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…

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