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The literary interpretation of our continent"" is Paul Brooks' theme in this first-rate review of a clan of writers inspired by nature and the need to preserve it. His subjects span the era between Thoreau and Rachel Carson, when the West was still to be won, buffalo roamed, Audubon and Catlin painted, Lanier wrote verse, John Muir climbed the Sierras, and Theodore Roosevelt gained the White House. Brooks writes of them all with affection and admiration tempered by assessments of their literary style and acknowledgments of their occasional shortcomings, errors of fact or judgment. The large cast includes other such well-known figures as Louis Agassiz, John Burroughs and Frederick Law Olmsted, and, more recently, Aldo Leopold, Bernard De Voto, Joseph Wood Krutch. Even Ernest Thompson Seton and Thornton Burgess come up for mention. Generally, Brooks groups several writers with common interests; often he reminds us of how they intersected or overlapped. John Muir and John Burroughs met in New York in 1893, for example; later, Muir prevented Burroughs from ""jumping ship"" when the two were party to the Harriman expedition to Alaska in 1899. The biographical details encourage speculation about the genre: many of the nature writers were individualists, rebelling against tyrannical fathers, unhappy marriages, dull jobs; often they were goaded to search nature intimately rather than dissect ""various bloated creatures pickled in alcohol."" They were also products of their time, which in the 19th century usually meant that nature in the wild was divided into the good and useful beasts and the ""varmints""--wolves, coyotes, and other predators. Brooks--an ardent conservationist, fine writer, and longterm Sierra Club member--has put these men and women (notably Mary Austin and Florence Merriam) in a framework of cultural and natural history, and has thus achieved a work of broad interest.

Pub Date: Oct. 23rd, 1980
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin