A new anthology collects 235 years of American bird writing.
Can one diagnose the state of a nation through its attitude toward its aviary? This new volume from the Library of America makes such a project seem possible, assembling a centurieslong archive of U.S. bird writing that claims to act as nothing less than a “field guide to the American soul.” Indeed, a well-worn literary history can be wrought from these pages: From Lewis and Clark’s meticulous taxonomizing, through Thoreau’s starry-eyed transcendentalism, to Bishop’s magisterial modernism and the elegiac atmospherics of latter-day Erdrich. But lesser-known texts shine amid their star-studded company, such as Sarah Orne Jewett's early (1886!) environmentalist short fiction and John Hollander’s 1968 calligram in the shape of a swan and its reflection on a pond. The entries are unified by a sense of heightened attention induced by the writer’s encounter with a wild, flying thing; beyond this, however, the genres, moods, and styles are as diverse as the birds they catalog. (That said, 20th-century poetry gets more than its fair share of pages, and there is a disappointing but predictable preponderance of men to women writers.) On the whole, one gets the sense that birds hold a special symbolic place in the American experiment: a fantasy of freedom as manifest in flight, alluring yet unattainable, a perpetual promise remaining elusive even after the airplane. Robert Creeley writes the paradox beautifully: “The birds, / no matter they’re not of our kind, / seem most like us here. I want // to go where they go, in a way, if / a small and common one.”
An exquisite compendium celebrating America’s ornithological obsession from its Colonial origins to its fractious present.