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  • William Bartram and Environmentalism
  • Robert Sayre (bio)

In a recent study of Alexander von Humboldt and his influence on nineteenth-century American environmentalism, Aaron Sachs highlights awareness of the “chain of connection” and a passionate subjective communion with nature as central to the thought and sensibility of the German explorer naturalist. Sachs sees Humboldt as ahead of his time in these respects at the opening of the nineteenth century and suggests that Humboldt may indeed have been “the first ecologist.”1 It could be argued, however, that William Bartram (1739–1823) has an earlier claim to the title. The work usually referred to simply as Bartram’s Travels has in recent years become a minor classic in the United States, and its present status, it would seem, is to a large extent due to the rise of modern environmentalism. Since the 1960s, there has been widespread recognition of its author as an eighteenth-century precursor of the movement that first developed in America via Thoreau, Emerson, and John Muir and came to further fruition in the twentieth century.2 At the same time, however, some scholars have questioned the extent to which Bartram was exceptional in relation to his contemporaries and have pointed to contradictions in his work. In this article, I examine the environmental vision of Bartram and its place historically and make the case not only that Bartram’s work stands out in its far-reaching protoenvironmentalist thrust but also that this perspective is closely associated with a radical critique of his society, itself unusual in the context of his time. I also argue, against those who have foregrounded Bartram’s inconsistencies, that his perspective is remarkably sustained [End Page 67] and that the inconsistencies, such as they are, do not reside in his fundamental vision.

William Bartram was the son of John Bartram, the renowned Quaker botanist of Philadelphia, who corresponded with and provided specimens for some of the leading lights of European horticulture, botany, and “natural history;” John was named botanist of the king for the North American colonies by George III in 1765. William was an artist and accompanied his father to make sketches on several extensive botanical explorations during his youth. But his Travels, published in Philadelphia in 1791, long after the excursion itself, is the narrative of a much longer journey made alone, between 1773 and 1777, in the Carolinas, Georgia, and East and West Florida, as far west as the lower Mississippi River.3 The trip was subsidized by the English horticulturist John Fothergill, also a Quaker, to whom Bartram sent both plant samples and sketches. The areas traversed by Bartram were largely what the British termed “wilderness.” Claimed by the latter as part of their North American possessions, they were still inhabited and controlled almost entirely by Native American tribes and nations (though British settlement was making progressive inroads in some regions). Bartram was passionately interested in and attracted to the Indians he encountered and sojourned with, as he was by the wild—though not unmodified—natural environment in which they lived.

Bartram’s writings on the trip went through several stages and versions. He first wrote a two-part report—already in the form of a travel narrative—to his patron in England, sent from the South before the expedition had been completed. This report, which has been published,4 puts the greatest emphasis on descriptions and enumerations of fauna, flora, and habitats of the kind that its addressee had instructed the traveler to provide. Even in this document aimed at providing “objective” information, however, Bartram gives way in many places to subjective impressions and effusions, evoking his personal responses to the natural world through which he has been traveling. That dimension is much expanded in the travel account written for publication, which Bartram probably began soon after his return to Philadelphia in 1777. Considerable fragments of a first manuscript version of Travels have survived, in which the philosophical and literary elements are paramount.5 This early rendering then underwent an editing process (clearly with the aid of persons other than Bartram himself) before the work was finally published, fourteen years after the conclusion of the trip.

The first edition...


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pp. 67-87
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