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Knowledgebase record #186


The Art and Science of William Bartram by Judith Magee, 2007

Reviewed by: Brian Thompson
Review date: 2008-07-01

Children's books may lead to some interesting discoveries in adult literature. The story of Billy, the little botanist, grows up in "The Art and Science of William Bartram" by Judith Magee. Here the simple leaf-drawing boy is revealed as more than an intrepid explorer and skilled artist of nature.

Despite the title and the inclusion of nearly 70 of William's drawings, many of birds, fish, and reptiles in addition to plants, this is not primarily an art book. It is a wide-ranging narrative that places the Bartrams, in particular William, in the context of the science, philosophy, religion, culture, and politics of their time.

Excerpts from publications, journals, and correspondence are skillfully woven into a narrative that I found as engaging as the simple tale in "Flower Hunter." Extensive asides profile important associates, many which were themselves instrumental in the beginnings of the American scientific community.

Throughout Magee concludes that William Bartram was not fully appreciated in his own time and place. His astute concerns about the ecology (well before the term was coined) of the natural world, and his beliefs in the equality of the Native Americans, were views shared by very few others. She sees his influence not only in botany, zoology and ethnography, but also on the European poets of Romanticism at the turn of 19th century.

When studied today, the author concludes William is "often seen as a pioneer in the field of ecology, a radical rather than a conservative in his politics, nationalism and religion, and a Romantic rather than a man of the Enlightenment." It is also noteworthy that he spent a long retirement in his garden, as it "remained the single most important thing" in his later years.

Excerpted from the Summer 2008 Arboretum Bulletin.


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