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, by contrast, something of a dreamer, and far less methodical a scientist than was his father. Yet his lyrical Travels
, an account of specimen-collecting in the Deep South, is read today, while John Bartram's work is not. Thomas Slaughter examines their lives, noting the influence both men had on Henry David Thoreau and the English Romantics, especially Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth.
From Publishers 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.
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