T.R. And The “Nature Fakers”

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John Burroughs had fired an opening gun in 1903 when he published a paper in the Atlantic Monthly entitled “Real and Sham Natural History.” In this essay he taxed the Canadian artist-naturalist-author Ernest Thompson Seton with founding the new school. He condemned the Canadian poet Charles G. D. Roberts and the prolific Reverend Mr. Long for imitating Seton, whose book Wild Animals I Have Known should have been, Burroughs insisted, Wild Animals I ALONE Have Known.

As a warm friend and naturalist colleague of Burroughs, Roosevelt approved of the Atlantic essay assailing Seton, Roberts, and Long. It was a subject of correspondence between them, and on a trip they made together to Yellowstone Park the various aspects of the subject were reviewed. Some two years later Long published Wayeeses, the White Wolf , a story about a large wolf that killed a caribou by biting through the body wall just behind the forelegs so as to pierce the heart. Roosevelt declared that it was an anatomical impossibility, and therefore a fraud deserving of severest censure.

After his fireside chat with T.R., Edward Clark quickly wrote out from memory a statement of what the President had said and showed it to him the next day. Roosevelt approved it but thought it did not go far enough; he added about a third more text written in his own hand on White House stationery. The article appeared in the form of an interview in the June issue of Everybody’s Magazine under dark’s by-line and the title “Roosevelt on the Nature-Fakirs.” The term, coined by Clark, was later altered by Roosevelt to the clearer “nature fakers” and entered the American language as an instant colloquialism. Headline writers and editorial paragraphers found many occasions for its felicitous use, including an occasional political thrust at Roosevelt himself, as when the Kansas City Journal said: “However, in his designation of fakers President Roosevelt does not go so far as to brand the third-term advocates as political fakers.”

In an impressive introduction supplied by the editors of Everybody’s and Dr. C. Hart Merriam, chief of the U.S. Biological Survey, Roosevelt’s qualifications to pass judgment on writings about American wild animals were reviewed. Merriam paid tribute to the accuracy of Roosevelt’s field observations and referred to the many valuable specimens he had brought back from his hunting expeditions. They had contributed greatly, he wrote, to the sum total of zoological knowledge. Then the President’s comments were introduced in direct quotation.

“I don’t believe for a minute,” he said, “that some of these men who are writing nature stories and putting the word ‘truth’ prominently in their prefaces know the heart of the wild things.” He mentioned a chapter in Jack London’s White Fang in which a bulldog puts up a remarkable fight against a great northern wolf three times its size. Roosevelt called this encounter “the very sublimity of absurdity.” He thought Roberts “a charming writer” when he wrote “avowedly fairy tales,” but chided him for writing a story about the fighting powers of the lynx, an animal that “any big fighting dog” can kill. Roberts’ lynx takes on eight wolves “with a sort of savage exultation,” whereas in sober fact, T.R. asserted, “the lynx … would stand no more chance than a house-cat in a fight with eight bull terriers.” Seton, whose writings had encouraged the popular interest in animals as heroes, got off lightly. Roosevelt praised his “interesting observations of fact,” but made a cautionary recommendation that he be more careful about mingling imagination with truth.

Long, whose books included Ways of Woodfolk, Beasts of the Field, Fowls of the Air , and Secrets of the Woods , received the most attention and the most unsparing criticism as “the worst of these nature-writing offenders.” It was Long’s stories that were being widely circulated in the public schools to teach the children “the truth of wild animal life.” Long was then a man of about forty, some six feet tall, with an engaging manner and pen. A graduate of Harvard and Andover Theological Seminary, holder of Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy degrees from Heidelberg, Long had been pastor of the First Congregational Church in Stamford, Connecticut, and still Jived there as pastor-at-large while he pursued a career as lecturer and writer.

Long had been respectfully reviewed in the Connecticut Magazine and found worthy by the Boston Transcript of comparison with the collective author of the thirteenth-century beast epic, Reynard the Fox , which introduced, besides the fox, the lion, the wolf, the hound, the bear, the cat, the badger, the hare, the ram, the apes, and Chanticleer the cock. Furthermore, Professor William Lyon Phelps had saluted Long’s books as masterpieces. But Roosevelt was adamant.