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13 January, 2012
Outlines of English and American Literature|
by Long, William J.
|There is one feature in our recent literature, however, which attracts the
attention of all critics; namely, the number of nature writers who have
revealed to us the beauty of our natural environment, as Ruskin awakened
his readers to the beauty of art and Joaquin Miller to the unsung glory of
the pioneers. In this respect, of adding to our enjoyment of human life by
a new valuation of all life, our nature literature has no parallel in any
age or nation.
To be specific, one must search continental literatures carefully to find
even a single book that belongs unmistakably to the outdoor school. In
English literature we find several poets who sing occasionally of the
charms of nature, but only two books in fourteen centuries of writing that
deal frankly with the great outdoors for its own sake: one is Isaac
Walton's Complete Angler (1653), the other Gilbert White's
Natural History of Selborne (1789). [Footnote: There were other
works of a scientific nature, and some of exploration, but no real nature
books until the first notable work of Richard Jefferies (one of the best of
nature writers) appeared in 1878. By that time the nature movement in
America was well under way.] In American literature the story is shorter
but of the same tenor until recent times. From the beginning we have had
many journals of exploration; but though the joy of wild nature is apparent
in such writings, they were written to increase our knowledge, not our
pleasure in life. Josselyn's New England's Rarities (1672),
Alexander Wilson's American Ornithology (1801), Audubon's Birds
of America (1827),--these were our nearest approach to nature books
until Thoreau's Walden (1854) called attention to the immense and
fascinating field which our writers had so long overlooked.
Thoreau, it will be remembered, was neglected by his own generation; but
after the war, when writers began to use the picturesque characters of
plantation or mining camp as the material for a new American literature,
then the living world of nature seemed suddenly opened to their vision.
Bradford Torrey, himself a charming nature writer, edited Thoreau's
journals, and lo! these neglected chronicles became precious because the
eyes of America were at last opened. Maurice Thompson wrote as a poet and
scholar in the presence of nature, John Muir as a reverent explorer, and
William Hamilton Gibson as an artist with an eye single to beauty; then in
rapid succession came Charles Abbott, Rowland Robinson, John Burroughs,
Olive Thorne Miller, Florence Bailey, Frank Bolles, and a score more of a
somewhat later generation. Most of these are frankly nature writers, not
scientists; they aim not simply to observe the shy, fleeting life of the
woods or fields but to reflect that life in such a way as to give us a new
pleasure by awakening a new sense of beauty.
It is a remarkable spectacle, this rediscovery of nature in an age supposed
to be given over to materialism, and its influence appears in every branch
of our literature. The nature writers have evidently done a greater work
than they knew; they have helped a multitude of people to enjoy the beauty
of a flower without pulling it to pieces for a Latin name, to appreciate a
living bird more than a stuffed skin, and to understand what Thoreau meant
when he said that the anima of an animal is the only interesting
thing about him. Because they have given us a new valuation of life, a new
sense of its sacredness and mystery, their work may appeal to a future
generation as the most original contribution to recent literature.