William Bartram 1739-1823
American naturalist, essayist, and travel writer.
Bartram was an eighteenth-century American naturalist and explorer who spent four years classifying the flora and fauna and chronicling his adventures in the uncharted wilderness of the southeastern region of the United States. This region now comprises North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Tennessee. Collected in Bartram’s Travels (1791), these insights present a unique combination of scientific inquiry, exotic travelogue, and religious fervor. Written in a florid, exuberant prose style, the work fired the imagination of countless European readers who had a romantic notion of life on the American frontier and influenced the pastoral imagery employed by such Romantic poets as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Robert Southey. The Travels is now recognized as an important historical and cultural work which documents an untrammeled American landscape prior to its settlement and development.
Bartram was born February 9, 1739, near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He was the son of the celebrated botanist, John Bartram, who had cultivated the first Botanic Garden in North America and who had established a thriving commercial business selling rare and exotic plants and seeds to horticulturists in Europe. Early on, William demonstrated an interest similar to his father’s in botany and scientific discovery. He accompanied his father on several horticultural expeditions into the frontier region where he nurtured his skill at sketching images of the plants and animals that they discovered in the region. Despite his skill at drawing natural objects and his interest in botany, Bartram did not distinguish himself in his formal education at the Philadelphia Academy. By 1756, the elder Bartram had removed William from school and placed him in the apprenticeship of a Philadelphia merchant. Demonstrating a growing restlessness, Bartram did not remain an apprentice for long, nor did he accept the offer of family friend, Benjamin Franklin, to become an apprentice in his engraving business. In 1761, with the financial backing of his uncle, Colonel William Bartram, Bartram opened up a trading depot at Cape Fear, North Carolina. This venture lasted a few years before failing. To ameliorate Bartram’s losses, his father offered him a position on his imminent scientific expedition to the Florida territory which recently had been acquired by the British in the Peace of Paris of 1763. After the expedition, Bartram decided to remain in Florida and start an indigo and rice plantation. Like the Cape Fear venture, this enterprise failed, leaving him in desperate financial straits. In these years of uncertainty, Bartram worked on the family farm and considered other business ventures in North Carolina and Florida.
In 1772, Bartram received a commission from English botanist and family friend, Dr. John Fothergill, to explore southeastern American territories and produce specimens, seeds, and drawings of the rare and exotic plants of the region. This expedition, which lasted from 1773 until 1777, formed the basis for Bartram’s Travels. Despite the scientific success of Bartram’s wilderness adventure, the onset of the Revolutionary War interrupted the exchange of horticultural specimens for his financial backing. Further, Bartram had contracted a fever in Alabama which permanently impaired his eyesight. In 1777, he returned to Philadelphia where he convalesced and helped maintain the family gardens. Largely due to his extended foray into the Florida wilderness, Bartram had established a reputation akin to his father’s as one of America’s foremost botanists. In 1782, he was offered a position as professor of botany at the University of Pennsylvania, but he declined due to his poor health. Four years later, he was elected to the American Philosophical Society, an organization which had been founded by his father and Franklin, among others. In 1791, after some fifteen years of collection and revision, Bartram published his Travels. The work extended his fame from America to Europe where it became an immediate success in England before being translated into German, Dutch, and French. Bartram spent his later years corresponding and consulting with other scientists in the botanical community. In the early nineteenth century, President Thomas Jefferson offered him a position on the Lewis and Clark expedition to explore the Louisiana territory, but once again poor health forced Bartram to decline. Instead, he stayed home and helped to cultivate the family Botanical Garden. Bartram died while walking in his garden on July 22, 1823.
Bartram’s Travels has been viewed as a product of the confluence of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment pursuit of rational, scientific order, and the imminent nineteenth-century Romantic concept of the sublime beauty of nature. While it was Bartram’s objective to catalogue and classify all manner of flora, fauna, and terrain with an eye toward the future exploitation and agricultural utilization of the land, nevertheless he was repeatedly overcome by a wondrous joy at each new discovery in the uncharted wilderness. Further, Bartram’s passion was underscored by his Pennsylvania Quaker upbringing in which one identifies the omniscient role of God the Creator in all that occurs in the natural world. As a result, Bartram’s rational observations about such natural phenomena as the complex symmetric shapes of plants and the instinctive habits of animals are always tempered by the reminder that God’s hand in the natural order is an act which can only elicit incomprehensible wonder in humans. But such an abject faith in God’s work also reveals an ominous undercurrent which runs throughout the Travels. The book abounds with images of hunting and warfare which characterize the wilderness as an environment of incessant conflict. Whether he is documenting his struggle for survival against Florida alligators, the eating habits of spiders, or the hostile relations between white settlers and native Indians, Bartram’s idealistic descriptions of the wilderness as an Edenic paradise are leavened by the fact that a closer examination of nature reveals it to be a violent, inhospitable place.
Although it was initially intended to be a scientific report to Bartram’s patron, Dr. Fothergill, the Travels quickly became a classic in the burgeoning literary traditions of American naturalism and travel literature. Bartram’s graphic and eloquent descriptions of the unspoiled and forbidding American wilderness excited countless leisure readers across Europe. Physical scientists were drawn to his detailed identification and classification of theretofore unknown plants and animals. Indeed, Bartram’s compilation of some 215 native birds was at that time the most comprehensive documentation of the species. In the centuries since its publication, the Travels has endured as an important scientific, literary, and historical record of the southeastern United States prior to its settlement and development. N. Bryllion Fagin has focused on Bartram’s artistic approach to writing the Travels, maintaining that the author’s rhapsodic literary style and exuberant enthusiasm vitalizes his descriptions with a painter’s eye for graphic detail. Robert D. Arner has identified several dichotomies in the thematic structure of the work—such as poetry and science, wilderness and civilization, cultivated land and pristine nature—which reveal Bartram’s ambivalence about his project. Bruce Silver has discussed Bartram’s careful examination of nature without the modern limitation of imposing a strict level of impartiality on his observations, concluding that the author’s insights—suffused with religious, aesthetic, and utilitarian convictions—give his descriptions a compelling philosophical dimension. Several commentators have analyzed the influence of prominent eighteenth-century concepts in Bartram’s Travels. While Hugh Moore has noted the remarkable fusion of Romantic and Rationalist ideas in the work, John Seelye has pointed out the author’s wholehearted belief in the divine providence of nature. In recent years, scholars have underscored these philosophical and religious sentiments in the Travels. Pamela Regis has demonstrated how Bartram employed two distinct descriptive techniques—the identification of natural history and the presentation of sublime beauty—to reveal two complementary aspects of creation. In addition, Charles H. Adams has interpreted Bartram as an ironist who recognizes in his natural discoveries the transience and insignificance of humankind in the long history of the planet. Further, Thomas P. Slaughter has asserted that Bartram adopts the persona of “philosophical pilgrim” who has a revelation that all of nature is collectively infused with God’s spirit. According to the critic, this realization creates a tension in Bartram between his utilitarian desire to see the cultivation of nature and his teleological belief that God’s creation should remain unspoiled.
Travels through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida, the Cherokee country, the extensive territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy, and the country of the Chactaws (prose) 1791; also published as Travels of William Bartram: Naturalist's Edition [enlarged edition] 1958
“Observations on the Creek and Cherokee Indians, 1789” (essay) 1853
*Travels in Georgia and Florida, 1773-74: A Report to Dr. John Fothergill (prose) 1943
*This is an official report on the expedition that also produced Bartram's prose work Travels.
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SOURCE: Fagin, N. Bryllion. “The Art of Bartram.” In William Bartram: Interpreter of the American Landscape, pp. 101-123. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1933.
[In the following excerpt, Fagin provides an important reassessment of Bartram's Travels, noting unique stylistic techniques and describing underpinnings of his philosophy. Fagin also briefly notes the influences on Bartram as well as the effect he had on later writers.]
Throughout this study Bartram's “style” has received incidental mention. This has been inevitable because of the amount of attention it has attracted from both literary and scientific commentators. English reviewers noted his “luxuriant and poetical” language; Carlyle enjoyed his “wondrous kind of floundering eloquence”; Zimmermann, in translating the Travels, corrected his “poetischen Floskeln”;1 Squier insisted on retaining “the antiquated and somewhat quaint phraseology and style of the author”2 of the “Observations”; Miss Dondore was impressed by his “luxuriant detail”;3 a modern American reviewer has been pleased by his “lush descriptions”;4 and Tracy has found his language “rhetorical,” not, however, without at the same time being aware of the prime virtue of Bartram's art, his “genuine sensitiveness” to all the aspects of nature.5
It is this...
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SOURCE: Arner, Robert D. “Pastoral Patterns in William Bartram's Travels.” Tennessee Studies in Literature 18 (1973): 133-45.
[In the following essay, Arner explores Bartram's account of his travels in terms of his personal discoveries and the impact the work had on future American literature.]
Like many of the classic works of American literature, William Bartram's Travels is structured around a three-part pastoral pattern that begins with the naturalist's withdrawal from society, focuses upon an encounter with nature, usually intensely personal and fraught with ambiguities, and ends either with the explorer's return to civilization or with some ironic qualification of pastoral idyllicism. In its broadest sense, the book is enclosed by this thematic and narrative pattern, starting with Bartram's departure from Philadelphia in April of 1773 and concluding in the final sentence of Part iii with his return to that city and to his father's house on the banks of the Schuylkill River in January 1778; the fourth part is totally devoted to the Indians Bartram encountered on his journeys, and while it is thus loosely related to the main body of the Travels, its separate title page suggests that he thought of it as a separate composition. At the heart of the book, of course, are the explorations of Georgia, the Carolinas, and East and West Florida which supplied so much raw material for...
(The entire section is 5412 words.)
SOURCE: Silver, Bruce. “William Bartram's and Other Eighteenth-Century Accounts of Nature.” Journal of the History of Ideas 39, no. 4 (1978): 597-614.
[In the following essay, Silver argues that critics have overlooked the contribution of Bartram to the naturalist literary tradition. Also investigated is how the Travels characterize the natural world.]
Despite the intellectual productivity of our Bicentennial year, too little was said about colonial Americans whose contributions to our culture were not tied to the decision and struggle for independence. William Bartram (1739-1823), the apolitical son of the Quaker botanist John Bartram (1699-1777), is among those who have been neglected.1 Bartram's significance as a naturalist and amateur scientist is a matter of record.2 He learned about plants from his father and from working with him in their garden on the banks of the Schuylkill river. The combination of William Bartram's botanical knowledge, his talents as an artist - naturalist, and the influence of his name among European horticulturists enabled him to travel throughout the southeastern American wilderness under the patronage of Dr. John Fothergill, the wealthy English gardener and botanist.3 Bartram set out to collect plants and seeds in April 1773 and did not return to Philadelphia until January 1778, after he had explored substantial portions of the...
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SOURCE: Moore, Hugh. “The Southern Landscape of William Bartram: A Terrible Beauty.” Essays in Arts and Sciences 10, no. 1 (1981): 41-50.
[In the following essay, Moore argues that Bartram's Travels is powerful and effective because of the writer's ability “to write as a Romantic poet with a sense of wonder, feeling, and imagination and as a scientific Rationalist like his father.”]
William Bartram's Travels (1791) is perhaps the most comprehensive work from early America. It is a pioneering and inclusive natural history of the new world—its botany, zoology, geology, ethnology—with observations on agricultural, industrial, and commercial development. It is a history and a sociological study of the South. It is a philosophical and religious quest attempting to relate man, nature, and God. It is a practical handbook on gardening and the use of plants for food and medicine. It is literature that in its narratives of wilderness adventures and exuberant descriptions of the terrible beauty of the virgin Southern landscape captures the excitement of discovery. But his Travels is also comprehensive in its record of Bartram's remarkable achievement in forming his own ideas and attitudes from a creative fusion of ideas and traditions that impinged upon him. His achievement in consolidating and harmonizing often seemingly contradictory impulses provides an unexpected intellectual...
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SOURCE: Seelye, John. “Beauty Bare: William Bartram and His Triangulated Wilderness.” Prospects: The Annual of American Cultural Studies 6 (1981): 37-54.
[In the following essay, Seelye claims that Travels was originally intended as a record of scientific observations, but a closer look reveals a humanistic tone that is based on the divine providence of nature.]
In September 1753 the American botanist John Bartram set out with his young son Billy from their farm on the banks of the Schuylkill for the Catskill Mountains for the purpose of gathering seeds and plant samples. The journey ended at the Hudson Valley home of Cadwallader Colden, surveyor-general of New York and himself a botanist of note, where the Bartrams made the acquaintance of yet another botanist, Alexander Garden of Charleston, South Carolina. The elder Bartram encouraged Garden to open correspondence with Linnaeus, the Swedish naturalist to whom Bartram had been writing for years, correspondence that gives particular point to this triangular meeting on the banks of the Hudson. For the Bartrams' journey and their visit with the other two botanists may be said to epitomize the scientific Enlightenment in colonial America, an intellectual voluntarism that had as its political counterpart a formal gathering of regional representatives in nearby Albany the year following. That convention, necessitated by the hostilities soon to...
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SOURCE: Moore, L. Hugh. “The Aesthetic Theory of William Bartram.” Essays in Arts and Sciences 12, no. 1 (March 1983): 17-35.
[In the following essay, Moore argues that Bartram is a prime example of a writer trying to describe nature within the context of eighteenth-century aesthetic theory.]
From its publication in 1791, William Bartram's Travels through North and South Carolina, Georgia, East and West Florida has been praised for its scientific and literary merit. Francis Harper and Joseph Ewan, among others, have demonstrated the value of Bartram's contributions to zoology, botany, and ethnology, the precision of his observations, and the logic of his speculations. Harper, for example, verified the combat and bellowing of alligators from his own observations.1 Bartram's list of birds is the most complete prior to Alexander Wilson's, whom he tutored. The Travels, according to Witmer Stone, is “The first ornithological contribution worthy of the name written by a native American.”2 John R. Swanton called his observations of Southern Indians “one of the best early works” and used the facts in the Travels to refute Bartram's theory of an ancient race of mound builders.3 Elliott Coues praised his nomenclature as effectively binomial and found that he was the first to relate animal size to environment.4 Even the lush descriptions...
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SOURCE: Looby, Christopher. “The Constitution of Nature: Taxonomy as Politics in Jefferson, Peale, and Bartram.” Early American Literature 22, no. 3 (1987): 252-73.
[In the following essay, Looby discusses the writings of Thomas Jefferson, Charles Willson Peale, and Bartram in relation to their views on the relationship between the natural order and the social order.]
Natural history,” Benjamin Rush wrote, “is the foundation of all useful and practical knowledge.” He made this remark in 1791, in the context of designing the proper education for the citizens of the new American republic. “By making natural history the first study of a boy, we imitate the conduct of the first teacher of man,” Rush continued. “The first lesson that Adam received from his Maker in Paradise, was upon natural history. It is probable that the dominion of our great progenitor over the brute creation, and every other living creature, was founded upon a perfect knowledge of their names and qualities” (47-48). What Rush did not explicitly say—but what was implicit in his discussion, and in similar discussions of taxonomic natural history by other leading writers of early republican America—was that knowledge of the names and qualities of the beings in nature was not only the basis of the American's control over his environment, but might also be, in some sense, the foundation of the collective life of the new...
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SOURCE: Anderson, Douglas. “Bartman's Travels and the Politics of Nature.” Early American Literature 25, no. 1, (1990): 3-17.
[In the following essay, Anderson examines the lessons Bartram attempts to teach his reader in Travels, lessons that nature can teach society about its social and political organization.]
William Bartram's Travels (1791), like so many of the most interesting products of the Anglo-American sensibility in the eighteenth century, challenges the reader's capacities of adjustment. It presents itself at various times as a travel journal, a naturalist's notebook, a moral and religious effusion, an ethnographic essay, and a polemic on behalf of the cultural institutions and the rights of American Indians—a range of modes and interests that has led William Hedges to describe the Travels as “the most astounding verbal artifact of the early republic.”1 This mixture of discourses is already sufficiently rich to invite the quite different critical approaches brought to Bartram's work in recent years by Roderick Nash, Robert Arner, Richard Slotkin, Patricia Medeiros, and Bruce Silver, among others.2 But invariably readers of the Travels have insisted upon, or assumed, Bartram's nearly complete physical and imaginative isolation within the southeastern wilderness that he explored.3 Francis Harper's careful edition of...
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SOURCE: Regis, Pamela. “Description and Narration in Bartram's Travels.” In Describing Early America: Bartram, Jefferson, Crèvecoeur, and the Rhetoric of Natural History, pp. 40-78. Northern Illinois University Press, 1992.
[In the following essay, Regis examines Bartram's use of narrative as a mode for employing two different description techniques for the external world.]
As an instance of the literature of place, William Bartram's Travels represents large portions of the territories of North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida to readers eager for images of the New World they had never seen. Using the rhetoric and method of natural history, Bartram details “the furniture of the earth” to be found in these regions—the minerals and animals and, in particular, the plants. Using Edmund Burke's theory of the sublime and the beautiful, he describes the scenes through which he sailed, paddled, rode, and walked during his three-and-a-half-year journey through the Southeast. The two methods, natural history and the sublime, complement each other. Each compels notice of a different selection of the creation. The natural historical practitioner described individual items. The Burkean practitioner described entire scenes. For Bartram, both methods were objective. The natural historical method, as we have seen, relied on observation conducted according to exact procedures. Burke's...
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SOURCE: Adams, Charles H. “Reading Ecologically: Language and Play in Bartram's Travels.” The Southern Quarterly: A Journal of the Arts in the South 32, no. 4 (summer 1994): 65-74.
[In the following essay, Adams argues that previous characterizations of Bartram have been too narrow, and that in Travels the author creates a world that mirrors the natural one.]
In Part III of his Travels (1791), William Bartram describes a spot on the South Carolina side of the Savannah River near Augusta called Silver Bluff, the property of a trader named George Golphin. “Silver-Bluff is,” he says, “a very celebrated place,” mainly because of the “various strata of earth” displayed in this “steep bank” that “rises perpendicular out of the river” more than thirty feet. Loam, clay, sand, marl, more clay and finally “a deep stratum of blackish … saline and sulphurous earth” mark the geologic history of the bluff. Within the oldest stratum, Bartram discovers a jumbled collection of natural artifacts, as if a specimen cabinet of the sort used by naturalists of his day had collapsed and spilled its contents carelessly on the earth: rocks (“bellemnites, pyrites, marcasites and sulphurous nodules”), organic matter (“sticks, limbs and trunks of trees, leaves, acorns, and their cups”) and “animal substances” mingle in this “vast stratum.” Above ground, human and...
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SOURCE: Bellin, Joshua David. “Wicked Instruments: William Bartram and the Dispossession of the Southern Indians.” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory 51, no. 3 (autumn 1995): 1-23.
[In the following essay, Bellin analyzes Bartram's view of native Americans and their use of land compared to the European settlers.]
On June 1, 1773, William Bartram witnessed the Treaty of Augusta, in which Creek and Cherokee Indians, constrained by trade debts, ceded two million acres of land to the Crown.1 While accompanying government agents and tribal chiefs on the surveying mission, Bartram noted a “remarkable instance of Indian sagacity” which “nearly disconcerted all our plans, and put an end to the business” (58). Bartram writes:
The surveyor having fixed his compass on the staff … just as he had determined upon the point, the Indian chief came up, and observing the course he had fixed upon, spoke, and said it was not right; but that the course to the place was so and so, holding up his hand, and pointing. The surveyor replied, that he himself was certainly right, adding, that that little instrument (pointing to the compass) told him so, which, he said, could not err. The Indian answered, he knew better, and that the little wicked instrument was a liar; and he would not acquiesce in its...
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SOURCE: Waselkov, Gregory A. “Travels through North & South Carolina, Georgia, East & West Florida. …” In William Bartram on the Southeastern Indians, edited by Gregory A. Waselkov and Kathryn E. Holland Braund, pp. 25-32. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.
[In the following essay, Waselkov examines the evolution of the manuscript of Bartram's Travels and its general reception.]
William Bartram's Travels has been dubbed “the most astounding verbal artifact of the early republic.”1 Indeed, Bartram's work, which “presents itself at various times as a travel journal, a naturalist's notebook, a moral and religious effusion, an ethnographic essay, and a polemic on behalf of the cultural institutions and the rights of American Indians,” is a true classic of American literature.2Travels is based on Bartram's field notes, journals, and remembrances that accrued during his tour of the southern backcountry, from 1773 to 1777. The time when Bartram decided to polish his diaries and produce a publishable account of his journey is not known—perhaps he conceived the notion very early, while still in the South. In any case, he must have begun editing his rough notes soon after his return to Philadelphia, in early 1777. By 1783 he had produced a manuscript, which he showed to several interested visitors.3 In 1786, a...
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SOURCE: Slaughter, Thomas P. “Perspectives.” In The Natures of John and William Bartram, pp. 177-96. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.
[In the following essay, Slaughter claims that, while Travels is a complicated work that has many facets, there is one message that Bartram wanted to voice more than any other: “all of nature is one … and infused with the spirit of its creator.”]
Is William Bartram's Travels poetry, readers have asked, fiction, or science? Are the author and the “philosophical pilgrim” the same person or different ones sharing the same name? Is the story true, readers have always wanted to know, or did the author alter the record and transfigure time—create, transform, embellish, recall things that never happened, and forget some that did? The answer to all these questions is yes; the book is all these things and more.
The Travels is a complicated story told by a person who wanted to tell the truth, but who didn't always know what it was; it was written by a man who didn't let smaller truths obscure larger ones that he wanted to share. William Bartram was a persona, a character in a book whom the author imagined back in his plantation swamp and whom he became over the course of his travels, in writing his Travels, in the garden after his traveling was done. The personal transformation was a self-conscious act, but the creation...
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SOURCE: Hallock, Thomas. “‘On the Borders of a New World’: Ecology, Frontier Plots, and Imperial Elegy in William Bartram's Travels.” South Atlantic Review 66, no. 4 (fall 2001): 109-33.
[In the following essay, Hallock traces the development of Bartram's Travels, noting its integration of contemporary artistic modes as well as its internal contradictions, and concludes by characterizing the work as one of America's first outstanding pastoral projects.]
such attempts I leave for the amusement of men of Letters
As the movement in any pastoral away from politics will draw politicized critiques, the Travels of William Bartram holds a characteristically ambivalent place in the canon of American pastoral literature. Viewed against the environmental writings of its day, the book provides a refreshing alternative to the usual rhetoric of expansion and usurpation, and critics can not discuss the author, it seems, without eventually broaching some form of ethical judgement. Bartram on one hand provides a specimen model of what Mary Louise Pratt calls the “anti-conquest,” in that “natural history provided means for narrating inland travel and exploration aimed not at the discovery of trade routes, but at territorial surveillance, appropriation of resources, and administrative...
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Lowes, John Livingston. “Introduction.” In The Travels of William Bartram, edited by Francis Harper, pp. xvii-xxxv. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1958.
Provides an overview of Bartram's life and career.
Branch, Michael. “Indexing American Possibilities: The Natural History Writing of Bartram, Wilson, and Audubon.” In The Ecocriticism Reader, edited by Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm, pp. 282-97. Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1996.
Compares early romantic ideas about nature in the New World.
Curtis, S. E. G. “A Comparison between Gilbert White's Selborne and William Bartram's Travels.” In Proceedings of the 7th Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association, edited by Milan V. Dimic and Juan Ferrate, pp. 137-41. Stuttgart: Kunst Und Wissen, 1979.
Compares and contrasts two works considered works of natural science as well as minor literary classics.
Lee, Berta Grattan. “William Bartram: Naturalist or ‘Poet’?” Early American Literature 7 (1972): 124-129.
Surveys the tone and substance of Bartram's Travels in an attempt to classify the varied literary techniques contained in the work.
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