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T.R. And The “Nature Fakers”
The Rough Rider rode roughshod over writers who took liberties with Mother Nature’s children
February 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 2
Despite the divided honors in the dispute and a considerable bit of lightheartcd comment by the uncommitted, a group of working naturalists decided to join together to back up Roosevelt and to provide Everybody’s Magazine with a scientific consensus on the “Long style of natural history.” The resulting symposium consisted of extracts taken from letters written by distinguished naturalists, edited by L’dward Clark, and published in September, 1907, as “Real Naturalists on Nature Faking.” Although Roosevelt was accused by one newspaper writer of having taken the initiative in arranging the discussion, the fact is that he knew nothing about the project until it was well under way.
Among those supporting Roosevelt’s position were Edward W. Nelson, a field naturalist of the U.S. Biological Survey, who added to the vocabulary of the dispute the term “animal novelists”; Frederic A. Lucas, then curator in chief of the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences and later director of the American Museum of Natural History; and William T. Hornaday, director of the New York Zoological Park, who remarked, “Whenever Mr. Long enters the woods, the most marvelous things begin to happen.” Other contributors were Dr. Joel A. Alien, head of the department of birds and mammals at the American Museum of Natural History; Dr. C. Hart Merriam, chief of the Biological Survey; and Barton W. Evermann, author of standard works on the fishes of North America. Evermann was very upset by several of Long’s stories of the Atlantic salmon, a fish in which Long had discovered a degree of intelligence and sagacity which ichthyologists had never observed and could not confirm. George Shiras, the wild-animal photographer, thought that Long should abandon his degree of D.D. in favor of a new one, P.P.—Patron Prevaricator —and take a prominent place in T.R.’s club of liars, the celebrated Ananias Club. Shiras was in error, however, about the degree. Long’s doctorate was in philosophy.
The symposium was followed in the magazine by a note written by Roosevelt himself in which he adopted a somewhat less shrill tone than he had taken in the earlier interview. He called for more study and closer observation of the wilderness beasts, along with an end to stories about kindly wolves guiding lost children to their homes or about animals portrayed as capable of insight into human motives, such as the storybook fisher, a marten about the size of a fox, which killed a buck by a bite in the throat and left the carcass on the trail as a bribe to induce human hunters to stop chasing him. And Roosevelt, the conservationist, speaks persuasively and movingly in his closing paragraph of that “real knowledge and appreciation of wild things, of trees, flowers, birds, and of the grim and crafty creatures of the wilderness [which] give an added beauty and health to life.”
The general tone of the note suggests that the President knew he never should have gotten into the spot where he found himself. In fact, he had earlier admitted as much to both Burroughs and Clark. Many of T.R.’s good friends and supporters regretted his having squared off against the writers of fictionized biographies of the wild creatures. A year later, in 1908, Jack London, in whose red-blooded romances a large male audience found an expression of Teddy’s own philosophy of manliness, counterattacked, in Collier’s , against the original charges as they applied to London’s own dog stories. He also moved on to a discussion of instinct and reason in the lower animals, accusing both Roosevelt and Burroughs of being trapped by mechanistic concepts of animal behavior which dated from the Middle Ages. But Roosevelt could not be tempted into another belligerent episode. He did write a five-page personal letter to Collier’s protesting London’s article in which he was placed in the “Genus of Homocentrics” and elected to membership in his own Ananias Club. But Collier’s was instructed not to publish the letter.
The phrase “nature fakers” enjoyed a long life and has been enshrined in the Dictionary of Americanisms . And there were other sequelae. The wide publicity given to nature faking contributed to the growing interest in nature and the emerging sense of our human trusteeship in relation to wild animals. A generation just becoming aware of soil depletion, of the consequences of the unlimited harvesting of timber on the headwaters, the decimation of various species of wildlife, and the disappearance of the frontier, could not read about the nature fakers without an increased awareness of their environment, or the presentiment that if there are no places of refuge for wildlife, there might perhaps be none for man either.
Looking back at the controversy, Frank M. Chapman, the ornithologist, wrote in his autobiography, “We still have nature fakers with us, but today there is far less chance that the product of their pens will pass editorial censorship or deceive the public than there was when the former were keener for copy and the latter knew less about nature.”