The Later Historians
Read More Articles About: American Literature
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Several writers of this Century have devoted them-selves almost entirely to the literary treatment of natural history. Perhaps the first of the Nature-Essayists was Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), who was born and died at Concord, Massachusetts. The son of a farmer, he was educated at Harvard, and for a time taught school. But after a while he took up his self-appointed work of minute observation of nature. He attached himself to Emerson, who always showed him friendly regard. In 1845 he built himself a hut on the shore of Walden Pond, and lived as a recluse in communion with nature. His experiences and observations were embodied in "Walden, or Life in the Woods" (1854). He had already published "A Week on the Concord and Merrimac Rivers" (1848). Thoreau was an apostle of plain living and high thinking, and practiced what he preached. His life was a pro-test against all forms of superfluous comfort, and an effort to reach harmony with nature, as the basis of true happiness. After two years' experience of hut life, he left the woods because he had "several more lives to live, and could not spare any more time for that one." He never entered a church, but he was thoroughly imbued with Pantheism, and had a devout spirit. His individualism was carried so far that he refused to pay taxes and was imprisoned on that account, but was released when Emerson, against his wish, paid them for him. But the world's indebtedness to him is for the love of nature manifested in his books. Besides "Walden" he wrote "Excursions" (1863), "The Maine Woods" (1864), "Cape Cod" (1865), "A Yankee in Canada" (1866), "Summer" (1884), "Winter" (1888), "Autumn" (1892). These posthumous publications were made up from his daily journal begun in 1835.
Wilson Flagg (1805-1894) also deserves a place among the American nature essayists. Born at Beverly, Massachusetts, he was educated at Phillips Acadamy, Andover, and studied medicine. He was a keen observer of out-door life and natural phenomena. His writings were contributed to Boston newspapers and to the "Atlantic Monthly." His best known works are "Halcyon Days," "A Year With the Trees," and "A Year With the Birds."
Another man who took delight in the portrayal of out-door nature with the pen was William Hamilton Gibson (1850-1896). He was also an artist and book-illustrator. He was born at Sandy Hook, Connecticut, and after studying went to New York, where he was engaged in making illustrations of botany and natural history for various publications. Soon he began to write on these subjects, and to illustrate his own books. Much of his time was spent in study of the night life of plants and insects. But in his popular books he gave literary form to his observations. These include "Camp-Life in the Woods," "Highways and Byways, or Saunterings in New England," "Happy Hunting Grounds, or a Tribute to the Woods and Fields," "Strolls by Starlight and Sunshine."
But the best known of the nature-essayists and most genial successor of Thoreau is John Burroughs, who was born at Roxbury, New York, in April, 1837. As he says in an essay, "I think April is the best month to be born in; in April all nature starts with you." His boyhood was spent on a farm, and after receiving an academic edu cation, he taught school and became a journalist. For some years he was a clerk- in the Treasury Department at Washington, and afterward a bank inspector. In 1874 he settled on a farm at Esopus, New York, and gave his leisure time to friendly study of nature. Among his books are "Wake-Robin," "Birds and Poets," "Locusts and Wild Honey," "Fresh Fields," and "Signs and Seasons." Burroughs, like Thoreau, has written of travels and literature, but his chief interest is in nature. In his essays the charm of out-door life is reproduced. His read-ers are initiated in wood-craft and bird-lore, and are not inveigled into mysticism and metaphysics. He is a single-hearted lover of nature, endowed with sympathy for every-thing that lives.
Donald Grant Mitchell is well known by the pen-name "Ilk Marvel," under which he wrote his most popular books —"The Reveries of a Bachelor," and "Dream Life." Born at Norwich, Connecticut, in 1822, he was educated at Yale College, and became a lawyer, but has given much attention to farming. His first books were the results of travel in Europe, "Fresh Gleanings" (1847), and "The Battle Summer" (1848), and the more popular books, named above, followed in 185o and 1851. The "Reveries," to use the author's statement, consist of "such whimsies and reflections as a great many brother bache-lors are apt to indulge in, but which they are too cautious or too prudent to lay before the world." "Dream Life" sketches a career from the cradle to the grave, from the aspirations of boyhood to the reminiscences of age. In 1853 Mitchell was made United States Consul at Venice, and on his return settled on his farm, Edgewood, near New Haven. Here he has written a series of delightful books on the practical and aesthetic aspects of rural life, "My Farm at Edgewood," "Wet Days at Edgewood," "Rural Studies." Later he has treated, in a fresh and lively way, the history of literature in "English Lands, Letters and Kings," and "American Lands and Letters."