BILLY BARTRAM AND HIS GREEN WORLD: An Interpretive Biography by Marjory Bartlett Sanger


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For an ""interpretive biography"" this life of our ""first native-born bird watcher"" is curiously impenetrable. The charm and historical interest lie in Billy's heavily quoted Travels, but the author has chosen to echo their archaicisms with a genteel reticence of her own and the result is cryptic chronology, insufficient identification of plants and locales which Bartram knew under different names and inadequate explication. Defending Billy against the oft-applied label of Romantic Primitive, Sanger says, ""his philosophy did, in many ways, reflect the humanitarian and neoclassic spirit of the eighteenth century"" (it's left to the reader to figure out how), but ""his arguments never failed to be based on highly accurate and firsthand observations"" (true enough, but what about that smoke belching ""alegator"" included among the sample of Bartram's drawings?). The final chapter identifies borrowings from Billy in the poetry of Coleridge, Wordsworth (he ""caught Billy's philosophy"") and Southey, but this intriguing hypothesis is inadequately documented; we really have to take Sanger's word for it that Southey's Atala is Billy's Alatamaha and that the southeastern plants and animals Southey described ""he could have seen nowhere but in the pages of the travels."" Adults will be able to surmount the difficulties presented by Sanger's elevation of atmosphere over clarity, but we suspect that most younger readers will be justifiably confused.

Pub Date: May 5th, 1972
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux