Florida Museum of Natural History

Artist-Naturalists in Florida

by Charlotte M. Porter

Popular perceptions of traveling naturalists

There can be little doubt that the Romantic interpretation or the landscape presented in Bartram's Travels did much to condition the public's expectations for Wilson's career. Despite his poverty, Wilson's image, which his own verse and magazine pieces heightened, was that of scientific gentleman wearing ruffled shirts.29 Later naturalists also refused to be metamorphosed by the frontier into fringed woodsmen or college men from Europe on a sporty western jaunt.30 Nuttall, a veteran of three western expeditions, did not even know how to handle a gun.31 All the same, the popular reviews of their accomplishments squarely placed traveling naturalists within the Romantic tradition. The public continued to associate their efforts with Romantic ideals and interpret their scientific roles in an unrealistic way.32

During the 1830s, Audubon's Ornithological Biography, a best-seller on both sides of the Atlantic, reinvigorated the Romantic image of the American explorer-naturalist.33 One British reviewer went so far as to imagine the famous bird-painter gazing at "his long raven locks ...in some liquid mirror in the forest-glade, employing perhaps, for a comb the claw of a Bald Eagle."34 Despite this rather unusual use of the talon of the national bird, this passage was reprinted in a popular American magazine.35

Although Audubon took full advantage of his Romantic appeal so sell books, he did not concern himself with the sublime. Instead, he described the wilds or Florida with emotions exactly opposite to chose that appeared in Bartram's earlier account. "When now and then an Impenetrable swamp is in sight," he wrote to his wife Lucy from the St John's River, "it is hailed with the greatest pleasure for in them only game or birds of any sort can be procured."36 These were the words of a naturalist tired of eating "Poor Jobs" (herons) and young alligators, a supply of which was kept alive in the bottom of the boat. Audubon wanted his reports to differ in tone from those of the preceding Philadelphia naturalists whose Romantic tendencies he eschewed, and he promised his wife that his work would "be far, very far from corroborating ...[the] flowery sayings" of Bartram.37

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Footnotes

29. Wilson's most famous poem was ''The Foresters: Description of a Pedestrian Tour to the Fall of the Niagara in the Autumn of 1804." He published this and other poetic pieces in popular Philadelphia periodicals such as the Portfolio and the Literary Magazine and American Register. These and other poems can be found in Alexander B. Grosart, ed., The Poems and Literary Prose of Alexander Wilson, the American Ornithologist (Paisley, 1876). Wilson's public image is discussed in Frank L. Burns, "Miss Lawson's Recollections of Ornithologists," Auk, XXXIV (July, 1917), 277-278.

30. For example see Adolphus Wislizenus, A Journey to the Rocky Mountains in the Year 1839 (St. Louis, 1912), 129.

31. Graustein, Thomas Nuttall, 243.

32. For example, see Winterfield [C. W. Weber], "American Ornithology," 262-274.

33. William Buckland, ''The Binis of America'' Quarterly Review, XLVII (March-July, 1832), 338, 344-352; James Wilson, "Audubon's Ornithological Biography," Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, XXX (July, 1831), 1-16.

34. Wilson, "Audubon's Ornithological Biography," 11.

35. Both of Wilson's reviews were reprinted together as "Audubon's Ornithological Biography; Wilson's American Ornithology," in Museum of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, XII (October, 1831), 362-386.

36. J. J. Audubon to Lucy Audubon, February 12, 1832, in Kathryn H. Proby, ed., Audubon in Florida (Coral Gables, 1974), 31.

37. Ibid.

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