William Bartram, An American Original

 
                                                                         Travel Writing

William Bartram is one of my personal heroes and a man that almost everyone finds endearing.  Although he started life in colonial America with some impressive advantages (for instance, his father, John, achieved fame as a botanist and rubbed shoulders with the likes of Ben Franklin), he faced formidable obstacles in the way of his own dreamy, irresolute nature.  Itís unlikely that anyone including himself expected he would become famous, let alone be known far and wide as one of Americaís first proto-literary figures; his book Travels had an immense influence on the English Romantic poets.  Of more immediate interest to Americans and especially Floridians is the fact that his book deals with nature study in the lower part of the English colonies just before the American Revolution.  His take on the Seminole Indians, in particular, is noteworthy.  Travels is a classic, still intriguing for his observations--and the unique, Quakerified personality it reveals.  I recommend his book to you. 

I have spent years of fretting over a few of Bartramís more puzzling observations.  Many a pleasant hour has been passed ruminating on these topics with others with an interest in Florida natural history.  Both amateur naturalists such as myself and professionals  in the biological sciences have expressed extreme perplexity by some of the things William set down.  So far as I have been able to determine, though, I am the first recently to challenge Bartramís assertions in print.  Please, however, do not think my feeling Bartram is in error here and there in any way diminishes his work.                                   

I have included a copy of Charles Willson Pealeís portrait of William in his later years.  Illustrating the article is one of Bartramís own drawings of the Seminole chief, Micco Chlucco.  This picture, while presumably accurate in its details, also shows Bartramís Romantic and perhaps even child-like character.  Below you will find another of Bartramís drawings, presumably of a paddlefish.  Although scientifically accurate, this picture also exhibits traits that can only be called poetic.  The paper included below was first published in The Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Journal of Florida Literature, Volume IX, 2000.  Although an academic paper, I think it is neither so snooty nor so technical that a non-technical (i.e. anyone not being compelled by class or profession) reader canít profit from reading it.  This version is the last one I found in my archives and may vary a bit from the printed version.  Hope you enjoy it.

 

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