T.R. And The “Nature Fakers”

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It was an early spring evening in 1907. Theodore Roosevelt and Edward B. Clark, the Washington correspondent for the Chicago Evening Post , were sitting in front of a log fire in the White House talking casually of their shared enthusiasm for the campfire and the outdoors. T.R. had a high regard for Clark, his frequent hiking companion, because he was “a good fellow” and had written a monograph on the prothonotary warbler.

The President had often expressed to Clark his annoyance with a currently popular school of imaginative nature writers who told romantic tales that simply were not true and who boldly justified their flights of imagination by asserting that animals can think symbolically, develop a culture, and conduct themselves like “little men.” This was especially true of the popular works of the Reverend William J. Long, who not only described occurrences that no other observers had been fortunate enough to see, but maintained that the denizens of the fields and forests established schools in which they trained their young for the life struggle ahead of them.

On this occasion, when the topic came up, Clark said to the President, as he had often done before, “Why don’t you get after them?” This time Roosevelt replied, “I think I will.”

Since the turn of the century, a large reading public had been attracted to the work of authors who were discovering hitherto unsuspected adaptive capacities in the fauna of North America. There was, for example, an account of a fox that lured pursuing dogs onto a railroad trestle just in time to be caught by an approaching train, presumably by means of a timetable and the ability to read it; a mother eagle that saved a birdling by flying under it when it tumbled from the nest; a woodcock that fashioned a mud cast for its broken leg (a procedure that called for a mastery of the theory of casts and a good working knowledge of osteogenesis, a subject that William Morton Wheeler, American Museum of Natural History curator, said was “never clearly grasped by some of our university juniors”). There was a tale of a toad with a taste for sacred music; it enjoyed hymns but detested ragtime. Furthermore, the furred and feathered protagonists of such animal narratives exhibited the entire range of human psychology. They had high moral principles, or average, or none. They thought, felt, schemed, triumphed, or suffered just as men do, and the authors knew all the time what they were thinking and feeling. Sometimes the beasts appeared to have mastered an advanced technology. Suggesting that birds have well-developed brains, one author cited an instance of Baltimore orioles who were said to have built an elaborate triangular staging to support their nest in a button-wood tree. They tied the sticks securely at each angle and attached the structure to a stout limb with a reversed double hitch, the same knot that men use to cinch a saddle.

Scientists sputtered. The naturalist John Burroughs denounced the new genre as “yellow journalism of the woods,” and Roosevelt, ardent conservationist and an acknowledged authority on the big-game mammals of North America, finally boiled over and decided to act. Always a man with a low threshold when aroused, T.R. was especially incensed at claims, usually advanced in a preface, that every word that followed was true to life.

An admirer of Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Books , which made no pretense to realism, and of the entertaining Uncle Remus stories of Joel Chandler Harris, which introduced a frankly humanized Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Wolf, the President had no objection to animal romances per se, to ingenious plotting or to animal heroes and villains, provided that the stories were written with literary charm and were offered as fairy tales. The beast fable, after all, had a noble heritage reaching from Aesop to La Fontaine, and American folklore was enriched by zoological wonders such as the hoop snake, which took its tail in its mouth and rolled after its victim; the horses in a faraway country west of the Mississippi that slept leaning against trees; or the old wives’ tale of the goat, or sheep, that landed unhurt on its horns when it fell, a bit of folklore solemnly repeated every summer to tourists in the Rocky Mountains (this picturesque notion can be traced back to a Persian bestiary where the accomplished animal was the ibex).

But the vogue of the realistic animal story introduced a new element, which put T.R. on edge. To his objections as a field naturalist was added another. Many of the books of the new school were issued at low prices for school use. The young were thus being corrupted, in Roosevelt’s view, with consequences as grave as would be the case if geography classes were taught that the earth was flat. The President felt some passing anxiety about the propriety of the White House’s teeing off on wildlife romancers. But when dealing with the natural sciences he was as serious, literal, and dedicated as a Teutonic tutor. Moreover, restraint was scarcely to be expected from a man of such ebullient temperament, who shared his ideas and opinions freely with the American people upon such varied topics as simplified spelling, marriage, divorce, birth control, hunting, Joseph Conrad, and football. He could also discourse on paleontology, evolution, reptiles, and birds and was, as his friend Lawrence F. Abbot said, “more kinds of a man than biographical literature has heretofore attempted to embody in one man.”