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Bartram’s Travels and the Erotica of Nature

In America, American History, Arts & Letters, History, Humanities, Literary Theory & Criticism, Literature, Philosophy, Southern History, The South, Writing on May 29, 2013 at 8:45 am

Allen Mendenhall

This post first appeared here at the Literary Table in 2010.

I’ll limit my discussion of Bartram’s cognitive originality to some finer points made by Michael Gaudio, whose article, “Swallowing the Evidence,” is a mostly on-the-mark interrogation of Bartram’s persistent use of metaphor.

Gaudio writes that Bartram’s Travels, with its imagery of swallowing, mouths, and voids, calls into question Enlightenment aesthetics while signaling glaring absences in the putatively public sphere. Although Gaudio argues convincingly that Bartram’s imagery signifies an “Enlightenment view of the cosmos in which the natural and the social operate according to the same rational principles,” he privileges a political over an erotic reading, thereby reducing the text to a series of subversive patterns of visual perception. In fact, Bartram’s text is less about movement politics than it is about scientific or social politics.

Travels describes a journey lasting from 1773 to 1777, arguably the most intense moment in American political history, yet Bartram makes no mention of the Revolution, the Continental Congress, the Declaration of Independence, or any other political signifier. As the war between Britain and America raged, Bartram rummaged through woods recording data and collecting specimens. He might have been interested in undermining Enlightenment ideals, as Gaudio suggests, but he probably was not keen on likening sink holes to doubts about the democratic project. A better reading would treat Bartram’s concave, hollow, and gaping imagery as vaginal and his nature aesthetics as sexual. Such a reading not only sheds light on Bartram’s aesthetic facility but also gives rise to a better reading of Bartram’s politics as understood through depictions of Natives, black men, or property-owning colonials. Gaudio is right to argue that, for Bartram, “the work of the naturalist is the recording of not only the visibility of nature’s surfaces but also the struggle that leads to that visibility,” but he is wrong to ignore the language of penetration and other pseudo-sexual insinuations. Attending to this sexual language might have allowed Gaudio to enlist Bartram in the “anti-Enlightenment” project in other, more interesting ways—for instance, by contrasting Bartram’s observations of Indian tribes with the unwarranted assumptions of Enlightenment thinkers who dismissed Natives as mere barbarians or worse.

Gaudio submits that because Bartram’s aim was to “exhibit the self-evidence of nature” and to “set the full presence of its surfaces before the viewer,” Bartram’s appeals were necessarily visual. That much, I think, we can grant. But Gaudio goes too far when he contrasts Bartram with Bacon by claiming that the latter employed “rhetoric of penetration” to peer beneath nature’s surfaces whereas Bartram looked precisely to nature’s surfaces because he preferred architectural forms to dissected taxonomies. Gaudio suggests, in other words, that Bartram seeks out rational forms, which share a visual logic, to show nature’s uniform and universal manifestations. Nevertheless, Bartram’s rhetoric (like Bacon’s) is rich in references to penetration. Gaudio’s formative analogy therefore does not stand up to close examination.

“Having some repairs to make in the tackle of my vessel, I paid my first attention to them,” Bartram says of a particularly cheerful morning, adding, “my curiosity prompted me to penetrate the grove and view the illuminated plains.” Similarly, Bartram speaks of “penetrating the groves,” “penetrating the Canes,” “penetrating the forests,” penetrating the “first line” of alligators, “penetrating a thick grove of oaks,” and penetrating “the projecting promontories.” All of this penetration flies in the face of Gaudio’s argument that Bartram’s “voids” signal the limits of Enlightenment thought. Rather than avoiding vocabulary of penetration, Bartram embraces it. Bartram may be interested in surfaces, but he is also interested in—one might say seduced by—what lies beneath. He even employs sexual innuendo and other erotic lexica to portray what lies beneath.

The sexual language in Travels serves to eroticize nature, which seduces with its enchanting if virginal charms. In a brilliant essay, Thomas Hallock speaks of botanic men (including William Bartram’s father, John) who turned “genteel ladies into fascinated subjects.” For these men, plants “served as a shorthand for intimate relationships that were transacted across vast space.” According to this logic, it follows that any “individual who interacts with the natural world takes on an ‘ecopersona,’ an identity or costume of manners that locates consumption of the natural within a given cultural code.” By ignoring the eros pouring forth from Bartram’s nature writings, Gaudio overlooks a very telling association between Native women, whom Bartram eroticizes, and nature, itself a sensual “organism.” More to the point, he misses Bartram’s odd constructions of eco-personae for Native women. Indeed, Bartram forges an association between nature and Native women in his “sylvan scene of primitive innocence,” which was “enchanting” and “perhaps too enticing for hearty young men long to continue idle spectators.”

In what Bartram calls a “joyous scene of action,” nature (read: passion) prevails over reason and European men are drawn helplessly—as if by Sirens—to the Native “nymphs” guarded by “vigilant” and “envious” matrons. The Native women are sensual and seductive because they seem in tune with Nature and the “Elysian fields.” In light of this analogy, Bartram speaks of Natives as “amorous topers,” “amorous and bacchanalian” dancers, amorous singers, and amorous and intriguing wives, just as he speaks of the “sweet enchanting melody of the feathered songsters” in their “varied wanton amorous chaces,” or of the “soothing love lays of the amorous cuckoo.” That is to say, Bartram effectively ties Native women to the carnal cravings of animal lust. For this reason, the desire to penetrate takes on a much stronger meaning than the one Gaudio describes vis-à-vis Bacon—it becomes not just about examinations of exterior surfaces but about the physical need and urge to thrust right through surfaces.

The land on and adjacent to a particular river “appears naturally fertile,” Bartram declares, “notwithstanding its arenaceous surface.” Surfaces can be deceiving, so Bartram digs deeper, so to speak, and identifies their sexual and reproductive possibilities. Similarly, he likens “many acres of surface” to a “delusive green wavy plain of the Nymphae Nelumbo,” a plant that represents sexual purity or virginity. In these and other instances, Bartram renders nature as a playground of erotic spaces for male pleasure. Simply put, Bartram’s nature is fertile and stimulates sexual arousal.

If, for Bartram, Native women were in harmony with nature and so were fertile and seductive—if they were hypersexualized—then Gaudio could have done far more with the vaginal motifs in Travels. Like countless others, he could have called into question the tropes, male gazing, and sexual power plays at work in the book and thereby achieved a “political” reading actually supported by the text. Gaudio is at his best when bringing to light metaphors that would seem easy to overlook, but his analysis fails for disregarding the obvious sexual and vaginal connotations evoked by these metaphors. At worst, his analysis fails for pivoting on a major assumption—that Bartram limited his analysis to surfaces and exteriors without regard to “the insides.” If anything, Bartram seems even more interested in “the insides” given his sexual renderings of a nature that invites penetration and carnal exploration.

See the following articles for more reading:

Abrams, Ann Uhry. The Pilgrims and Pocahontas: Rival Myths of American Origin. Boulder: Westview, 1999.

Fischer, Kirsten. “The Imperial Gaze: Native American, African American, and Colonial Women in European Eyes,” in A Companion to American Women’s History. Blackwell Publishing, 2002.

Fleming, E. McClung. “The American Image as Indian Princess.” Winterthur Portfolio. Vol. 2 (1965: 65-81).

Gaudio, Michael. “Swallowing the Evidence: William Bartram and the Limits of Enlightenment.” Winterthur Portfolio. Vol. 36, No. 1 (2001: 1-17).

Hallock, Thomas. “Male Pleasure and the Genders of Eighteenth-Century Botanic Exchange: A Garden Tour.” The William and Mary Quarterly 62.4 (2005): 32 pars. 13 Oct. 2009 .

The Travels of William Bartram. Ed. Mark Van Doren. New York: Dover Publications, 1928.

Schoelwer, Susan Prendergast. “The Absent Other,” in Discovered Lands, Inventing Pasts. Yale University Press, 1992.

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