Fields of Vision: Essays on the Travels of William Bartram. Edited by Kathryn E. Holland Braund and Charlotte M. Porter. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010. xvi, 273 pp. $50.00 (cloth). ISBN 978-0-8173-1682-2. $29.95 (paper). ISBN 978-0-8173-5571-5.
Kathryn E. Holland Braund and Charlotte M. Porter have assembled fourteen essays investigating various aspects of William Bartram’s magnum opus of 1791, the widely known Travels. All result from work originally presented at the Bartram Trail Conference (BTC), of which Braund is current president, or “related symposiums” held either in Alabama or three other southeastern states. Representing a variety of disciplines and perspectives, each reflects in some way the continued effect and importance of the Quaker naturalist’s work. For both editors, following “darling Billy” is a labor of love. This is especially true of Braund, whose 1995 collaboration with Gregory Waselkov offered us their outstanding compilation William Bartram on the Southeastern Indians (Lincoln, NE, 1995).Braund’s breadth of knowledge regarding southeastern native peoples was further enhanced through her skillful editing of James Adair, The History of the American Indians (Tuscaloosa, 2005). Charlotte M. Porter, likewise a BTC board member, has a deep interest in Bartram based on her several articles about him, especially her retrospective of Titian Ramsay Peale’s 1817 attempt to follow Bartram’s “Track.” Supported by their collective knowledge, Braund and Porter are uniquely qualified to edit these essays.
The “fields” from which contributors were drawn are anthropology, archaeology, art history, botany, entomology, history, library science, and natural history. Historian Ed Cashin’s lead article places Bartram in the context of his day, a prospect fulfilled at greater length in Cashin’s William Bartram and the American Revolution on the Southern Frontier (Columbia, SC, 2000). Cashin’s illumination of the good Quaker against the background of Revolutionary turmoil is complemented by Robert Scott Davis’s essay on the pre-Revolutionary Georgia backcountry that seethed with social and economic tensions apparently either ignored or left unrecorded by Bartram. Kathryn Braund’s delicious buffet drawn from Bartram’s daily menus evokes his gastronomic accomplishments; despite roaring alligators and unappetizing preparations of rattlesnake, the Philadelphian apparently never went hungry.
Robert J. Malone helps extend our understanding of the amazing scientific connections enjoyed by Bartram, which ranged across the globe from his patrons in England like Peter Collinson and Dr. John Fothergill to the mysterious William Dunbar in the far reaches of British West Florida. Stephanie Volmer’s inquiry on the literary differences between the 1791 Travels and William Bartram’s “Report” to Fothergill are expanded philosophically by Burt Kornegay’s reflections on Bartram’s theocentric world view. Arlene Fradkin and Mallory McCane O’Connor provide interesting comparison between William Bartram and the older English naturalist, Mark Catesby. In addition to their common interest in the natural history of imperial Britain’s southeastern colonies in North America, the two travelers had a mutual friend in the English Quaker collector, Peter Collinson, again reminding readers of the network of amateur naturalists upon whom both depended for support and encouragement. Collinson, indeed, was highly impressed with Bartram’s “pretty performances” (p. 93). Catesby, it might be noted, commented on the already serious effect the deerskin trade was having on the southeastern forest environment in his day, an observation missed by the younger naturalist.
The Bartrams, pere and fils, also inspire the work of archaeologists as sites and settlements recorded by the Pennsylvanians are today revisited via the tools of modern archaeology. The essays by Jerald T. Milanich on Florida’s Mount Royal site and Craig T. Sheldon Jr. on historic Creek towns in Georgia and Alabama illustrate the continuing interest of archaeologists. (On John Bartram as the father of modern English gardens see The Wall Street Journal, April 25-26, 2009.) Mark Williams’s exploration of E. G. Squier’s possession of Bartram’s Observations in manuscript leads us toward a greater understanding of the Quaker naturalist’s influence on nineteenth-century ethnographers. Squier’s seminal work (along with E. H. Davis) was in mapping many of the Ohio Valley’s mound groupings in the mid-nineteenth century. William Bartram as botanist provides specimens for Joel T. Fry’s discussion of the largeflower evening primrose as well as the mysterious Okeechobee gourd detailed by Mark C. and Maria Minno. The implications of contemporary research methodology draw the focus of Stephanie C. Haas, Kent D. Perkins, and Michael Bond, while Charlotte M. Porter reflects in closing on Puc Puggy’s continuing legacy. As well instructed as we are by the range of scholarship, there is still nothing so inspiring as the Travels themselves, for Bartram remains his own best public relations advocate. Eleven of the fourteen essays refer to the 1958 edition by Francis Harper as the standard. Kudos to the editors, essayists, the BTC, and the publisher for reminding us all of William Bartram’s fields and visions.
James H. O’Donnell
(Copyright 2012, Alabama Historical Association, used by permission. May not be copied for distribution without permission of copyright holder.).
The following is an explanation of the preceding book review.
William Bartram was America’s first native born naturalist and the first author who portrayed nature through personal experience as well as scientific observation. He is also one of the passions of Kathryn Braund, Hollifield Professor of Southern History at Auburn University. Her most recent book, <A HREF="http://uapress.ua.edu/product/Fields-of-Vision,4750.aspx" “TARGET="_blank">Fields of Vision: Essays on the Travels of William Bartram</a> (co-edited with Charlotte M. Porter) was published by the University of Alabama Press and was recently reviewed in Alabama’s state historical journal, The Alabama Review.
Braund is the past president of the Bartram Trail Conference, and the book pulls essays from that organization’s scholarly conference to bring Bartram’s work to life. The authors discuss the political and personal context of his travels; species of interest to Bartram; Creek architecture; foodways in the 18th-century south, particularly those of Indian groups that Bartram encountered; rediscovery of a lost Bartram manuscript; new techniques for charting Bartram’s trail and imaging his collections; and a fine analysis of Bartram’s place in contemporary environmental issues.
The book is available on the University of Alabama Press <a href="http://uapress.ua.edu/product/Fields-of-Vision,4750.aspx” target=“_blank”>website</a>.