William Bartram Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.