Friday, February 5, 2010

Burgess and the Boy Scouts

In 1912, Burgess wrote The Boy Scouts of Woodcraft Camp

The book was an immediate success, allowing Burgess to quit the advertising business. Burgess was ultimately called on to write three more:

The Boy Scouts on Swift River (1913)

The Boy Scouts on Lost Trail (1914)

The Boy Scouts in a Trapper's Camp (1915)

The "Boy Scouts" as a national organization had just been founded in 1910 and these books were designed to entice young men into joining. They were apparently effective. They would also be the only true novels Burgess would write.

Burgess had written boys' outdoor adventure stories for the New England Homestead (we'll look at some of these tomorrow), which is perhaps why he was chosen to be the author. But the true spirit of the books rests with the nature writer, Ernest Thompson Seton, one of the founders of the Boy Scouts and its first "Chief Scout." (A Seton-like character, "Dr. Merriam," is the leader in Burgess's books). Seton had written about the first "Woodcraft" tribe in the Ladies Home Journal in 1902 and had dramatized the ideas in the popular 1903 book, Two Little Savages

This book about "two little boys who lived like Indians" was to be a major source of inspiration for Roger Tory Peterson, among others. A comprehensive guide to this original scouting idea can be found in The Book of Woodcraft, in which Seton lays out his scouting ideas (particularly his use of the "Indian" as the ultimate model for his scouts) in great detail.

In essence, the idea was to use outdoor experiences to, as Burgess's character, Dr. Merriam, states: "make big men of little boys." (This intense concern with "manhood" links this movement to the Vigilantes of Hermann Hagedorn).

The character-building aspect of the Boy Scout experience is explicitly articulated in Burgess's introduction to the first scouting book. The purpose of the book is to:
Stimulate on the part of every one of my boy readers a desire to master for himself the mysteries of nature's great out-of-doors, the secrets of field and wood and stream, and to show by example what the Boy Scout's oath means in the development of character.
The boys in Burgess's camp sometimes misbehave and disobey but are always firmly disciplined for their "own good."

The book celebrates "knowledge" but also features a constant tension between the value of "book-learning" and what today we would call "experiential learning." Burgess describes the Woodcraft Camp curriculum:
Its courses were manliness, self-reliance, physical and mental health, strength of character, simplicity of desire, and love of nature. (p. 36) Botany, ornithology, the rudiments of physiology...taught, while the boys, all unconscious that they were being systematically trained and developed, thought only of the jolly good times they were having.
This kind of unconscious education would become an important Burgess tactic in his nature conservation efforts.

The value of the experiential approach is dramatized in an episode where the protagonist, city-boy Walt, has to learn to stay still while taking photos of wildlife on a canoe trip. After two failures due to his sudden movements, he finally gets a good shot of a great blue heron

Burgess's beloved story of his wild moose encounter makes an appearance in the second book (complete with photography). In the last book, rifle hunting makes a reappearance, though, as the protagonist guns down a silver fox.

I should also note that the sensitive modern reader may well stop reading after the first two pages of the first book. (Racism will be a topic for another day).

Tomorrow: Burgess's earliest boy adventure stories.

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