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Inquiries: John Muir and William Bartram


(Reprinted from the John Muir Newsletter , Vol. 2, No.2, Spring 1992)


Keith E. Kennedy of Quinton, Virginia, is working on an article about William Bartram, "the first, great American-born naturalist and author of Travels ," and wants to know if there is any connection between Bartram and John Muir. Specifically, he asks if "Muir was familiar with Bartram's Travels ," if there were "any letters between Muir and anyone else that discuss Bartram's contributions or merits," if "any published articles" exist that compare or discuss Muir and Bartram, and if "any of Muir's recent biographers have discussed Bartram in their books."

Muir was indeed familiar with Bartram and his Travels, but to what extent is not clear. Frederick Turner found the only hard evidence in reading Muir's journal carried during his East Coast trip of 1898. ( AMSS journal, "Botany Trip with Sargent and Canby," Jul-Nov 1897[8], John Muir Papers, Microfilm Edition, Reel 28, 03506). In Rediscovering America , Turner noted that "In 1897, Muir's friend, Charles Sargent, gave him a copy of Bartram's Travels , which he eagerly read and pronounced 'v. interesting.' [p. 141]." Actually the date was 1898, but Turner was probably confused by the dating error made by the editors on the microfilm control card which failed to note that the journal records two separate trips, one in 1897 and the other a year later. The editors, in turn, were confused by Muir's own holograph date of 1897 on the journal index. Apparently he went back over the journal some some years later and simply forgot the year he made the eastern trip.

Careful scrutiny of Muir's handwritten journal entries indicates that he did not have much time to read the Bartram work. In the fall of 1898, Muir and Charles S. Sargent, Director of the Arnold Arboretum at Harvard, traveled together through much of the American Southeast on an enlightening but exhausting three-month botanizing expedition. With them was William M. Canby, whom Linnie Marsh Wolfe's Son of the Wilderness describes as a "botanist of Wilmington, New Jersey" (p. 274). Actually he was a banker, railroad official, and amateur naturalist from Wilmington, Delaware -- across the river from Jersey.

The trip ended in Virginia with Sargent ill and exhausted from lack of sleep. Returning to Boston by way of Canby's Delaware home, Muir and Sargent arrived at Sargent's home in Brookline October 13. Turner wrote that Muir read Bartram during the train ride back from Tennessee (p. 314), but that doesn't square with Muir's journal entries. On the afternoon of October 14 a recuperated Sargent took Muir to visit the Arboretum library. There, Muir wrote, "I spent a few hrs turning over Micheaux's [sic] Silva -- a fine work, good illustrations, written by the son." Although Muir read some French, he probably was using the American edition of Fran=E1ois Andr=C7 Michaux (1770-1855), The North American Sylvia; or, A Description of the Forest Trees of the United States, Canada, and Nova Scotia ... Translated from the French of F. Andrew Michaux... Philadelphia, 1856. His note continues: " Wonderful travels. hope to see them[?] & the journal of the elder. Sargent gave me Bartram's Travels , a few yrs earlier than Michaeaux, v. interesting."

This holograph entry implies Muir received the copy of Bartram while at the library, not earlier. Apparently he began reading it at that time, for on the following day, his journal records that he occupied his time "Reading Bartram," planning an excursion through the Canadian woods and the White Mountains of Vermont, taking a walk, dining with an old friend, and touring a local park. On the 16th he left by train for the North.

No additional journal entries have been located that mention Bartram. We can only infer from the brief notes Muir left behind that his study of Bartram was cursory at best, occupying probably no more than a few hours sandwiched in between two busy tours that took all his time and energy. He couldn't have read Bartram on the northern tour; he had never seen the Northern woods and spent all his time glued to the train window; his journal entries are filled with descriptions of fall colors and scenic wonders. On October 23 he returned to Boston, spent the next two weeks visiting and touring in Boston and New York City, then headed back south for a tour of Canby's Delaware and a final excursion through Florida and Louisiana en route to Martinez.

No additional references to the Bartram volume have been found either in Muir's journal entries or in his correspondence. The book is not included in the Muir personal library collections either at the University of the Pacific or at Huntington Library, and there is no indication he ever reached Martinez with it. We are inclined to think that Sargent loaned him a copy from the Arboretum library, which he left behind when he headed north on October 16, 1898.

We would welcome other views and speculations on this matter.



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