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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
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.”
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.
Addressing himself to the tale of Wayeeses , the President noted that Long had declared, “Every incident in this wolfs life … is based squarely upon my own observation and that of my Indians.” In examining the episode already mentioned in which a wolf killed a caribou with “a quick snap under the stag’s chest just behind the forelegs where the heart lay,” Roosevelt undertook to disprove the feat by anatomy, by the laws of mechanics (“The wolf’s jaws would not gape right”), by the fact that only alligators and sharks attack in that manner, and by his own observations. And he had an “Indian” on his side, too, George Shiras III, well known as a photographer of wild animals in their native habitats. Roosevelt also discussed the measurements of a wolf’s fangs. The bite, he concluded, would require not the teeth that nature had given wolves, but something on the order of a walrus’ tusks; it could not have been accomplished by any land carnivore that has existed since the saber-toothed tiger became extinct.
When the reporters descended upon the author of Wayeeses to get his reaction to the Roosevelt article, they found a disconcerted but not defeated man. Though he must have felt, Mark Sullivan surmised, “like a dove shot at by an elephant gun,” the pastor was frank, articulate, able to absorb punishment and to inflict it.
In his own defense Long put into evidence a statement that he obtained from “a full-blooded Sioux Indian who is studying theology.” The Indian declared that the wolves of Newfoundland, the scene of the disputed wolf attack, were indeed known to go for a horse or a caribou in the chest, and Long insisted that he himself had come upon the remains of a deer slain in this manner. In rebuttal Shiras, the photographer, said that there hadn’t been a sign of wolves in Newfoundland for the last ten years.
Long’s most effective response was to drop the biological issue and raise the question of President Roosevelt’s motives (vanity and sensitivity to his reputation as a ruthless hunter—a topic on which Long had made some remarks) and the propriety of using the high office of the Presidency to jump on a private citizen. He described Roosevelt as less the lover of nature than a game butcher who “hides behind a tree and kills three bull elks in succession, leaving their carcasses to rot in the woods … in itself … incomprehensible to sportsmen.”
“Who is he to write, ‘I don’t believe that some of these nature-writers know the heart of the wild things’?” Long said in an open letter to the President that received national attention. “I find after carefully reading two of his big books that every time he gets near the heart of a wild thing he invariably puts a bullet through it.” The beleaguered author had carefully assembled from Theodore Roosevelt’s own books about his hunting exploits instances of “a full thousand hearts which he has known thus intimately! In one chapter alone I find that he violently gained knowledge of eleven noble elk hearts in a few days,” and with a swarm of witnesses, too, since Roosevelt “goes into the wilderness with dogs, horses, guides, followers, men servants, reporters, and cameramen.”
Long succeeded in placing Roosevelt in a dubious light with many people who were not too clear about the details of the argument but still wondered why Teddy didn’t pick on someone his own size. The President’s enemies had a field day. One newspaper suggested that Long ought to get the Carnegie Medal. Another, the New York Sun , antipathetic to Roosevelt on various grounds, was happy to reprint the rhymed opinion of the British Humanitarian League:
Which view was right? Was T. R. the conservationist and preserver of the wilderness that he appeared to be, or simply an insensitive hunter? Son of an incorporator and charter trustee of the American Museum of Natural History, Roosevelt in his boyhood developed a consuming interest in the natural world. Despite his frail body, his spectacles and asthma, “Teedie” studied the songbirds of Long Island, New York, with nature book and shotgun and took lessons in taxidermy before he reached his teens. It was a craft in which he reached great proficiency. A snowy owl collected and mounted by the young Roosevelt was displayed at the American Museum of Natural History.
There is no doubt that Roosevelt’s later championship of the conservation cause stemmed from his youthful devotion to natural history, extended and matured by his later observations in the West of soil erosion, economic exploitation of natural resources, and the rapid destruction of game animals. At one time, indeed, he thought seriously of becoming a professional biologist, but was put off by the emphasis at Harvard, during his undergraduate years, upon the laboratory approach to natural science—the embalming, the microscopy, and the dissection of tissues and embryos. It was an uncongenial approach to the young New Yorker who kept live animals in his own living quarters.
“Few men have accomplished more toward the protection of wild life,” wrote the biographer Henry F. Pringle, yet “the hunter caused the naturalist to do strange things.” There was a wolf hunt in Oklahoma, conducted in a blaze of publicity. In the early igoo’s cougars were taken in Colorado, bear hunts carried out in Louisiana and Mississippi, a grizzly located and shot in the Bitter Root mountains, and the buffalo herd reduced by T.R. in Dakota Territory.
The reaction of a considerable segment of the general public to Teddy’s hunts and exultant writings about them is suggested in Wallace Irwin’s pseudonymous Letters of a Japanese Schoolboy, by Hashimura Togo , concerning Roosevelt’s African safari. In this book Irwin described “the man-chewing tiger” as saying in “Japanese” English before the hunt:
There was in fact ambivalence and complexity in Roosevelt. He set aside one hundred and forty-eight million acres of forest timberland, established over fifty wildlife game preserves, doubled the number of national parks, and set up sixteen national monuments including Grand Canyon. Yet he always rode with rifle in hand. This was a point that the Reverend Mr. Long pushed relentlessly in his riposte.
Throughout the summer of 1907 the newspapers headlined nature faking. Some leaned toward Long; others agreed with the President. Some, like the Kansas City Journal , cried a plague on both your houses, and said it was time for Roosevelt to get back to the task of being the nation’s Chief Executive and for the preacher to look after his Sunday-school class: “Brave business this for the head of a great nation and a minister of the gospel.” The Boston Transcript called attention to what it termed a kind of odium biogicum that produced “the peculiar quarrelsomeness of the nature-lovers.” One scholarly writer did some research and came up with an item of historical information. If the nature-faker issue got into politics, he said, the Democrats could point with complacency to their President Thomas Jefferson. In his Notes on Virginia he had undertaken to refute not mere popular authors but the great French naturalist, Buffon, who in his Histoire naturelle had developed a theory of biological degeneracy in the New World.
One odd consequence of Roosevelt’s effort to curb the dissemination of improbabilities about the natural world was a flood of new yarns and reminiscences showing that animals were capable of flexible behavior under special circumstances. One Englishman described a tug-of-war between a rogue elephant and five crocodiles which he had witnessed in South Africa. There was a heavy crop of stories about cats that had adopted motherless chickens, and hens that adopted motherless kittens. A faithful dog, when the house caught fire, seized the rope of the dinner-bell and sounded the alarm. Perhaps the prize should go to the black bass in a New Jersey reservoir that so admired the skill of a certain fisherman that he regularly rose to take whatever fly the fisherman happened to use; while the fisherman, with equal urbanity, so admired the grit and punctuality of the bass in hitting his line that he always threw him back into the water. Another commentator thought that Teddy should have been lenient with Long as an extension of the principle enunciated by Grover Cleveland, former President and expert sportsman, that “no true fisherman will deny the truth of any story told by any other fisherman.”
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.”