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William Bartram and Environmentalism

Robert Sayre


After a brief introduction of Bartram I review the critical reception of his Travels, from the earliest to the most recent, insofar as it relates to issues around environmentalism. In dealing with the most recent period - with the rise of « ecocriticism » but also of post-colonial criticism - I present the debates between those who see Bartram as a forerunner of « ecocentrism » and environmental concern, and those who see him as part of « anti-conquest » and « settler pastoral » discourse. Some critics have taken a middle ground, emphasizing Bartram's ambiguities. I close the section on reception by discussing the recent popularization of Bartram, with the creation of Bartram trail societies, maps and guides of « Bartram territory », etc.

The second part of the article attempts substantiates the view that he was a highly original early environmentalist, but also to link his environmental vision to his social views. I begin by relating Bartram to the broad American context, and then to the Quaker milieu of which he was a part, discussing his closeness to the more radical « weighty » Quakers. I also discuss his relation to Romanticism. Then I move to an analysis of texts : first some manuscript fragments which, along with the first draft fragment of Travels, seem clearly to reveal the underlying coherency of the Bartramian perspective ; then Travels itself. In this reading of Travels, I discuss its ambiguities and contradictions, such as they are, suggesting that they were largely the result of editorial changes amounting to a form of censorship. I close the second section with a short treatment of Bartram's drawings in terms of their ecological perceptions.

American Studies. ISSN 0026-3079.

This electronic publication is supported by the University of Kansas Libraries