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American Wilderness Writing (February 2016): Colonial and Early American Writers

By Erik Hage

Colonial and Early American Writers

To understand the history of wilderness writing in the United States, one should begin with the early Colonial works that emerged from English settlements in the early 1600s.  These publications were promotional tracts aimed at encouraging would-be settlers to make the arduous journey across the Atlantic Ocean and to risk privation, disease, and harsh winters in order to carve out a life in the New World.  These writings were also dense catalogs of the natural world and its flora and fauna, and often included descriptions of encounters with Native Americans.  Their appreciation for the natural environment notwithstanding, these early writers saw the wilderness as an abundant source of materials and food, and their attention was often drawn to how those resources could be used for human needs.  But though little of the conservationist and preservationist ethic that emerges in Thoreau and his literary descendents is evident in these early works, they are a critical part of the literature on wilderness.

First published in 1634, William Wood’s New England’s Prospect is the earliest available example of this type of publication, and it offers rich and vivid descriptions of a relatively untrammeled world not yet penetrated by Europeans and inhabited mostly by indigenous peoples.  Centuries later, Thoreau would write admiringly of Wood’s work, noting Wood’s roughshod but lively prose and his perspective on a Colonial world that was still very much a wilderness.  Wood’s account is thorough and relatively unembellished—a rarity for such publications, which were often cast in a way to promote settlement or were sometimes just plain inaccurate in their natural history.  Wood’s narrative is also remarkably free of religious perspective and dogma (unusual for an account emanating from New England).  Little biographical information can be gleaned about the English author, other than that he lived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony for four years (1629–34), thus preceding by a few years the “great migration” of Puritan settlers in the 1630s.  Wood’s book enjoyed considerable popularity in England and was into its third printing by 1639, with American editions following in 1764, 1865, 1898, and in more recent years.

Published three years after Wood’s work, Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan lacked the rigorous detail and comprehensiveness of Wood’s account.  But much more is known about Morton, a legendary rebel and member of the Merrymount settlement (in what is now Quincy, Massachusetts), who constantly found himself on the wrong side of English Colonial authority.  As its title suggests, Morton’s promotional tract represented the New World as a biblical and archetypal region of plenty.  Morton’s description is less objective than Wood’s, and the author often revels in the aesthetic pleasures of the natural world, engaging in heightened, poetical rhetoric rather than offering a reliable record.  But the work is remarkable for its appreciative, empathic view of Native American life.

Some four decades later, another English explorer of New England, John Josselyn, an herbalist and son of a Colonial “councilor” in the Province of Maine, produced New-Englands Rarities Discovered, a comprehensive account of the New England natural world.  Though Josselyn often indulges in fantastical and inaccurate accounts of animals, the book’s strength lies in his thorough and attentive encapsulation of flora.  Josselyn’s accounts were followed closely by works of the first writers born in the colonies, William Byrd II and William Bartram.  Byrd was a self-taught naturalist, Virginia aristocrat, and statesman, and his Histories of the Dividing Line betwixt Virginia and North Carolina was posthumously published in the mid-1800s and has been republished numerous times since.  The account emerged from a boundary dispute between the two states, and Byrd—part of a 1728 surveying party that pushed westward from the Atlantic Ocean into wilderness, swamps, and thickets—used the opportunity to compile a rich and vivid natural record of animal species, plants, and trees.  This book is perhaps most interesting for its account of buffalo, which still roamed the Southeast, and extinct birds such as passenger pigeons and the Carolina parakeet.  Byrd is also consciously literary, writing with prose flourishes that one did not find in the work of his predecessors.  With Travels through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Greek Confederacy, and the Country of the Chactaws (a title later shortened), William Bartram also takes the reader away from New England, and the literary flourishes in his book are even more elaborate than those in Byrd’s.  Indeed, Bartram’s imagery had a profound impact on English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  Bartram’s balance of literary craft and dutiful empirical observations make this book the most significant US wilderness tract in the pre-Thoreau era.  Though of course Bartram’s eye is trained on resources and settlement rather than an environmentalist ethos, he begins to show the interdisciplinary balance and literary acumen of later masters of the form.

Written when the original colonies were establishing themselves as a nation, Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, the only book Jefferson published in his lifetime, offers early examples of wilderness description, though it is only in part a work on nature.  From that perspective, the work is best known for its lengthy description of what became known as the Natural Bridge—a description that displays a blend of proto-Romantic literary impulses and Enlightenment empiricism—and also for its descriptive passages of the Blue Ridge Mountains.  As president, Jefferson was also the impetus behind one of the greatest wilderness narratives and records in US history, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  In their most definitive form, the journals run to nearly 5,000 pages, and both expedition leaders contributed to them, with Lewis being the more scientifically trained and more astute writer of the two.  Clearly, many things can be gleaned from the journals—they include accounts of frequent (and often troubling) contact with various Native American peoples and of the great mapping enterprise as the Corps of Discovery (as the expedition was called) traversed the continent—but the wilderness impressions are paramount.  The journals record lands as witnessed for the first time by European Americans: topographical wonders now known as the Rocky Mountains, the Great Falls of the Missouri, the White Cliffs of the Missouri Breaks.  And, of course, there was also the wildlife: grizzly bears, prairie dogs and their settlements, and buffalo in massive herds.