Nature Writing Before Thoreau




Before Henry David Thoreau, American environmental nonfiction is represented in the works of writers such as

Using records of Thoreau’s selections from Harvard Library, we know those books are among the texts Thoreau himself consulted. For a more complete discussion of Thoreau’s vast reading, consult the bibliography by Robert Sattelmeyer. Thoreau’s Reading: A Study in Intellectual History with Bibliographical Catalogue, Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1988. The Walden Institute maintains a library and bibliography of Thoreau’s work.

Other authors read and studied by Thoreau:

  1. Mark Catesby
  2. Jonathan Carver
  3. Thomas Jefferson
  4. William Bartram
  5. Alexander Wilson – orthinology
  6. John J. Audubon – orthinology
  7. Thomas Nuttall – orthinology

A couple of decades after Thoreau was writing, later in the 19th century, readers forgot or ignored the writers who preceded him. Thoreau becomes a near-mythic American character, an actor in the environment he writes about, rather than a theorist or sermonizer like Ralph Waldo Emerson.


Writers of the generation after Thoreau (John Burroughs, for example) described Thoreau as the founder of the natural history essay, citing his fluidity with language or his passionate social conscience. Perhaps Thoreau’s wildness, his physical closeness to nature was an obvious credential. But some question whether he should be named the inventor of the natural history essay when there were so many earlier nature writers.

Environmental writing flourished in the U.S. during the second third of 19th c. because specialization in branches of natural science created an opportunity to communicate aspects of natural science to non-scientists who were eager to learn about the world around them. Urbanization produced readers who missed nature. At the time, there was an array of literary media – books, periodicals, journals, newsletters and people regularly attended lectures and symposia offered in community meeting halls, libraries, athenea, and other public buildings.


It’s generally acknowledged that the first American to produce a nonspecialized book of environmental essays was John D. Godman, whosenitions */ @font-face {font-family:Wingdings; panose-1:5 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 0; mso-font-charset:2; mso-generic-font-family:auto; mso-font-pitch:variable; mso-font-signature:0 268435456 0 0 -2147483648 0;} /* Style Definitions */ p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal {mso-style-parent:””; margin:0in; margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:12.0pt; font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-fareast-font-family:”Times New Roman”;} @page Section1 {size:8.5in 11.0in; margin:1.0in 1.25in 1.0in 1.25in; mso-header-margin:.5in; mso-footer-margin:.5in; mso-paper-source:0;} div.Section1 {page:Section1;} /* List Definitions */ @list l0 {mso-list-id:673148834; mso-list-type:hybrid; mso-list-template-ids:-1280945048 -1885301016 67698691 67698693 67698689 67698691 67698693 67698689 67698691 67698693;} @list l0:level1 {mso-level-start-at:0; mso-level-number-format:bullet; mso-level-text:; mso-level-tab-stop:.5in; mso-level-number-position:left; text-indent:-.25in; font-family:Wingdings; mso-fareast-font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-bidi-font-family:”Times New Roman”;} ol {margin-bottom:0in;} ul {margin-bottom:0in;} –>  Rambles of a Naturalist was published by Ash in Philadelphia in 1833 as a serial, then published in a collection, without financial success.

Thoreau was influenced by:

*Literary almanacs such as The Book of the Seasons, by William Howitt, Philadelphia: Carey and Lea, 1831. A book of wit, wisdom and sketches about nature, tips for rural residents, seasonal changes, poems.

*Secular sermons and religious homilies such as R.W. Emerson’s Nature, now a literary classic and a source of inspiration for many contemporary nature writers. During Thoreau’s time, and now, middle-brow writers mix quasi-religious lessons with natural history observation, Emerson excepted.

*Picturesque writing – prose writing designed to evoke certain vistas using vocabulary culled from the arts. Often illustrated, much like today’s coffee-table books.

*Regional writing was most significant in Thoreau’s background reading, especially early major work of American literary bioregionalism such as:

To learn more, consult: Made from This Earth: American Women and Nature, Vera Norwood, Chapel Hill: Univ N. Carolina Press, 1993.

*Natural History Writing – a cross between science writing and literary natural science writing drenched with facts and written with a sober, pedantic tone.

To learn more, consult: Back to Nature:The Arcadian Myth in Urban America. Peter Schmidt, NY:Oxford Univ. Pr., 1969.

Thoreau’s favorite travel book was Charles Darwin’s Journal of researches into the geology and natural history of the various countries visited by H.M.S. Beagle etc. published in 1839. Was Thoreau aware that narratives of travels by natural history writers might incorporate imperial motives and obligations because the voyages and expeditions were sponsored by government?

More information related to this blog entry:

Buell, Lawrence. The Environmental Imagination. Thoreau, Nature Writing and the Formation of American Culture. Cambridge, Mass: The Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1995.

Crosby, Alfred W. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1986.

Pratt, Mary Louise Pratt. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, London: Routledge, 1992.

Chronology of Science in the United States, 1830-1839

H. D. Thoreau’s Surveys of Land


About patwa

Dedicated reader, writer, and traveler. Book reviewer https://WorldReader.wordpress.com France Travel https://FranceFootsteps.com Adventures in writing https://AdventureTravelWriter.org Pyrenees Pilgrimage is about walking across France alone through the Pyrenees Mountains. It is available in Kindle or print-on-demand. http://www.amazon.com/Pyrenees-Pilgrimage-Walking-Across-France/dp/1439267898
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