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Discovering the New World

The Travels and Other Writings of William Bartram

by William Bartram
Knopf, 701 pp., $37.50

The Natures of John and William Bartram

by Thomas P. Slaughter
Library of America, 304 pp., $27.50

There may be other readers on the far side of the Atlantic whose view of the American landscape in the early days is limited to Captain John Smith and George Catlin, the interval being filled with dimly remembered wars, theological disputes, Red Men, innumerable bears, and, of course, Audubon. But now this near-vacuity is replenished with the clear, distinct human beings, animals, and above all plants that inhabit the works of two American naturalists, John Bartram and his son William, whose lives cover the whole of the eighteenth century and more, an exceptionally interesting period in which the North American flora and fauna were virtually intact.

It is true that both writers, Pennsylvania Quakers, were much given to pious ejaculations and improving remarks, which may prove tedious to those who have already been taught the difference between right and wrong; but one grows used to it, and in any case I mean to begin with William, the younger man, who was somewhat less apt to moralize and who was probably the better naturalist (quite certainly the better draughtsman) as well as the more sympathetic character.

William Bartram, who was born at Kingsessing, near Philadelphia, in 1739, was as it were a hereditary botanist, his father having, in addition to a considerable farm, a large botanical garden, one of the first in the colonies, which he filled with plants that he himself collected in far-ranging expeditions. By the time William, his fourth son, was born, John Bartram was already sending seeds and specimens to Peter Collinson in England, a Quaker and one of those happy men who could combine an antiquarian’s studies (he was a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries) with those of a scientist (he was also a Fellow of the Royal Society), and with trade as a very successful North American merchant; and by the time William was old enough to accompany his father on his shorter expeditions John Bartram had a wide acquaintance among fellow naturalists in Great Britain and Europe.

A youth deeply interested in botany and the countless other aspects of natural history could not have asked for a better background: there was the earthy, practical side of running a farm and a botanical garden, and there was the active, bookish, scientific side, for Linnaeus had recently published his sexual system of classification, and the well-populated world of botanists was in a ferment. Furthermore, William had what his father so sadly lacked, a formal education, at least to the extent of handling a botanist’s Latin with ease and writing grammatical English, and he possessed an undeniable talent for drawing and painting botanical specimens, reptiles, birds, and fishes.

As well as a school education, William had some training in commerce: his father did not want him “to be what is commonly called a gentleman” and bound him apprentice to a Philadelphia merchant in 1757. It does not appear that William ever gave signs of wanting to be a gentleman, but he certainly did long to be a botanist, and his father’s decision led to conflicts that Mr. Slaughter deals with in the second book here reviewed. However, William did find time to send small dried specimens to George Edwards in London, the author of a most respectable work, Gleanings of Natural History. When his apprenticeship was over in 1761, William, with his father’s help, set up as a merchant on the Cape Fear River, in North Carolina, living at Ashwood, his uncle William Bartram’s plantation house.

But commerce did not take a commanding grip on young William’s mind. Presently he returned to Philadelphia to see to his affairs, but instead of hurrying back to his store he traveled through Virginia to the Yadkin River with his father and his brother Moses. his father carrying on, botanizing through the Carolinas and in other parts of Virginia.

In 1758 John Bartram had been disowned by his Quaker community for denying the divinity of Christ, but this did not seem to affect him particularly—he went on attending the Meeting with his family—nor did the news make the least stir in London (if indeed it ever reached England at all), since in 1765 he, at Mr. Collinson’s suggestion, was appointed His Majesty’s botanist for the North American colonies, an appointment that filled him with pride and satisfaction. He asked William to give up his business and join him in a botanical expedition to Florida, an English possession since 1763, when the Seven Years War came to an end. This he did, and a very serious expedition it proved to be, worthy of a royal botanist. But when John Bartram sailed for Charleston at the end of it, William stayed behind, meaning to start a rice and indigo plantation. John Bartram was against the scheme, yet even so he sent William six slaves, two men, three women and a boy, together with seed, tools, and provisions.

John’s objections were well founded: the plantation came to nothing, and after a series of misadventures, including about of fever, “Poor Billy,” as his family and friends had taken to calling him, came back to Philadelphia. Through Mr. Collinson the Duchess of Portland asked him to draw seashells for a fee of twenty guineas; and later Dr. Fothergill, a Quaker and the owner of the largest botanical garden in England, sent a similar commission, though he was more interested in turtles.

Forty guineas was a fair sum of money—almost twice the ordinary seaman’s yearly wage—yet even so in 1770 Poor Billy had to escape from his creditors, taking refuge in North Carolina. His family coped with the situation, but when William decided to abandon trade and “retreat within myself to the only business I was born for” at St. Augustine in Florida, his father would not agree. “I don’t intend to have any more of my estate spent there or to the southward upon any pretense whatever.”

However, William wrote to Dr. Fothergill, sending some drawings and suggesting that he should return to Florida and collect plants there: to his delight Fothergill agreed, giving exact directions for gathering seeds and shipping live specimens, at the same time writing to Dr. Lionel Chalmers of Charleston asking him to see that William should be paid £50 a year with an additional sum for expenses. This was in the late autumn of 1772, when William was thirty-three.

His book begins, “At the request of Dr. Fothergill, of London, to search the Floridas, and the western parts of Carolina and Georgia, for the discovery of rare and useful productions of nature, chiefly in the vegetable kingdom; in April, 1773, I embarked for Charleston, South Carolina, on board the brigantine Charleston packet, captain Wright….” He did not see Philadelphia again until January 1777, and during the intervening years he traveled great distances, mainly on horseback, going as far as the Spanish shore of the Mississippi and ranging far to the west; he kept an account of his movements, and this provided first the basis for his reports to Dr. Forthergill and then for the fuller and far more elaborate “written-up” version that forms the bulk of the present Library of America volume.

It is a long book, not far short of 200,000 words, and for the common reader it is made somewhat longer by being written by and for an expressed botanist, to whom great lists of scientific names are full of meaning, and by frequent rhetorical or moral passages in the eighteenth-century manner by one whose talents do not really lie that way:

Behold, on yon decayed, defoliated cypress tree, the solitary wood-pelican, dejectedly perched upon its utmost elevated spire….

or

The glorious sovereign of the day, clothed in light refulgent, rolling on his gilded chariot, hastened to revisit the western realms.

But a man cannot write at such length, particularly about himself and his own doing, without showing many sides of his nature; and despite his fine writing and occasional pieces of silly cant (“…the regular heavy strokes of their gleaming axes re-echoed in the deep forests; at the same time, contented and joyful, the sooty sons of Africa forgetting their bondage, in chorus sang the virtues and beneficence of their master in songs of their own composition”) in a long and attentive reading of his book I came to like him.

In the first place he was a truly devoted botanist, an immensely conscientious gatherer of species, subspecies and varieties, and he loved his plants, from the prodigious magnolia grandiflora to a lichen covering barely half an inch of rock: and he was a fine general naturalist, very well acquainted with birds, reptiles, mammals, and only too well acquainted with insects.

And without being in the least aggressive or foolhardy, he was uncommonly brave. Riding through dreary open country one evening, beyond the limits of white settlement in that particular part of Georgia, he noticed an Indian, a Seminole, armed with a rifle, crossing the path some way ahead. Bartram would rather have avoided the encounter, but the Indian saw him and galloped up. “I never before this was afraid at the sight of an Indian,” he says, which is remarkable, since his grandfather had been killed by the raiding Tuscarora in 1711, while his step-grandmother, her daughter and baby son were taken prisoner, “but at this time, I must own that my spirits were very much agitated”—he was, after all, alone and unarmed. However, he put the best face on it and advanced, holding out his hand to the obviously furious Indian: after an angry hesitation the Indian spurred forward, took the proffered hand, and they parted on good terms, the Indian pointing out the way to the trading-post. There they told him that the Seminole had been there the evening before—a noted murderer, outlawed by his own people. The traders had beaten him and broken his gun; but he escaped, catching up a rifle as he went, and he called out that he would kill the first white man he met.

Having recorded this incident, William adds, “Possibly the silent language of his soul, during the moment of suspense…was after this manner: ‘…Live; the Great Spirit forbids me to touch thy life; go to thy brethren, tell them thou sawest an Indian in the forests, who knew how to be humane and compassionate.”’ This seems to me to exemplify both the steady courage that is evident throughout the very long and often solitary expedition, and the occasional silliness that accompanied it—a fairly steady component in a generally amiable character.

As for his amiability, the whole narrative is sprinkled with examples of people being quite exceptionally kind to him—putting him up when he was homeless, tending him for weeks and even months on end when he was sick, and helping him in many ways far beyond the call of ordinary hospitality: and surely people are not steadily kind to an unlikeable man?

In an article of this length there is no point in trying to trace William’s journey in any detail (and I am sorry to say that the map at the end of an otherwise beautifully produced book is of very little value); but it is worth observing that he rode one of his horses for six thousand miles before exchanging it for a younger, stronger animal, the other man undertaking to treat William’s old mount kindly and not to use it as a pack-carrier.

Much of the country he traversed was savannah, often bordered by immense forests, often well watered, with natural orange groves (the delight of bears) alternating with cane-brakes that made progress difficult. Broadly speaking, he seems to ride through a vast and empty world, sometimes showing traces of ancient Indian mounds and fields, but usually inhabited by animals alone. In the regions where he searched for plants the buffalo had already been hunted to death, but there were still very great numbers of deer and horses, some feral, some remotely owned; and of the second he has an account of an exceptionally conscientious dog.

…We…proceeded across a charming lawn, part of the savanna, entering on it through a dark grove. In this extensive lawn were several troops of horse… one…under the controul and care of a single black dog…. He was very careful and industrious in keeping them together; and if any one strolled from the rest at too great a distance, the dog would spring up, head the horse, and bring him back to the company…. And when he is hungry or wants to see his master [an Indian], in the evening he returns to town [ten miles away], but never stays at home a night.

Yet although forests and savannahs provided many, many specimens, the great rivers, their banks and islands were also extremely rich, and at least some of his traveling was by water. This also had the advantage of providing fish, sometimes in great quantities, though on the other hand there were the alligators, sometimes very large, very noisy (they roar), and shockingly aggressive animals; and at one point when he was camping on the shore of the St. John’s River he was most furiously attacked by a great number of them, gathered for the migration of countless fish—they tried to upset his boat, but he managed to beat them off with a providential club.

The river banks also had another attraction: they showed something of the geology of the country through which they flowed, and although Bartram did not possess Darwin’s reading or education or anything like his head, he did share the great man’s intense curiosity and desire to know. He also, as a farmer’s son, had a certain resemblance to Cobbett, carefully and with a knowing eye examining the ground he traveled over; and on occasion, when he was in a plain, downright mood, he even wrote like him.

Generally speaking, William Bartram got along very well with the Indians he met; and toward the end of the book, when he speaks of their manners, customs, law, beliefs, and the like, one seems to hear echoes of Rousseau:

The males of the Cherokees, Muscogulges, Siminoles, Chickasaws, Chactaws, and confederate tribes of the Creeks, are tall, erect, and moderately robust; their limbs well shaped, so as generally to form a perfect human figure; their features regular, and countenance open, dignified and placid; yet the forehead and brow so formed as to strike you instantly with heroism and bravery; the eye though rather small, yet active and full of fire; the iris always black, and the nose commonly inclining to the aquiline. Their countenance and actions exhibit an air of magnanimity, superiority and independence…. If we consider them with respect to their private character or in a moral view, they must, I think, claim our approbation, if we divest ourselves of prejudice and think freely. As moral men they certainly stand in no need of European civilization.

Few Europeans, looking round their continent at present, would disagree with that. But just how sound is his evidence? To be sure, he lived in fairly close contact with Indians for quite a long time; yet it does not appear that he was fluent in any of their languages or indeed that he spoke a single one of them. Perhaps a certain amount of enthusiasm crept into these farewell pages; but if so, it was a generous, likeable enthusiasm worthy of a generous, likeable man; and it is with real pleasure that one learns that he reached home safely, that he was reconciled with his father (who died that autumn), and that he lived on in the family house at Kingsessing until 1823, tending the famous garden, in the company of his brother John, his wife and their children, together with a large dog that was fond of sitting with him, and a tame crow, a bird of a happy temper and good disposition, tractable and benevolent, docile and humble. He published his Travels (English and Irish editions as well as American; French and German translations: Coleridge and Wordsworth had copies of the second English edition) together with other works. He received the visits of many famous men, and outlived almost all his contemporaries, a respected figure, loved and known throughout the United States.

Next comes Thomas P. Slaughter’s The Natures of John and William Bartram, which addresses not only their differing views of nature but also the conflicts that arose from their differing views on a number of other subjects, such as filial gratitude, and the importance of painting, particularly botanical painting, as compared with making a good living in commerce.

Mr. Slaughter probably knows more about the Bartrams, father and son, than anyone else: he too is a Quaker, at home in their atmosphere, and he has studied their lives and writings, together with the extant records and above all the commonplace books and journals that William kept for so many years; and his well-informed book amplifies the Travels, at the same time throwing much light upon the civilization in which they took place.

Yet it may be thought that Mr. Slaughter throws away many of his advantages by choosing

to minimize contexts that other authors might have shared more fully with readers; I decided to focus on the emotions upon which human rationalities are built. The Bartrams’ story seems to me to warrant such an emotional recounting. John’s heartfelt, if unlettered, prose, and William’s impassioned drawings of animals and plants gave me access to the deeper feelings that define who we are and determines what we do no matter how we comprehend our actions or explain ourselves to others. There are connections between their stories and mine.

That said, a little more self-revelation is called for here.

This attitude has grave disadvantages: there are readers who will not accept that John’s unlettered prose and William’s impassioned drawings had any such effect, and who feel that the author’s personal involvement—intrusion might be the better word—is altogether excessive. Furthermore, his being there is made particularly evident by the familiar and even nudging style in which he has seen fit to write, with countless abbreviations and coloquial turns of phrase; while the addition of a third character (for Mr. Slaughter is present from beginning to end) causes the tide of moralizing to rise to a wearisome height. The author says of their 1765 expedition to Florida, when father and son were on indifferent terms,

William and John wanted to save each other, to redeem themselves from the recent past, to find each other in nature and discover themselves.

It’s hard to say which of them most needed redemption and whether either could be saved by anyone but himself. And it is equally difficult to know their greatest fears as they anticipated the trip that lay ahead. Nature was scary, but they had been there before. Each also had the sting of the other’s judgment to fear. Then, of course, there were the venomous snakes—and not just the ones on the ground; for those inside ourselves, the ones that inhabit our hearts, are perhaps the most frightening of all and the most difficult to kill.

He starts his account of the Bartrams with the death of the son at eighty-three, in his garden: a beginning that might work in the hands of an exceptionally gifted writer. But quite soon he is back with John, the father, born in 1699, the grandson of an immigrant couple from Derbyshire, and to a more conventional history of his Quaker background and his somewhat deprived childhood (his mother died in 1701 and his father was killed by Indians in 1711: facts which in the post hoc propter hoc kind of psychology explain almost everything).

Whatever the causes, John grew up into a rather disagreeable, self-opinionated young man, devoid of modesty. He had little education (none at all, by his own account, apart from what he picked up for himself), yet he had a high opinion of his own acumen, justified in that he was quite a successful farmer and an outstanding though unsystematic botanist: but a certain amount of common sense and a close reading of the Bible do not make a man a theologian and his denial of Christ’s divinity mentioned earlier, did not convince his fellow Quakers. His father before him had been declared “out of unity” with the Meeting in 1708, so perhaps the Bartrams were known to be of a contentious stock, and the Friends were used to them. In any event he was in no way molested and his life carried on as though he were perfectly orthodox.

He prospered both as a commercial botanist and as a farmer; he built himself a large house and he had eight children, for whom he wrote rules of behavior. Slaughter’s book, naturally, is concerned with only one of them, the botanist and traveler William, and it follows the course of their generally difficult relations in great detail, with many psychological explanations and some most illuminating details of eighteenth-century American life. The other children, who do not seem to have been in any way rivals, perhaps came off more happily than William: but old Mr. Bartram cannot have been an easy father to anyone at any time—far too liberal with reproof, blame, and accusations of ingratitude—and it is a positive relief to read of Poor Billy being left in peace in that fine garden, unreproached, for his last forty-five years, no less.

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