Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Some early Burgess nature stories

Burgess began working for Phelps Publishing Co. in 1895 as an office boy and janitor. As soon as 1896, Burgess was a part-time writer/reporter for the Phelps publication,New England Homestead (which shared some content with the Springfield Homestead). A glance at Michael W. Dowhan's extraordinarily helpful bibliography indicates that Burgess's first contribution was a March 14 letter titled, "Birds and their nests." He would follow that with a letter in May titled "With the Birds." So from the very beginning, Burgess was focused on nature topics (though he would write a range of articles for the Homestead). Unfortunately, the New England Homestead is not available online so I am going to have to do some serious library work to bring it to this site [UPDATE: see later posts].

Restricting today's options to what is available on line, we can start with some of his very earliest contributions to Good Housekeeping--a series of articles about dogs, cats, and birds, respectively.

Burgess was no stranger to writing about dogs (you'll remember the "Tale of the Dog" booklet from his advertising days). His article (1900), "Dogs for the Home," is a straight forward piece about choosing appropriate dogs for the home. Readers are urged to avoid large dogs (better off on a farm) and dogs with long hair (hard to maintain). His dog of choice--the bull terrier.

With his second two articles, however, he gets more personal."Some Cats I Have Known" (1901) introduces us to his childhood cats as well of some cats of more recent acquaintance. He used to sleep with his cat, Clover (his mother disapproved), a cat that he was convinced could "understand the English language quite as fully as the discordant vernacular of his own tribe."

"Birds I Have Known" (1901) is a long chronological account of the many varieties of birds Burgess kept as pets, from canaries to a red-tailed hawk (this was before legal prohibitions on the caging of wild birds).

Here again he is struck by their intelligence and human-like qualities. About his pet crow, "Imp," he writes:
At first his wings were clipped, but later they were allowed to grow, for it was plainly evident that he considered himself one of the most important members of the family, and on no account would desert it.

One gets a fuller sense in the latter two articles of Burgess's true feelings about the human-animal connection--that it was closer to Long's position than Burroughs's, and that Burgess truly had to restrain himself in his animal bedtime stories. These are animals he has "known," not owned.

I'm also reminded that the convention of giving names to animals really flows from attempts to personalize household pets. In this sense, wild animals like Johnny Chuck and Jimmy Skunk are at least partially domesticated ("known," not owned). I find it interesting that Burgess's pet name for his wife Fannie was "Lady," which has the opposite effect--making the person more generic!

Tomorrow: Burgess and the "Cat Question"

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