headnotes that contextualize all authors and selections; and a substantial bibliography of primary and secondary sources in the field. Reading the Roots at last makes early American landscapes—and a range of literary responses to them—accessible to scholars, students, and general readers.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Michael Branch has not only given us a new trailhead from which to explore a largely unknown territory in American nature writing; he has also mapped the landscape of a new area—early place-based literature—that American literary scholars will be exploring for many years to come. For both of those accomplishments, Branch is truly a trailblazer."—Jim Warren, Professor of English, Washington and Lee University

"Reading the Roots presents a wide and representative selection of writings from the period that begins with Renaissance explorers and ends with New England transcendentalists. For a variety of reasons, this period has suffered critical and pedagogical neglect. Michael Branch's scholarship is not only sound and reliable, but timely and provocative as well."—John Tallmadge, author of Meeting the Tree of Life: A Teacher’s Path

"This is a major work of ecocriticism that will open up a new area of scholarship and catch the interest of many scholars and general readers beyond ecocritics. I found Reading the Roots to be full of surprises, works that I was unaware of and that I found quite intriguing. Even the well-known figures, like Emerson, are represented by lesser-known works that will seem like discoveries to readers."—Ian Marshall, author of Peak Experiences: Walking Meditations on Literature, Nature, and Need

"The nicely crafted Reading the Roots . . . brings together an impressive selection of authors and gives an excellent overview of the geographies and genres covered by these writers . . . While reading these pieces, one cannot help but feel a profound sadness for the loss of the diverse creatures that once shared this fabulous land. Perhaps, however, as Branch hopes, encountering them in the pages of this anthology will encourage us to preserve those that remain.”—Agricultural History

"What a marvelous collection! Every selection is intriguing: surprising, entertaining, evocative, and informative. And Mike Branch's introductions are just right. This is a major resource for students, teachers, anyone interested in how Americans have perceived our lands. Perhaps even better, it's also lots of fun to read."—SueEllen Campbell, Colorado State University

"Reading the Roots is a welcome anthology."—Bloomsbury Review

"Michael Branch has given us a new 'literary historical trailhead' with which to begin exploring American nature writing. . . . Reading the Roots is a compelling and transformative contribution to the genre known as nature writing."—ANQ

"By this anthology, Branch brings a new perspective to American nature writing—so that Thoreau, with his literary plan to record his attachment to nature, becomes the exceptional nature writeer instead of the seminal one as he has been seen"—Midwest Book Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780820325484
  • Publisher: University of Georgia Press
  • Publication date: 1/5/2004
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 430

Meet the Author

Michael P. Branch, professor of literature and environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, is cofounder and past president of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) and book review editor of the journal ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment. The author of numerous articles and reviews, he is also editor of John Muir's Last Journey: South to the Amazon and East to Africa and co-editor of The Height of Our Mountains: Nature Writing from Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah Valley, Reading the Earth: New Directions in the Study of Literature and Environment, and The ISLE Reader (Georgia).

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Table of Contents

Editorial Criteria and a Note on the Text
Pt. I The Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Centuries
Digest of Columbus's Log Book from the First Voyage (1492-1493) 3
Narrative of the Third Voyage (1498-1500) 3
Mundus Novus (1503) 9
De Orbe Novo (1511-1530) 14
Natural History of the West Indies (1526) 22
The Narrative of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca (1542) 29
The Narrative of the Expedition of Coronado (c. 1562) 35
The Whole and True Discovery of Terra Florida (1563) 41
A Brief and True Report of the Newfound Land of Virginia (1588) 46
A Description of New England (1616) 51
The General History of Virginia (1624) 51
New England's Prospect (1634) 57
The New English Canaan (1637) 63
Meditations Divine and Moral (1664/1867) 68
Account of the Second Voyage to New England (1674) 72
Journal of a Voyage to New York and a Tour in Several of the American Colonies (1679-1680/1867) 78
A New Discovery of a Vast Country in America (1697) 84
Pt. II The Eighteenth Century
The Journal of Madam Knight (1704-1705/1825) 95
The History and Present State of Virginia (1705) 99
A New Voyage to Carolina (1709) 105
The Christian Philosopher (1721) 110
"The Spider Letter" (1723) 117
"Beauty of the World" (1725) 117
"An Essay upon the Natural History of Whales ..." (1724) 125
The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands (1731) 131
The Letterbook of Eliza Lucas Pinckney (1739-1762/1972) 137
Travels into North America (1753-1761) 143
"The Kite" (1752) 149
"Effect of Oil on Water" (1773) 149
"Restoration of Life by Sun Rays" (1773) 149
A Lecture on Earthquakes (1755) 156
Font's Complete Diary (1775-1776/1933) 161
Letters from an American Farmer (1782) 166
A Tour in the United States of America (1784) 172
Notes on the State of Virginia (1785) 178
Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida ... (1791) 184
An Account of the Remarkable Occurrences in the Life and Travels of Col. James Smith (1799) 191
"Introduction to a Course of Lectures on Natural History ..." (1799) 196
Pt. III The Nineteenth Century through Walden
The Journals of Lewis and Clark (1804-1806) 205
American Ornithology; or, The Natural History of the Birds of the United States (1808-1829) 212
Travels in the Interior of America ... (1817) 217
Journal of a Tour into the Interior of Missouri and Arkansaw ... (1821) 224
Travels in New England and New York (1821-1822) 230
Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains ... (1822-1823) 236
A Narrative of Some Remarkable Incidents, in the Life of Solomon Bayley, Formerly a Slave ... (1825) 242
Recollections of the Last Ten Years Passed in Occasional Residences and Journeyings in the Valley of the Mississippi ... (1826) 247
Sketches of History, Life, and Manners, in the United States (1826) 253
Travels in America (1827) 260
Ornithological Biography (1831-1839) 266
"The Uses of Natural History" (1833) 273
Rambles of a Naturalist (1833) 280
A Tour on the Prairies (1835) 286
"Essay on American Scenery" (1836) 292
Retrospect of Western Travel (1838) 298
Algic Researches, Comprising Inquiries Respecting the Mental Characteristics of the North American Indians (1839) 303
Narrative of a Journey across the Rocky Mountains, to the Columbia River ... (1839) 308
Recollections of the Rocky Mountains (1840-1847/1967) 314
Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Conditions of the North American Indians (1841) 320
The Lady's Book of Flowers and Poetry ... (1842) 325
"Buds and Bird-Voices" (1843) 330
"A New Public Park" (1844) 336
Letters of a Traveller ... (1850) 336
Summer on the Lakes, in 1843 (1844) 342
Report of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1842, and to Oregon and North California in 1843-1844 (1845) 347
The Life, History and Travels of Kah-ge-ga-gah-bowh, a Young Indian Chief of the Ojebwa Nation ... (1847) 353
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) 358
Rural Hours (1850) 365
Exploration and Survey of the Valley of the Great Salt Lake of Utah ... (1852) 371
The Homes of the New World: Impressions of America (1853) 375
Further Reading 381
Sources and Credits 391
About the Editor 396
Index 397
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