Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Burgess and Nature-Faking

Thornton Burgess was continually worried that he would be labeled a "nature faker." In his autobiography he stresses how he strives in his writing "not to allow imagination to overstep the exacting bounds of truth and fact." (p. 302) and few things gave him a greater thrill than being honored by "authorities in the field of natural science." But as a self-proclaimed "amateur naturalist" he always felt vulnerable to the charge.

Ralph J. Lutts in his book, The Nature Fakers, provides a detailed account of this line of critique. The following account is based on his narrative. The opening salvo was a piece by esteemed naturalist John Burroughs in the Atlantic Monthly titled "Real and Sham Natural History."

In the essay Burroughs praises authors who avoid mixing fact with fiction in their nature stories and is critical of those who stretch the truth within their tales of putative natural history. The popular Ernest Thompson Seton, for example, tells a tall tale when he has a fox ride on the back of a sheep in order to avoid hounds in pursuit.

Burroughs is especially critical of those who go out of their way to claim such stories are true.
This is the old trick of the romancer: he swears his tale is true, because he knows his reader want this assurance; it makes the thing taste better.
Beyond outlandish descriptions of the behavior of animals, Burroughs rejects the notion that animals' thought patterns are at all similar to humans--particularly when it comes to the depiction of an inner life and the making of rational decisions. Here he is particularly critical of William J. Long, whom he ends up dismissing:
Mr. Long's book reads like that of a man who has really never been to the woods, but who sits in his study and cooks up these yarns from things he has read in Forest and Stream or in other sporting journals.
The term "nature faker" was popularized as a label for these writers in a series of articles in Everybody's Magazine, beginning with Edward B. Clark's interview with Theodore Roosevelt in 1907 (where the term is introduced as "nature fakir")

and continuing with a critical essay by Roosevelt himself.

Roosevelt, while more agnostic than Burroughs in respect to the thought-processes of animals, makes a distinction between animal stories that are "fables" (he approves of The Jungle Book, for example) and animal stories that represent themselves as true. He is particularly worried about the widespread use of fake nature stories as supplementary texts in elementary schools. Here's his theory about their negative impact:
The preservation of the useful and beautiful animal and bird life of the country depends largely upon the creating in the young an interest in the life of the woods and fields. If the child mind is fed with stories that are false to nature, the children will go to the haunts of the animal only to meet with disappointment. The result will be disbelief, and the death of interest.
This would effectively become the core of Burgess's mission (Burgess was particularly proud of a positive letter he once received from Roosevelt).

Long vociferously defended himself. Not only were his stories true (told to him by reliable observers), it was Burroughs who had a closed-minded view of what animals could do and think. Roosevelt in turn was a cruel hunter who regarded animals as objects. Long's collected "Peter Rabbit" essays (mentioned last post) were largely a response to critics who refused to see the commonalities between humans and their fellow mammals. (Of course, even in that book Long persisted in repeating outlandish nature "facts," such as the enslavement of young otters by beavers.)

Burgess was a great admirer of Seton and a reader of Long (basing a series of stories around Long's "school of the woods" premise). Indeed, they were very popular authors in general during this period, which Lutts argues was uniquely receptive to their "humanistic" approach.) But Burgess took great pains to differentiate their approach from his, acknowledging the strategic need for some "personalization" while sticking to the basic facts of animal behavior. Here's his statement (from an account of a lecture at the American Museum of Natural History):
I met men whose names I had long revered, and whose criticism I feared because my animal characters talked and wore clothes. But it is generally recognized that animals do have some means of communication. As for the coats, skirts, aprons, hats and bonnets, these were merely personality badges and as such were acceptable as long as the characteristics, habits, and surroundings were kept in strict accord with known facts, the truth. That is why Reddy Fox never drives an automobile and Polly Chuck never sits in a rocking chair knitting. (p.303)
Note how he also differentiates his approach from the "fables" of Kenneth Grahame and Beatrix Potter.

Burgess's approach to "character," thus, was two-fold. On the one hand, he adopted the fable convention of talking and thinking animals, distinguished as characters through their names and their illustrations (the clothing convention can be traced back to Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus books). On the other hand, the core of each characterization was firmly linked with the actual character (expressed through behavior) of the animal in the wild. This would ultimately limit the variety of stories that could be told, which is why Burgess is perhaps better known for his characters and settings than for his plots--with the possible exception of his more fable-like Mother West Wind tales.

Tomorrow: Some early Burgess nature stories.

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