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Outlines of English and American Literature
Nature Writers
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.


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