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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida
Interviewee: Thomas P. Slaughter
Interviewer: Alan Bliss
Date: February 12, 2000
B: It is February 12, 2000. I am interviewing today Professor Thomas P. Slaughter
of Rutgers University. Professor Slaughter, when and where were you born?
S: I was born in Trenton, New Jersey, on March 17, 1954.
B: And who were your parents?
S: Paul and Claire Slaughter.
B: What are, or were, their occupations?
S: My father owned a beverage distributorship in Newtown, Pennsylvania, soda,
beer, pretzels, potato chips, ice, that kind of stuff. My mom for my whole life was
a mother and housewife.
B: Do you have siblings?
S: I have two sisters, one of whom is two years and ten months younger than I am
and her name is Carol and one who is eleven years younger than I am and her
name is Joy.
B: You were the oldest?
S: I am the oldest child, yes.
B: Where did you grow up and attend schools?
S: I grew up in and around Newtown, Pennsylvania, which is in Bucks County on
the Delaware River, right across the Delaware River from Trenton, where I was
born. I graduated from the Council Rock Public School District, Council Rock
B: Were there any influences in your early family life for your education that directed
you toward the study of history?
S: I think the principle influences were towards books and writing and that those
principle influences were from teachers, mainly in high school [and] probably
mainly English teachers rather than history teachers. I think I have always had a
very deep interest in books and in writing, less so than in history particularly.
B: Do you remember any books or writing projects from those years that stand out?
S: I remember Alan Paton's Cry the Beloved Country. I remember books by Albert
Camus, particularly The Stranger. I remember some of Hemingway and Mark
Twain, particularly Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. I remember reading a lot of
biography as a younger child. There was this series-I do not remember the name
of the series-for children, a children's series of history books that was not all
biography, but I remember a lot of them were biographies. I remember reading
one of Andrew Carnegie. I remember reading a biography of Christopher
Columbus that was written for children. I remember reading a history of the laying
of the first transatlantic cable, the digging of the Panama Canal. It was a whole
series of books. Then, there was a three-volume series of books on American
history, starting back from the discovery by Columbus and moving up through
twentieth-century industrialization. They were written by an academic historian, I
do not remember who. I have not looked at those books since I was a child, but
that would have been when I was in sixth, seventh grades, in that area. I
remember seeing those books at a school book sale and my parents buying me
the first volume and then, subsequently, the other two. I remember reading a
good bit of science. I was very interested in biological sciences when I was a
child. I spent a lot of time outside torturing frogs and other living things, and I was
interested in books about the natural world, principally animals and insects. I am
sure there are some more. These are not the lines along which I often think,
books that I read when I was a kid. It was a lot of science, though, heavily
science and then increasingly, as I got older into high school, more and more
B: So, it is possible that some of the books that you were attentive to in those years
may have influenced your affinity for studying the work of naturalists, such as the
Bartrams, Lewis and Clark, and others like that.
S: That makes sense to imagine it that way. There was a long lapse of years in
between the two. I think the connection is probably more the joy of being out of
doors in and among things that are not human beings. That is the connection
more than, specifically, any particular books. I just think I have always had an
interest in the outdoors that translates rather easily into an interest in natural
history, but there were not direct literary connections until my adulthood.
B: Do you remember whose account of the Panama Canal it was that you read?
S: No. It was in this children's series of books. I do not remember what the series
was called, but it was a subscription series where you got one book a month. An
aunt got it for me for Christmas one year. Since I liked getting these books, it
must have been extended for at least one more year or maybe even two more
years. I am trying to think how many books there were. I suspect two years,
which was probably in the range of twenty to twenty-four history books written for
B: That cannot have been anything but a positive experience.
S: I remember them as being very focused on people and personalities which would
have been of interest to children, very focused on discoveries and inventions.
There was one on Thomas Edison, not surprisingly, that focused less on his
entire life and more on his adult life as an inventor but did make the connection to
childhood, as a way of drawing kids in. So, I think they were very, very well-done.
I have a good memory of them. The authors were probably people that you and I
would not have heard of. These were probably people who were hired at
piecework to do this. I think from what we know about children's literature of the
first half of the twentieth century, a lot of this was done by women in the home. I
do not know how many of these books would have been done by people who
had other careers, but they would not have been done by professional historians,
I do not think.
B: How did you wind up at the University of Maryland after high school, and did you
go straight from high school to Maryland?
S: Yes, I went straight from high school on a baseball scholarship to Maryland. I
went there because of the scholarship. My choices were among schools where I
could play baseball, the assumption being that no one would have to pay for this.
So, the choices were not made based on anything, except the availability of the
financing to play baseball.
B: And you were at Maryland for the standard four-year interval for the B.A., is that
B: Do you remember experiences with any of your history professors there that
influenced you substantially toward the study of history?
S: Yes. I was a pre-law major, and I started off majoring in politics and political
science. I picked up on my own that the political science department there was
not as strong as the history department, based on my experiences as a student.
In fact, that is true, looking at it as I would now. It is also the case that they have
a much stronger history department than a political science department. Their
political science department, as was then-I do not know if it still is-common in
some state universities, particularly in the South, often inhabited by former
politicians who have less than ideal academic credentials but who are quite
loquacious in talking about their own political careers and political enemies, but it
was not as exciting an environment. I was particularly interested in foreign
relations, and I thought as I was starting to take history courses that I would
probably be most interested in ancient Chinese history, what was called then,
and most of my colleagues now call it, Classical China. I began taking courses in
Chinese history and Japanese history and started to study the Chinese
language, but I had enough of a sense of an academic career-line to recognize
that if I was really interested in Chinese history I would need to be interested also
in the Chinese language. I went to the Chinese department, and I enrolled in the
first semester of Chinese and was taking that. I actually finished the first
semester and was starting a second semester of Chinese, and I went into the
department office to ask whether they offered summer courses and whether I
could continue, having completed the first year of Chinese, whether I could
expect to take, perhaps, the second year courses in the summertime and then
start third year courses in the following fall. I wanted to know if there was an
efficient way to do this in a sequence that made sense for me. While I waiting to
speak to anyone in that office who could help me, an argument broke out
between two of the faculty, while I was waiting in the office there. The argument I
__, which was conducted in Chinese rather than in English, was about the
department's Chinese character typewriter-this is actually answering your
question, believe it or not-which one of the faculty members had decided needed
to be cleaned, which typewriters needed to have done periodically so that the
character striking the ribbon would be crisp. So this person had on his own
initiative, as I understood it, taken some of the keys off to clean them. Now, the
problems of putting those back on a Chinese character typewriter, which has
hundreds if not thousands of characters, greatly compounds what it would be on
a regular typewriter. The other faculty member was angry because they could not
get it back together the way it belonged. So, there was actually, literally, a
fistfight, and that discouraged as great as it needed to be anyway, because
I decided that I could not deal with that and so I needed to move on from
Chinese. So, I was also interested in American history and I thought maybe I
should taking courses in American history. Maybe, I thought, the best way to do
that is start at the beginning, and I enrolled for a course in colonial American
history, which was taught by Allison Olsen, who still teaches colonial American
history there. She is a brilliant teacher, a hugely gifted lecturer and a very
compassionate human being, so I was attracted to her courses and her subject. I
think the fact that she was so good at what she did led me not to carry forward
my plan to study all of American history but to stay pretty much focused in early
B: And that you did through graduation at Maryland.
S: That I did through graduation, still with the idea that I would go to law school.
That had been my plan. Then, I had changed my mind very, very late, too late
actually, to apply to other graduate schools. I had planned to go to law school,
changed my mind after I had been accepted to law schools and was not in a
position, given how late it was in the spring semester, to apply to other graduate
schools. So, another member of the faculty, John McCusker, with whom I was
doing my undergraduate honors thesis, helped me to stay at Maryland for a
master's degree and got me support to be teaching assistant there, so that is
how I made that transition.
B: And did he encourage or discourage you in your changing interests in the study
S: He and everyone I knew on the faculty there-well, actually him principally but
everyone shared the same advice-there were no jobs in academic history in
1976 when I graduated, and it was not a wise perspective from someone who
needed to find a career. So, he discouraged me from doing that within the
context of saying, and other people emphasized the other side of that more
strongly than he did. He just emphasized principally the part that there were no
jobs and it did not matter how strongly one was interested in the field, that there
still were no jobs. Other__ maybe sometimes in life you need to make
decisions to follow your heart and that is what I thought I was doing, so I stayed
at it anyway.
B: In a brief aside from that, do you give similar counsel to students of yours today
who wrestle with the same decisions?
S: The job situation is much different now than it was in 1976. In fact, this year was
an extraordinary year, in the range of twenty-five to thirty advertised beginning
positions in early American history that my students could apply for. I know that
very well because of the number of letters I wrote. So, it is not the same situation.
In the mid-1970s and on into the 1980s, the situation was that there were years
at a time that passed where there were zero jobs to apply for, and so the
situation was different then than it is now.
B: You graduate in 1976 from the University of Maryland with highest honors. What
was the honors thesis that led to that distinction?
S: My honors thesis was on American attitudes towards China, and the
chronological focus was eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, up through the first
Chinese Exclusion Act in the late nineteenth century. It was a history of
European attitudes towards China, which actually went back to the twelfth
century, of which were the earliest accounts that I could find. I looked at the
background of European attitudes towards China and brought that up to actual
American contact with China and then carried through on looking at the attitudes
that were dispersed, principally by merchants, initially, and then to some extent
also by American diplomats and missionaries later in the nineteenth century.
B: Did you do all of your research for that thesis at Maryland?
S: Yes, in the Washington area. It is very close to Washington, so I was able to
work in governments documents as well.
B: Tell me again, who was your mentor at Maryland for your thesis?
S: For my thesis, John McCusker who teaches early American history and is now at
Trinity University in Texas.
B: Would you say that he was, in fact, your principal mentor at Maryland, or were
there other influential professors?
S: I think Allison Olsen, as a model of a teacher and as an enthusiast for the
subject, was the reason I got into it. At the same time, Miles Bradbury, who still
teaches there, taught American religion and early American history, and I also
took a course on the American Revolution with him and became a close personal
friend [of his]. Ronald Hoffman, who has since left the University of Maryland
and is now the director of the Institute for Early American History and Culture in
Williamsburg. I also took a graduate-level course on the American Revolution
with him. Ann Marie Evans, who was the chair of the department there, was also
an early Americanist. That department at the time I was there had five early
Americanists and also two part-time early Americanists, so there were quite a
number of people who influenced me. I think Allison Olsen, principally, by
example. I think John McCusker taught me how hard he thought someone needs
to work to be a historian, so that was a particular lesson. He was a very rough
teacher and I greatly adore him, but he had a different take on the humanity of
teaching that Allison Olsen did. He thought the way to teach somebody is to keep
banging him on the side of the head, and if they bounced off the wall and came
back, then you knew they were okay.
B: How large was the history faculty at Maryland then?
S: I do not know. As a student, I did not have that sort of perception of it. I think it
was a fairly large faculty. My guess would be in the range of thirty to forty.
B: You stayed at Maryland, and you completed the M.A. there. Did you write a
master's thesis for that M.A.?
S: Yes, I wrote a master's thesis on Scotland in America, on the Scottish-American
intra-cultural contacts during the colonial period. I ended up focusing principally
on the arrival of a fairly large and influential number of Scottish merchants and
government agents in the Maryland and Virginia area, so I could work in primary
sources in that area. I was looking at what developed during the eighteenth
century as an American intolerance for Scottish culture based on the culture
contacts and the nature of the contacts. Given the timing of the Scottish arrival,
of the particular Scottish arrival that I was interested in, those Scots were arriving
either as tobacco merchants or as tax collectors. In either guise, the Americans
did not much like these guys, and so they focused on the cultural dimensions of
their dislike, when I think, in fact, that the origins of the dislike were much more
than cultural. As a consequence, we get a development of an anti-Scottish
prejudice in which the accent [and] the way of dress is ridiculed. So that is what I
B: That is a bit of a shift from your work on your undergraduate thesis. Do you know
what led you to make that kind of a transition?
S: I think the similarities between the two have to do with the interest in different
perspectives of two groups and on different groups. In the one on China, I was
interested in different perceptions of China, and the one on Scot-American
cultural relations, I was interested in the Americans' perceptions of the Scots and
the Scots' impressions of the Americans. So, I think I was developing an interest
in perspective and in conflict and in intra-cultural dimensions of intolerance.
B: From Maryland, you moved to Princeton and entered the graduate program
there. You went straight from Maryland with the M.A. to Princeton, is that
S: Yes. I was at Princeton from 1978 through 1982. I was there for four years.
B: Your C.V. indicated another M.A. at Princeton, but did you write a thesis for that?
S: No. At Princeton, they award the M.A. upon completion of two years of course
work plus examinations in one major field and two minor fields. At Maryland, the
M.A. has two fields, one major and one minor, so I had a major field at Maryland
for the M.A. in early American history and a minor field in cultural anthropology.
At Princeton, I had a major field in early American history, another field in English
history from the late fifteenth to the late eighteenth century, which I did with
Lawrence Stone, and I had a third field at Princeton with Stanley Katz who
taught legal history. So, my three fields were early American history, and my
advisor was John Merrin, and English history, and my advisor was Lawrence
Stone, and Anglo-American legal history with Stanley Katz.
B: And what was your dissertation topic at Princeton?
S: My dissertation topic was the Whiskey Rebellion, but, in fact, my dissertation only
gets up to the Whiskey Rebellion but it is not about it; it does not include it. It gets
up to the summer of 1794, and the Whiskey Rebellion actually started in the
summer of 1794. The dissertation is about the playing-out of American
revolutionary issues, the issues that contributed to the coming of the American
Revolution, the causative factors, how those played out in America after the
revolution as Americans begin the process of governing themselves and find that
they disagree with each other at least as profoundly as they disagreed with the
British before the revolution. The subtitle is "Frontier Epilogue to the American
Revolution." I was looking at the way that concepts like liberty and order
connected up with specific issues like taxation. So I was able to do for the
dissertation the parts of that I did had to do with looking back in English history at
the ideological origins of tax resistance and carried that through to the American
experience, starting principally with the Stamp Act resistance in 1765 and
carrying that through American anti-tax resistance during the years leading up to
the revolution and then, on the other side of the Revolution, I was looking at the
way those same attitudes towards taxation and government continued after
B: So, that dissertation was the platform upon which your first book...
S: Yes, my first monograph was on that. I actually started teaching at Rutgers
before I finished the dissertation, but what I had to do in revising the dissertation
was add the Whiskey Rebellion to a book that was about the Whiskey Rebellion,
and it was my goal to do this without adding to the length of the dissertation. The
dissertation was already fairly long; it was in the range of 600 pages, and I
wanted to have a book manuscript that was in the range of 500 pages. I had to
actually add a third of the manuscript while not making the manuscript any
longer. That was my principal task.
B: You were hired at Rutgers, where you are today, in 1982 while you were still
finishing the dissertation. How did you come to be at Rutgers University?
S: It was in the fourth year of my graduate fellowship at Princeton, and typically at
Princeton, it takes in the range of six years to complete a dissertation. I had not
decided to look for jobs that year, but two circumstances contributed to me
actually applying for jobs. One was that the chair of the history department at
Georgetown was a personal friend of a member of the Princeton faculty in the
English department, whose name was Emery Elliot. Emery Elliot had been so
kind as to give me a tutorial in American Puritan literature when I was in my first
year of graduate study at Princeton. When his friend asked if he knew of any
likely candidates for a job they had in early American history-logical question
since Emery's field was early American literature-Emery recommended me to his
friend, and his friend actually solicited my application for that job through my
advisor, which is an incredibly wonderful thing to have happen [and] not a very
common experience at all; it was just a very gratuitous coincidence of events. At
the same time at Princeton was, and it still is, the Davis Center for Historical
Studies which brings scholars from outside the university who are doing research
on related areas, brings them together for one year to do their research and meet
in a seminar. One of the fellows at the Davis Center in that same year, which
would have been 1981-1982, was on the faculty at Rutgers, and he knew that
they were conducting a search in early American history, and he personally
invited me to apply and, indeed, their committee formerly invited me to apply. At
the same time, talk about lucky people, Princeton was looking for someone in
early American history, so without actually looking for a job, I had three jobs that I
was considered for in a year in which I had only just begun writing my
dissertation. I had written one chapter of my dissertation. So, when the chairman
of the Rutgers search committee called me and asked if I had written anything
yet and I said one chapter, he said, send it to me. I sent it to him. He and the
other members of the committee read it and said, send us more as soon as you
have more. So, I wrote chapters kind of on-demand and wrote one chapter a
month so I could stay in that search, because I gave them one chapter in
October, I wrote another one during November which he read and he said, send
another one, so then I wrote a third one in December. So, I wrote three of the six
chapters in order to stay in that search. That actually helped me to write my
dissertation probably significantly faster than I otherwise would have.
B: That committee was made up of subscribers to the chapter of the month club.
S: That is what it felt like. It was a strange way to do it. It was a very unusual
experience to have.
B: That was at a time when the job market was still fairly lean for historians?
S: Those were actually the only three jobs in my field in the country that year, too.
That is partly a story about going to graduate school in the Ivy League, too. I
think it is a story about how connections in the academic world make a
difference. Having someone who knew someone on the faculty in one case [and]
having somebody who was from another university that year at Princeton, I think
those connections have some significance.
B: You have a family, I understand. When and where were you married?
S: I was married in Princeton on October 1, 1981.
B: When you were still a Ph.D. student?
S: Right, when I was still a graduate student, to Denise Thompson. I met her at the
university in Maryland where she worked as an administrative assistant to one of
the chaired faculty, John Duffy, who was a medical historian, the only chair, I
think, that department had at the time that had an administrative assistant, and
that was her job. So she worked in the history department.
B: And who are your children?
S: Moses, who is eight years old and was born on October 1, 1991, exactly ten
years after our marriage, and Jasmine Grace Slaughter, who was born
November 19, 1994, who is five years old.
B: In 1997 at Rutgers, you gained the academic rank of professor-2. Is that what
some universities would call a full professor?
S: No. Our full professor rank has a rank after it. The professor 2 is equivalent to
what some universities call a distinguished professor rank, so it is a rank beyond
B: I notice that you presently teach courses at both the undergraduate and graduate
levels bearing the title, The Nature of the New World. Did you introduce those
courses, and how long have they been offered?
S: Those are new courses that I have introduced, and those have been offered only
for about the last three years. They are relatively new.
B: Would you describe what you have students do in those courses?
S: One of the Nature courses which I taught this past fall focused on a mix of
history, fiction, and primary documents. I do it differently every time I teach it.
This time, we focused on the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and the students read
an abridged version of the journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition and they
read Stephen Ambrose's book about the Lewis and Clark Expedition. What I
asked them to do was to take their readings of the journals of the Lewis and
Clark expedition and use a novel as an entire to trying to understand them. The
novel that we read is called The Ancient Child, and it is by the Native American
author N. Scott Momaday. This novel is an attempt to explore some of the
fundamental differences between European American culture and Native
American culture around, specifically, the issues of spirituality and time. The
focus of both the novel and the journals is essentially on nature, and what I was
asking them to do is take Momaday's Native American understanding of the
relationship between humans and nature and try to use that as an essential
knowledge to inform their reading of the journals of Lewis and Clark, who did not
have that same understanding. We were trying to get to plausible Indian
perceptions of the events that Lewis and Clark report, because it is inconceivable
that the Indians understood the meetings between the expedition and Indian
tribes in the same ways and in the same terms that Lewis and Clark did, but the
journals only reflect Lewis' and Clark's perspectives. That is what I was trying to
help them do, try to explore the places where you can begin to differentiate to
some extent the difference between perspective the way one person or one
group of people sees an event and what the other possible perceptions of that
event are and, thereby, understand differently the reality. The real mistake, I
think, would be, as an historian, to take the journals of Lewis and Clark
Expedition exclusively as documentation of fact, when in fact they are
documentation of perspective, the perspective of the person who writes them.
Yet, virtually all of what has been written about the Lewis and Clark Expedition
makes precisely that mistake. They use the journals to understand, as evidence
for a reality, I think, the journals really do not represent. So, what I am trying to
do in all of those courses, whatever the titles are, is to plum the cultural
dimensions of human relationships with nature, how we construct nature and our
place either as a part from or a part of nature within the context that is heavily
informed by the cultural baggage and the historical baggage that our culture
brings with us to those events.
B: When you say all of those courses, are you also referring to an undergraduate
course titled, Reading and Writing About Nature?
S: Yes, where that is exactly what we want to do. We want to look at the process by
which you experience a relationship to nature and then reduce that to a written
B: And all of these courses are offered in the history department?
S: Yes, they are.
B: Who are the students that these courses attract? I guess I am wondering if you
find that any of these three courses, or any of them more than the others,
stimulate interdisciplinary work involved in history?
S: Yes, we have quite a number of students from the English department and the
art history department and, more recently, from archeology and anthropology
who are interested in this kind of stuff, in addition to history. We also have, on a
regular basis, graduate students from the education program. For the graduate
courses, I have found what it does as much as bring people across disciplines is
it has brought a lot more students than I usually teach from other universities
because there are not many courses like that available to graduate students in
that region, so I typically had graduate students from Columbia and Princeton in
those seminars also, when I teach the graduate courses.
B: And are those students from the other departments that you just listed or many of
them historians as well?
S: From the other universities, I think most of them have been from history. I
remember a couple from religion departments, the religion department at
Princeton. The graduate students from our own university, besides history,
generally are either from English or archeology and anthropology. I have had a
couple from art history but not as many from there.
B: You are an early Americanist, I guess, by subset of the discipline of history, but
how else would you characterize yourself as an historian?
S: I find self-characterization somewhat difficult. I do not even know why, but I
always stumble over questions like that. I never go away from the stumbling,
trying to resolve them in a way that I will not stumble the next time. I am quite
comfortable with early Americanist. I was trained by choice, and the reason I
went to Princeton was because I wanted to be trained in European history as well
because early American history is a subset of European history during the time
that Europe was expanding to other parts of the world. So, I think I was truly
trained as what would be called an early modernist, rather than an early
Americanist. When I was in graduate school, I took courses in seventeenth and
eighteenth-century France with Natalie Davis and Robert Darnten at Princeton.
Of course, I had a field in English history. So, early modernist, meaning
somebody who is interested in the history of people connected to Europe during,
principally, the seventeenth and eighteenth-centuries is probably the fairest
description of what my training and teaching has focused on. I have, however,
written three books. The first book is truly an eighteenth-century book. The
Whiskey Rebellion book comes to end before the eighteenth-century comes to
an end. My second book was on a nineteenth century subject. My third book
went on through the first quarter of the nineteenth-century, and what I am
working on now is an early nineteenth-century subject. So, I do not think in my
research, I have been as easily definable as early Americanist as I have been by
my training and my teaching. Typically, early Americanists do not focus as much
on the first half of the nineteenth century.
B: You have mentioned the other disciplines that students come from when they are
attracted to these three courses that we have been talking about. Have you
noticed any subsets, within those disciplines from within history or anthropology
or any of the other related disciplines, that seem to stimulate interest in what you
are doing with these courses? Maybe another way to approach the question
would be to ask if you have noticed any project orientation or attraction to kinds
of work that seems to resonate with people who are showing up in these
S: I think that one of the things that students find in a course like that, that seem to
be lacking in most of the academic courses in history, in English and in art
history, are focuses on philosophy and spirituality, that spirituality is largely
something that is not taken seriously by academic history. In other words, you
can study people's religions, but, generally, when we do that, we do that as
culture critics. In academicss, now, that is the fashion. We tend to focus on
studies of spirituality from the perspective of disbelievers; in other words, let me
try to explain these other people's beliefs within a context that makes sense,
given the fact that those beliefs are somehow not ones that I share. The
perspective that much of the eco-philosophy and Native American spirituality and
a good bit of the earth-centered writing of the late twentieth century actually
takes, and almost all of that comes from the outside of academics, is one that
takes the spirituality seriously. So, when we are looking at spirituality, we are not
looking at it from the perspective of disbelievers; we are looking at it from the
people that takes seriously a Native American perspective on the relationship
between people and animals, for example, or the plausible alternatives to the
way the Western society is generally related to the natural world. That is
somewhat jarring within an academic setting, and students react to that
differently, but I have typically found students to find that somewhat jarring in the
ways they think about how they normally approach their work. I do not know
where they will go with that, but I think for the moment at least it is somewhat
unsettling to think that you could write about religion from a perspective that is
not an alienated one but one that takes the plausibility, the possibility, seriously,
that people have wisdom here and not just something to be analyzed n the
anthropological sense. I was once sitting in a seminar of historians who were
gathered for a discussion of the history of American religion. It was an
interdisciplinary seminar. It did not just include historians, but it included an
all-academic gathering of about twenty people who were there to discuss their
common interests in religion, particularly European and American religion,
coming from the same Judeo-Christian roots. Each person, in introducing him- or
herself, introduced him- or herself with a statement, unsolicited by the person
who asked for the introduction, of their own qualifications as a disbeliever. By
that, what I mean is, the first person would say, hello, my name is...my field of
interest is...whatever... I am a non-practicing Catholic...I was raised as a Catholic,
but I do not practice the religion. Second person: I am an atheist. The third
person: I was raised a Jew...I am a non-practicing Jew. All around the room,
every qualification which I heard was a justification, an explanation, of who they
were. It was a statement of disbelief by people who were gathered to study a
subject. Qualification being, I am a disbeliever. What does that mean? In an
academic, I gather that it means you are qualified because you can attain some
sort of an outside perspective, if not objective, because you are expressing a
rejection of it rather than a neutrality on the subject. That is somehow seen as an
expression of a critical angle that we take seriously, and everybody sort of
laughed at each other's expressions of what they once believed but no longer
did. I felt profoundly uncomfortable in that setting and felt that there is truly
something lacking in a shared exploration of something that none of the people
believe in, and so I have tried to present students an alternative vision of our
relationship to the natural world, at any rate, which takes philosophy and religion
B: Does that strike you as something unique or unusual in the experience that your
students have had so far?
S: The students tell me that it is.
B: And do they seem made uncomfortable in any way by this new environment, the
environment that you introduce?
S: That I introduce? I hope so. I guess what I hear most is questions that it raises
about the alternatives, about the alternative environment, to the extent that a
student's own question may take. I do not think students are as comfortable
sharing. I try to talk to students about that, but I do not think they are as
comfortable being critical of my view when they talk to me about it, for reasons
that we can probably both imagine.
B: One academic who taught history and attempted to teach the writing of history
made this following admonition to his students, "Thou shalt not write the history
of a wheatfield regardless of how naturally it develops, for history is the story of
people and every day natural processes do not have to do with history." That
quote is from a document titled "Commandments on Historical Writing" by
Professor William B. Hesseltine, I think a faculty member many years ago of the
University of Maryland. Would you concur or dissent in any way from that
S: A history without people is actually an interesting possibility. What has occurred
to me is if you privileged place over people in writing history, in other words, if
you took a place as the primary focus for a history rather than the people in that
place, what you could do is write a history of a tree, or a history of a place, in a
way that is different from any of the histories that I have ever read. This would, to
be sure, never be a history without people, because Professor Hesseltine is
correct that history is the story about people. But the relationship between people
and place could be, as I imagine it, one that would be reversed from his
assumption in that statement as I am hearing it, which would be to make place,
the place where events occur, the foreground and the people the background.
That would strike me as still being history. It would be a history about the
relationship between people and place but not one necessarily in which people
were the presiding focus of what you were doing. Professor Hesseltine would not
like that history however, I am quite sure, because his take is the traditional take.
I think he has gone the way the way history is typically done, written, but what he
does not imagine is that there are possibilities for doing that differently. That, I
am quite sure he would not entertain, but he is dead, so who cares?
B: Naturalists do not appear in the titles of your publications until 1995 with your
article for Pennsylvania History. Why was it that you then started publishing in
areas related to topics that naturalists appear in?
S: I do not think I know. I think that is a fair question, a good question, but I do not
think I know the answer to that. I know that my early publications, my first two
books, and most of the articles that I wrote up until about the time you mentioned
were focused on the history of violence and resistance in America, principally. I
know that I took a turn at that point. I do not think I know why I took the particular
turn I did or exactly how I took that turn. I think I knew. Indeed, somebody who
actually wrote a very nice review of my second book predicted what my third
book would be about, and she was quite sure it was going to be a book that
carried the themes of resistance, violence, racial, cultural, and regional
engagement forward in time to bring what I had presented as analyses of the
eighteenth century and the nineteenth century up through the early 1850s, at
least forward to the nineteenth century. When I read that review and laughed
about it, I realized that I had no interest in that, principally because I had no
interest in going forward in time that way. I do not remember how I decided to
head in a different direction. I know that my personal interests in nature, my love
of being outdoors, [and] my own way that I have led my life made a clearer
connection to my scholarship. I guess that is one way to answer the question, is
to say that my scholarship had been in a way separate from my life. I have not
lead a violent life [and] I have not been subject to or participated in violence, and
yet that was the subject area of my scholarship in the beginnings of my career.
When I shift to writing more about nature, when I am writing as I was in my last
book to Quakers-and I am Quaker-I am getting closer to myself and to my own
experiences. Why I did that, when I did it, I do not know.
B: What led you to the Bartrams?
S: What led me to the Bartrams was that I was beginning to work on a book about
the Lewis and Clark Expedition. As part of my research to that project, I started
looking at what Thomas Jefferson encouraged Meriwether Lewis to read during
the two years leading up to the expedition. Lewis lived with Jefferson as his
personal secretary in the White House, was with Jefferson who was educating
Lewis through his, Jefferson's, library. He had the greatest collection of books on
the American West of any librarian in the world, and Lewis was reading so that
he would have the knowledge that would be necessary to lead this expedition
which was in Jefferson's mind in some form for actually a fairly long time. One of
the books that Jefferson had and that Lewis read was William Bartram's Travels.
I had never read that book. When I read that book, it struck me as so different
from any of the other books that Lewis was reading or any of the other books that
I had read coming out of the eighteenth century that I felt inadequate to
understand it. In a certain way, my understanding of it was unsatisfying to me,
and it did not seem consistent with what I thought I knew about the eighteenth
century or about people and people's ideas about nature in the eighteenth
century, so I needed to learn more. When I then proceeded to try to learn more
about William Bartram and about the ideas that were in his book, that led me to
try and understand more about William Bartram because it is a very personal
idiosyncratic [and], in many ways, autobiographical book, and that naturally led to
questions not just about what would be the intellectual influences on William
Bartram but what were the personal influences on him. That got me back to his
father. William Bartram, as fascinating a character as he is, only becomes more
understandable when you understand who is father was and what his relationship
to his father was like. Now, that is the beginning of a path but that is not
necessarily the path that I had to take, given the fact that my interest was
Meriwether Lewis and the Lewis and Clark Expedition. But, at precisely the time
that I beginning down this path, my father died-exactly eight years ago on
Monday, two days from now-and my son was born later the same year. So, in
what is a transforming moment in my life, where for the first time I am not a son
to a father and for the first time I am a father to a son, I think the story of William
Bartram and his father had a particular attraction for me that overcame my
immediate interest, at any rate, in the Lewis and Clark Expedition and really
tended to supersede the questions I had come to the Bartrams with, which were
questions about nature. I became much more interested in their natures as men,
as people, and the nature of their relationship to each other as father and son as
I was interested in their relationship as people with nature. I saw all of those as
related together. I think that is exactly why that happened, that is my best
understanding of how that process happened. That one I have thought about
B: Your editing of The Writings and Drawings of William Bartram and your own
book, The Natures of John and William Bartram were both published in 1996.
Were you engaged in these two works simultaneously, or did one inspire or one
complement the other?
S: I was working on the book about John and William Bartram, The Natures of John
and William Bartram, and I knew of the Library of America series, a series of
books written by American authors that are published in a very attractive way and
designed to establish a canon of American writers. It is a beautiful series of
books. I admired the series of books, and I was actually a subscriber. I thought
that William Bartram belonged in that series, that William Bartram had not been
recognized for the place that he really has in American literature, and that the
place that Thoreau is generally accorded as our first important naturalist really
belongs to William Bartram. I wrote a short letter to the president of the Library of
America in New York, got the address off the book and laid out this case for
William Bartram, about two or three pages. By good fortune, great luck, perfect
timing, it had actually occurred to them that they might consider doing a volume
somehow related to William Bartram, and so they were perfectly prepared to
entertain the proposal exactly at that moment. The fact that both books are
published in the same year, anybody who knows much about publication knows
that has to be a coincidence. At that point, the research that I was doing to write
the book about the Bartrams was consistent with the Library of America edition of
William Bartram's writings, so it really was not that much of a deviation from the
lines of the book. It was supportive of that. A very similar story applies to The
Natures of John and William Bartram. I greatly admired a number of the books
that had been published within the past ten years by Knopf, which is a division of
Random House, and the work of a particular editor whose name is Jane Garrett.
The books that were coming out with her as the editor, I admired, so I sent her a
letter, too, a few pages long, explaining to her what I was doing with the
Bartrams. As it turns out, Jane Garrett is an ordained Episcopal priest and my
interest in Bartram's spirituality and in nature-she lives in rural Massachusetts,
not in New York where the publishing company is, precisely because of her
interest in the out-of-doors-I found the perfect editor for the book, because this
really connected up with her own life in a way that made it quite fortuitous and
just plain lucky. I did not know she was an Episcopal priest. I did not know that
this book would connect up with her emotionally as much or more than it
connected up with her intellectually, so I was just lucky.
B: Well, you must have observed something in the work that she had been a part of
producing that made the whole notion resonate somehow with you to write that
S: Yes. I mean, I think what I valued was her judgement and her sensitivity. She
was doing projects, none of which were anything like this project. It was not that I
saw other projects that were like this, but I saw the hand to the extent that you
can see that, the connecting hand of a person whose tastes and interests might
parallel mine. That is an ongoing interest. She is going to be the editor for the
book that I am now working on, on Lewis and Clark too, not because she is
interested in Lewis and Clark but because we are now interested in what each of
us does and we have a good connection to each other.
B: Do you have an assessment or a sense of the influence of the Bartrams, both
John and William, on the work of nineteenth-century naturalists like John Muir or
John James Audubon?
S: I think the later naturalists are direct lineal descendants of the Bartrams, and I
think that without the Bartrams, you do not understand the trajectory of the
history of American nature writing. The influence there is demonstratively through
Thoreau. [Tape interrupted.] I think William Bartram is the first to freely take an
emotional, what is called a romantic or could also be fairly called a spiritual, take
on nature and to write freely and unembarrassedly from those perspectives. I
think at the time that he wrote in the 1780s, and then he published his book,
Travels, in 1791, the rest of the American world was not ready for it-the
Europeans were more ready for it than the American were-that what happens is
that by the time of Thoreau, that sort of a vision of Americans', of humans',
relationship with nature is much more plausible and can be more readily
entertained, both in terms of style and content, in addition to the question of
perspective, and Thoreau reads William Bartram. Thoreau, who liked to claim
that he was inventing everything that he wrote, also had a constitutional need to
claim that he had no influences on him. I think, in fact, William Bartram was a
significant influence on him. Beyond that, the survival of William Bartram's idea,
until the relatively recent present, was enough. Now William Bartram's Travels is
in print, in at least three different editions. There have never been more copies of
William Bartram's writings available at any time since he wrote them. He is much
more popular now than he was in the first half of the twentieth century, than he
was at any time in the nineteenth or the eighteenth century when he lived. So,
what has happened is that the world has caught up to him in a way that makes
William Bartram's ideas more fashionable now, more appealing now, by a larger
number of people than ever before. William Bartram is that principle connection,
rather than John Bartram. As I said when I was talking about the way that I wrote
that book, you cannot possibly understand William Bartram without
understanding the influences of John Bartram or his particular connections to
John Bartram, but it is going to be William's influence because he is the one who
wrote that book and that is the principle written text that descends to us from the
Bartrams. There are other writings that are collected with that edition that I did of
his writing that are absolutely wonderful, but it will be the Travels always, I think,
that will be his principal legacy.
B: Was it possible for you to document to your satisfaction that Thoreau was reading
Bartram and was substantially influenced by him?
S: No. What we know is that Emerson recommended William Bartram's Travels to
Thoreau, that Thoreau said he had already read them, that there are particular ideas that
are expressed no place in print before Thoreau but come out sounding very, very similar
to William Bartram's ideas. Beyond that, there is no connections. We do not have
Thoreau's copy of the Travels which he annotated or something like that, which would be
the sort of thing that a literary historian would most like to have. So, it is mostly a
paralleling of ideas that is also done with the knowledge that he did read the Travels. He
does not specifically attribute any information to the Travels.
B: You have mentioned the Bartrams' environmental ethics in the context of what we know
today as ecosystems, or ecology. Is there a substantial disjuncture between those two
constructs, or do you see them as parts of a continuing evolutionary understanding of the
S: I think they get us to almost exactly the same place but from different directions, because
I think that our notions of ecosystem are inspired principally by science, and I think what
I call the Bartram's ethic of the connections among and within nature, which sees nature
as a system of connected parts which sounds like what we call an ecosystem, comes
principally from a religious, philosophical and a spiritual position. Although it is science
in the eighteenth century that they are using and applying to their understanding of
nature, the way that they get there is with a certain knowledge that the Bible can be a
guide to the scientist, that there is nothing in science that contradicts the words of the
Bible and that God, being the God in whom they believe, is a God who creates these
systems to work as systems. If, for example, you contract a disease in a particular setting,
in a particular place, that God will have also put a cure for that disease in the same place.
That is the way they understand God, not the way they understand science, but, in fact, it
conforms with the notion of a system. They believe that if you take one, however
apparently unattractive or threatening element out of the system, you take a rattlesnake
out of a system, out of an environment, take any species and it becomes extinct, that the
loss of that one part could have an effect, a negative effect, on the whole because
everything is related to everything else. Now, that is good science, but it is the science
that they come at from their spiritual beliefs. It is a conclusion they arrived at based on
their religious beliefs, not based on their scientific knowledge. Our science, to the extent
that it is principally secular, comes to that knowledge from a very different direction, I
think. Now, whether their spiritual direction will also be part of the direction that our
science takes in the future, I think, is a very interesting question, because I think we see,
particularly in areas of cosmology more than in the earth sciences, a recognition that
scientific questions and the great spiritual questions are often the same questions.
B: What is the value of the Bartrams' work to historians and naturalists and citizens of the
S: I think that we know precious little between the relationships between fathers and sons in
the American past. I think one of the things I was most struck by when I began to take the
Bartrams' relationship as fathers and sons seriously was how little secondary literature
there was for me to go to, to try to understand that relationship within a historical context.
There is very, very little. For all the obvious truth in a statement that up until the last
twenty or thirty years, history was a history that was written principally about men, and
principally about white men, and the fact that now history has greatly changed and
transformed universally for the better by the fact that we take the history of women and
people who are either not white and/or are at the bottom of the economic scale. That has
influenced history greatly. Nonetheless, what we really did not have until we had the
histories of women, the histories of blacks, the histories of Indians, the histories of other
subgroups, is we never truly had a history of men because we never had a history that
self-consciously said, what did the experience of this person mean within the context of
the fact that this person was a man? We never asked those questions, so we never really
understood masculinity; we never understood what it meant to love from the perspective
of a father; we never understood what those relationships truly were like until we began
to think about human beings as being different, based upon those clear and obvious
biological as well as cultural and racial differences. So, we have a lot to learn, about men,
about masculinity. We have a whole lot to learn about fathers and sons. This is only one
father and only one son in one place at one time, but it is the beginning, for me, of
understanding better fathers and sons at that point in the American past, so I find it useful
to me in those ways. It helps us to understand from the perspective of American natural
history. I think that the true literary and ideological trajectory of American writing about
nature in a way that we have not before, if you leave William Bartram out of the story,
the only beginning Thoreau, you do not really understand the beginning of that
story as well as you might. It is important to understand beginnings because you can not
understand change unless you truly understand what change or continuity comes from,
and, therefore, you cannot really understand the present unless you understand that part
of the past, too. Beyond that, I do not know what else the two of them help us to
understand because they are truly eccentric characters. They are truly individuals from
whom I would be reluctant to generalize about other individuals. That is not as telling an
expression of modesty as it might appear to be because that is true for anybody. It is true
for Thomas Jefferson; how are you going to generalize from Thomas Jefferson to
anybody else? You just cannot do that. So what it helps you understand is the
possibilities for other human beings who lived in a time they did, who came from the
same culture, perhaps from the same religious background they did, lived in the same
place they did, but I would really hesitate to say that, how much you can generalize from
them. They can become a base from which you might ask questions, you might develop
theories, but not one from which I think you can generalize too greatly.
B: What projects are next on the agenda for you?
S: I am back to working on the book about the Lewis and Clark Expedition that I started to
work on nine years ago when I got sidetracked by the Bartrams. I have also done a lot of
the work and a good bit of the writing on a book project that I am calling The Snake in
the Garden and Snakes in the Grass. It is about the place of snakes and, particularly,
rattlesnakes in American culture. I think attitudes towards snakes, stories that people tell
about snakes, are a way of charting profound changes in the culture over time. Our
culture, American culture, is just absolutely full of rattlesnake stories, many of which I
have collected. I enjoy telling them, and I enjoy writing about them, and I think they have
some meaning, so I am writing a book about snakes and American culture, too. Beyond
that, I hope someday to write a book about the American Revolution, but maybe I will
and maybe I will not. I do not know.
B: We will conclude with that, and I thank you.
S: You are welcome.
[End of Interview.]
Thomas Slaughter's Speech
February 11, 2000
The very first time that I was introduced in public to give a talk like this which was about
the Whiskey Rebellion, the gentleman who introduced me was ninety-five years old. He was a
practicing Wall Street lawyer, an amazing man. His name was Chauncey Delmat. After I got
done speaking, he said, well, until I heard Mr. Slaughter speak on the subject, I always assumed
that the phrase Whiskey Rebellion implied to that moment in my youth when most of us
switched from bourbon to scotch. I always liked him. I also like the introduction that starts off
telling you that what I am interested in is stories about people in relationship to nature rather
than about a nature that either sees us as separate from nature or that at least explores other parts
of nature apart from us. It occurs to me that my take on what I am doing was not inspired by one
of my favorite authors, Norman MacLean who wrote A River Runs Through It and Young Men &
Fire, but he has a distinction that he makes in Young Men & Fire that I am going to read to you
to start off, because I think that captures some of what I am interested in, what I want to talk to
you about today. Norman MacLean wrote, "that if a storyteller thinks enough of storytelling to
he cannot turn from the sufferings of his characters. A storyteller, unlike historians, must
follow a passion wherever it leads him. He must even to even when they themselves
." Now, I would to think that I would be a storyteller rather than an historian, by that
definition, but I would also say that a lot of historians would cross that Norman MacLean
thought we were bound to stay on one side of. I started a book about nine years ago. I started off
to research and write a book about the Lewis and Clark Expedition. One of the ways that I was
doing my research, one of the project is that my ignorance was so grand that I could have
started everywhere and anywhere. One of the places that I started was I wanted to get inside the
heads of these guys who were going to go out and write about nature. I wanted to understand
what they brought with them when they saw for the first time and they tried to write about,
tried to communicate about, their findings. That event of finding something new, discovering
something, sharing it with other people, is an emotional as well as an intellectual event, but I
needed to have some intellectual background. I started looking where Meriwether Lewis looked,
which was in the library of Thomas Jefferson. Meriwether Lewis lived with Thomas Jefferson
for a couple of years. As his personal secretary, he lived in the White House with Jefferson.
Jefferson educated Meriwether Lewis on how to see nature and how to record and report and
share what you see. Thomas Jefferson had the greatest English library in the world on the
American West, and Meriwether started reading books. This is what Thomas Jefferson would do.
This is how he prepared to go out for this event, reading books. So, I started reading some of the
books that I knew Meriwether Lewis had read. I knew he was reading travel accounts, he was
reading fantastic geographies that filled in huge blank spaces with all kinds of wonderful
information. Two of the books that I read caught my interest right away because I had not read
either one of them. One was the journals of Captain Cook, a famous English explorer who met
his death in the Hawaiian Islands. Jefferson said, you must read this book in order to understand
how, when you go out to nature, you keep a journal of what you find. So, this becomes one of
the models. One of the other books that Jefferson had was William Bartram's Travels, which I
also had never read before. When I got to William Bartram's Travels, I was stopped. I had no
place else to go. There is some evidence that Meriwether Lewis had the same problem because
this book, William Bartram's Travels, is nothing like Captain's Cook's journals. It is nothing
like a genre of scientific exploration. It is nothing like the kind of fact-based traveler's account
of the Enlightenment scientists, Jefferson himself, envisioned or the kind that Jefferson tried to
write in the only book that he wrote himself. It is a wild and crazy and wonderful book. It is
poetic. It is strange beyond belief. I thought, well, okay, what do I do with this? And I
thought, well, I need to know a little bit more about this guy. The more I discovered about this
guy, the more I realized that there were a lot of issues I had to solve. A lot of__ eighteenth
century that did not make sense to me, because this guy lived in the eighteenth century. The
whole way that I thought that by the time 1791 came around when this book was published, the
way American scientists--philosophers, they called themselves--American philosophers of nature
thought just did not add up with this particular piece of writing. I had to find the man, and when I
pursued him in the ways that Norman MacLean pursues his characters as a storyteller, what I
found was this relationship between father and son and this relationship between man and nature
that surprised me. It still fascinates me. Part contributed to Meriwether Lewis' problems
out in the frontier, trying to be either the kind of traveler/recorder that Captain Cook was or the
kind that William Bartram was or the kind that Thomas Jefferson was, because these aren't fairly
compatible models and I think that the point where Meriwether Lewis--I love to imagine
this--gets to the Rocky Mountains, having been trained for years in Jefferson's library, having
been sent to Philadelphia to consult with the great scientists of America in the late eighteenth
and early nineteenth centuries, having been sent out. He is carrying books, he is carrying desks,
he is writing, writing, and writing. He gets to the Rocky Mountains, and he cannot write at all.
That incapacity, that inability to confront which direction he goes is a there. The real turns
that science is going to take in the nineteenth century, separating science away from this sort of
poetry, this sort of poetic temperament, perhaps, the romantic vision that William Bartram
represented. Now, when people like Meriwether Lewis and William Bartram went out to the
wilderness, they brought with them a vision of science, nature, religion, that was not stressed in
the way in the way it stressed in the nineteenth century, because to be a philosopher of
eighteenth century nature is to understand that you can approach nature from at least two
significant directions. You can take nature to a Bible or you can take a Bible to nature and be
assured that, if your science is true, you will find a compatible relationship between your science
and the Bible. So, what you know, for example, is that if you go into an area where they are a
region where there is a problem, that is a problem in eighteenth century. where there is a
problem, you can be sure as a scientist that God has also provided If you are bitten by a
snake here, you only have to search and to in order to find the cure for that. That God
created a natural universe that comes somewhat close to our notion of an ecosystem, comes
together, works together as a whole. So, if you have a snake you bites you, you have a solution
that will help you. If you have a disease that is localized, you have a cure for that disease that is
localized. So, all collecting all the wonders, understanding botany and the relationship
between botany and medicine, and it will help is figuring out what those clues are what those
signs are that will help you do that. what we would call religion and what we would call
science and what we would call folklore, in the eighteenth century, has not been separated out.
To illustrate that in another way, let me say that if you go to a journal like the transactions of the
Royal Philosophical Society, the great English institution of science in the eighteenth century,
and you look about mid-century for articles in the journal, one of the lines you are drawing
up against is that in an article about the same problem, rattlesnakes...there are actually a lot of
articles about rattlesnakes. Europeans are fascinated by rattlesnakes, not so fascinated to actually
meet rattlesnakes but fascinated enough that they want to hear about them and they want to write
about them, and so this journal is full of scientific experiments about them. One of the stories
that is seen as high science in the mid-eighteenth century about rattlesnakes is one that is told by
a man named Joseph Rednoll, who is actually a partner of Benjamin Franklin's, a printer, a
member of the library company in Philadelphia, a "curious man," in a phrase that John Bartram
and his friends used to describe themselves. Let me tell you this snake story, because this is
exactly where these eighteenth century stories make some sense to me. Rednoll is going to
explain to you something that he, as a scientist, as a "curious man," experienced personally, as
an experiment, [although] not one he entered into willingly. But, one day he is out in the
neighborhood of his home and he is climbing up some rocks. He reaches up with one hand and
he is bitten. Immediately, he recognizes he has been bitten by a snake and proceeds to do what
any scientist would do under the circumstances, climb higher and find the snake. This is what
you do as a "curious man" in the mid-eighteenth century. He must find not a snake; he must find
the snake that bit him, because this is the best science of the day, as he records it in his scientific
journal. He climbs up, he searches to the and believes that he has identified the very snake
that bit him. Step two, kill the snake. Step three, he takes the snake, the dead snake now, with
him back home. When he gets back home, he describes the way he is holding his hand which has
been bitten and, for the life of me, it sounds to me like he is holding his hand down, but in the
picture, he is holding his hand up. When he he has this bitten hand, now swelling, and this
dead snake. As he tells it, he walks in the house and says, I am bit, and throws the snake on the
floor. It is like a fire drill. Everybody in the house knows what to do next without him saying
anything else. Everyone has tasks. This is a house full of family, wife, children, servants.
Everybody knows what to do. Somebody goes outside to build a fire. Someone goes out
and begins to look for turmeric to make a paste. Someone goes outside to look for a chicken, of
course. The fire is started, the turmeric is being made into a paste. What to do next? This is the
recipe for what you do next. You cook the chicken. Now, you have the chicken In my
mind, at least, the chicken does not remain in that condition very long. And what you do is bind
the chicken to the wound, and you take the dead snake and throw it into the fire, and you wait
until the chicken has putrefied. I do not know how long that takes. It does not say, exactly, in the
article. But, anyway, you wait until the chicken has putrefied because what that signifies
is that it has drawn the poison out of you. Now, if you have done all these things correctly, if you
have gotten the right snake, if you have done all these things in the correct order, you have hope
that you will survive. But, even in surviving, the story goes on, because the connections here are
what is interesting, the connections between nature and people and what we would see as a
spiritual world, a psychological world, a world of science and medicine. The turmeric had
some use. But all of this is connected. Because what is going to happen next is that you are going
to go through some bad times even if you have done it right. Your first bad time is going to come
as the sun sets, as the arm continues to swell, as the arm takes on a resemblance increasingly to
the very snake that bit you. Your arm will break out in spots that resemble the markings of the
snake that bit you. You have come closer to the snake as the snake has communicated to you its
snakeness in the venom with which you have been bitten. Not only is your arm going to--and he
reports this is what happens to him, and this is a scientific article, not a theoretical piece
here--what happens to him next is that his arm actually begins to take on a life of its own that he
finds very difficult to control. It is becoming snakelike in a way that is literally attached but not
as attached to him as it was before he was bitten. It is making movements that are more like the
snake's movements than they are like the movements of Joseph Rednoll's arm as it was before
he was bitten. This goes on into the evening. The second crisis is going to come at midnight, the
time when all crisis come in folk literature but not necessarily all crises in the history of
medicine and science, but the second crisis comes then. There will be a physical crisis as well.
Having passed through these crises that are predictable in time, you can then be assured, after
having successfully that you will again go through crises on the first anniversary of
the bite on the first full moon following the bite itself, and, indeed, on the annual
anniversary of the bite, you will also have a physical event that you may recall in linking to this,
and he does. He has what we call nightmares and what he calls the effects of the venom, because
he dreams, and these dreams come on anniversaries of the event. He dreams of himself the
ground. He wakes up in cold sweats. But these are subsequent events that are working its
way Similar sorts of stories that we will never to the world of folklore. Our part in
science that has not yet been abandoned in this unification of nature and people and spirit and
animal and science, as we call it. Snake stories, let me tell you one more just to make the
transitional point here. A farmer goes out in the fields to work and puts on boots before he
goes out in his field, knowing the possibility that he could be bitten. Indeed, lifting up a rock in
clearing some new fields, the snake does bite him but bites him on the boot. No harm done. He
goes home at the end of the day and has a story to tell He even may have been somewhat
shaken by the proximity of the close call, but he is okay. He takes his boots off and sits down to
dinner with his family and proceeds to fall over dead the following day. His wife remarries. The
story does not say how long has pass, but she remarries. Her next, second, husband puts on the
same boots, goes out to the field to work, is not bitten by a snake, comes home, removes the
boots, and falls over dead. One more time. She marries apparently a man with the same
size feet and the same Before to her son, and this time the son does not die. In
the re-telling of the story over the eighteenth century, the wise person can vary in ways that are
quite fascinating to the historian of the eighteenth century but not to the scientist of snakes. The
wise person can be the woman, it can be an Indian, or it can be a physician. Which wise person
you have, I think, tells you something about the way the culture is changing, the way science is
changing, and the way this story is becoming more of a folktale each time it is told. The wise
person figures out that there are fangs of this snake embedded in the boot. When you take the
boot off, you get a scratch and you are reinfected with the venom and that is why the subsequent
husbands fall over dead. A silly story, isn't it? It is not very scientific. It cannot possibly be true.
So, why is this called a scientific journal? Well, the last part of the story, the essential science of
the story, is that what the wise person realizes, whether it is the physician or whomever it is, is
that you must remove those fangs and you must scratch a dog up. So, what you do in the next
stage of the experiment is you scratch a dog, and the dog dies. You keep bringing on dogs
number of dogs die. Eventually, the dog does not die, and what do you know when the last dog
does not die? You know that snake is dead, that particular snake is dead, because there is a
particular link between the individual animal and the experience of the person who has received
the venom. It has been communicated in a way that goes both ways. So, what we have here is a
culture in which people are people are listening to nature. There is more between
humans and nature than there ever is in American history after that. Indeed, there is not
time before that of a period when human beings are communicating with nature. Now, it is
people talking to their cows to be sure. It is people hearing and reading science from nature,
whether it is the weather, whether it is a plant, whether it is the Earth. But what people can be
sure of is that nature is communicating with them if they know how to listen and that they can
communicate with nature if they know how to talk. That is true whether we are talking about
it is true whether we are talking about the Eastern Woodlands Indians or the Plains
Indians, and it is true if we are talking about the Europeans who come here from Germany, from
England, from Scotland, from Ireland, from Wales. They, too, were communicating with nature
in ways that gives those cultures more in common, perhaps, than they realized and more
common, perhaps, than we often do too. Not that they are not significant differences, but we
have people on both sides cultural divide that are recognized as European and Native
American who are communicating with nature and looking for ways to understand complex
relationships that bring them all together. Now, of this communication. This is who
drew this snake and drew this because what you need to see here is that this is a
testing to the unitary nature of all creation. I like to start looking at this picture, and this is the
lower left-hand corner when I look at it from the right way up. Do you see what is happening
We have a lizard following something that is following something. These are insects that
are following something. This is everybody following lunch. That is essentially what is going on,
and it keeps going all the way around. We have a plant for these insects up here, right? This is
William Bartram's view of nature. What is missing here but does not need to be stated is
obvious: we are part of the same chain. We are not apart from, or separate from, this story. This
is the story that William Bartram has to tell about area right around here, particularly. Tell me
again. Alachua [County]? [Yes.] This area right around here, that what we have here is a
marvelous illustration of the ways in which all nature is connected, including the human beings
who are part of it. Now, this is a sinkhole, right? We have tributaries here. We have We
have birds flying up there. This is telling the same story as the other picture I just showed you.
Look at the shape that he gives us. This is the shape of a leaf, and these, too. These are
imaginative constructions that show, and everything is reflected in something else. I am not sure
if you can see that. What he has done is, he has framed this in a classic European way, aerial
vision, apart from, outside of, with this frame. It tells the story that all of this is connected.
Everything is connected to everything else. It tells it beautifully. He has one of your local
alligators, too, which everybody loves. It is interesting that one of the things that William
Bartram was ridiculed for when his book was published was his reporting that these alligators
roar, that they make noises, huge noises. That is ridiculous, everybody in the northeast said, but
they bought this stuff about the steam, the dragon stuff. That, they believed, cold-blooded
animals that blow steam. But these are these are dragons. I mean, these are incredible
creatures. And the disbelief! He was trying to integrate them into the only cultural system he
could imagine them being a part of because they were so alien and they were so strange to him.
What he does, as I see it anyway, is he brings them into that medieval tradition of the dragon.
When an Indian from not far away from here participated in a treaty negotiation, one of the
things that he shared with the white participants was this. He is contemplating this decision that
had to be made. I wonder if the ground has anything to say, he asks? I wonder if the ground is
listening to what is said? That questions that make perfectly good sense in the world that
William Bartram lived in, in the world that John Bartram lived in, and the eighteenth century
world that Americans lived in whether they were Indian or European. Another Indian from that
signing, another Indian from the American past, also pointed out that a person could become an
animal if he wanted to and an animal could become a human being. Sometimes, they are people
and sometimes animal, and there is no difference. All use the same language. Words are like
magic. That, the Americans had a harder time believing, had a harder time understanding
and that is partly what William Bartram was trying to give access to for other Europeans,
because what happened to William Bartram when he came down here is he became lost. He
became lost in the sense that he no longer had the same world that he had left, and, in
discovering a world that was new to him and trying to integrate this world, he became a new
person, a different person, a person who no longer saw the separations, the differences that he
had taken for granted in some ways. One of the examples that I like to point to because it is one
that people gave me the hardest time about when I first started talking about William Bartram up
where I am from, up in the northeast, is, okay, William Bartram is a remarkable artist. John and
William Bartram are remarkable prescient naturalists who have, to be sure, many ideas that
strike us as incredibly modem for the eighteenth century. They try to convince other people not
to kill snakes, for example. What a wild and strange thing to do in the eighteenth century. They
were totally unsuccessful, but even the attempt to try to convince other men that to see a snake
does not dictate its murder, that the only real justification for killing the snake is if the snake is
trying to harm you or if it is part of a scientific experiment, but, truly, to go out of your way to
kill a snake is a bad idea; it is disruptive of that God has created, in what we would call an
ecosystem but what they would see as a spiritualized universe. they argued, is it very
because, again, it plays with the necessary balance in the universe. They seem and,
therefore, attractive. William Bartram has got his heart on the table in the book and pictures
everywhere. He is a very attractive figure, particularly as he grows old and becomes a wonderful
old man. Yet, there is one nagging problem with the Bartrams that we, as modems, are going to
have, and that is their terribly retrograde attitudes towards slavery. They are for Quakers,
which they liked. Quakers had begun to abandon the institution of slavery, starting early in the
eighteenth century, but, by 1776, you could no longer be a member of the Society of Friends, in
the Philadelphia yearly meeting of the Society of Friends, if you owned slaves, at a time when
people like John Woman, Anthony Ben _, other Quakers were challenging the rest of
Americans to look at the evils of this institution, to look at the gross unfairness, the inhumanity
of it. Where are the Bartrams? William Bartram wants to set himself up as a planter. His father
buys him some slaves. The family in the outskirts of Philadelphia on the Schuylkill River, they
owned at least one slave, apparently, but they cohabit with slavery in a way that strikes
people-everybody I talked to who admired them-as being inconsistent with the Bartrams that
they knew and wanted to admire, and they have problems with this. While I do not in the least
want to try to convince anybody not to have problems with that, I have come to an understanding
of it that their relationship to slavery is a product of their particular take on the integrated whole
of nature, because John Bartram refers to his horse as his loyal slave. My first clue. Because both
the Bartrams understood the relationships that they had with animals. My favorite story that I
will not tell you, but William tells it himself if you ever get a chance to read more of his writings
outside of Travels, is a story about a pet dog who lived with him as a companion in every sense
of the word, in ways that transcend notions of pets. So, that every relationship in which a
living creature is dependent on you and un-free, as in slavery, you then that there is a place
for those relationships in a unitary universe as long as you are a kindly master. You have no right
to have a horse as a slave if you are a bad treater of horses. You have no right to have a human
being as a slave if you badly treat human beings. Now, this aspect of their sense of an integrated
universe of relationships seems distinctly anti-modern as we have learned the inappropriateness
of slavery, and yet half of that, again, we may see coming into vogue, as well, as people
reconsider anew the relationships between animals and humans in the twenty-first century.
Well, we have time for some questions. Are there any questions?
Q: That is a wonderful picture, and I wonder, does the residence still stand?
S: Yes, this is John Bartram's house, and this is the house as it looks in the mid-nineteenth
century, after both William and John were dead. This is way it had looked during John's
lifetime. This is the house John built and rebuilt, which gives, I think, access to his
interior world in a way that is quite fascinating. This is the first building in Pennsylvania
and, therefore, quite possibly the first building in English North America that has these
Palladium columns. The second building is the bank that is in Philadelphia. John built
these, and his account of how he made these still survives. It is really incredible. These
are native ships. They are very hard rock, and against the grain, by hand, chiseled
into circles. They are then, as circles, piled one upon the other to make a column. So,
these are built with an excruciating amount of labor. They are but this is part of the
strangeness of John Bartram, his connection to the Old World and the New, something of
each, wanting to be more of who he was not for Europeans than he might be. Actually, he
goes so far in his fascination with this style that has vertical function that there is actually
a window. You can sort of see the edge of it here. You look out that window, and all you
can see is a pillar. Very But, this represents his vision, his imagination.
windows which are on four of those windows. Again, quite unusual. But, this is one
of those self-trained guys who can build anything, and this is his imitation of a number of
European styles, put together in the way nobody ever put them together anywhere before
or since. This is his study over here, and some of the great stories about William Bartram
in his old age originate in that setting. In one of the stories he tells about the crow, he
really assumes that the crow has as much right to whatever the crow as he does, and
he believes that the only reason he has a right to anything else is because he is bigger.
When he is very old, he cannot do much about his glasses. One day, he is trying to write
and he has his glasses down on the table and he is stretching, and the crow comes and
steals the glasses and flies out the window and hides the glasses on the ground. You have
this old man with a cane-William Bartram was very old by this time-and he hobbles out
to try to get his glasses back so he can see but, of course, he cannot see well enough to
find his glasses. Every time he gets close to the crow, the crow picks them up and moves
them another twenty feet. Hilarious relationship, but it can only happen with a person
believes that the crow has as many rights as he does.
Q: This is an interesting relationship, this question of slavery. Maybe the main distinction is
the preoccupation was with slavery or the preoccupation was with how can some people
do that to other people? How improper that is. But, if you do not find indifference
between people and nature, maybe this fuses this all together, as you were hinting there,
that your relationship to a crow is just as important as your relationship to another human
being because they are subsequently the same kind of relation, because as much
equality between you and crow as you and another person. So, this rigid difference
between how some people treat other people that way, yet they would consider that
improper the way you might treat your dog, and it is completely acceptable because that
is a different species.
S: I think that is right. If you have that vision, for you to come to a place where you can
question the morality of slavery, come to a place where you would have to abandon
farming as they know it, I mean, you just could not continue to have the relationships you
have, upon which their whole society is based. So, I think that is why they do not get there,
because they see the picture that way. Now, they would be the first to indict a man who beats
his slaves or beats his horse. That is just the distinction. I think you are absolutely right.
Q: Eventually, of course, William Bartram does get to a very strong statement on slavery.
There is a very wonderful document in his papers It is written about the time of the
publication of the Travels, so it just in that way. Again, in part of his linking of
nature, he recognizes, one, that the colonists had just fought off the yolk of England,
he sees that Indian nations that he has visited will inevitably of the colonists who
are now trying to go back and the logic of a very impassioned plane where he
talks about the black man, too, fighting off this yoke. So, where he is a naturalist and an
artist more comfortably to that relationship with animals, he eventually does the
whole group, not just in writing that is beautifully and powerfully stated. Come
into it not from the top end, looking _. He gets there before he dies. I am not sure his
father his parents, or one of his parents, ever got to the same place that William
Bartram did Of course, the men were separated by a generation. John Bartram
truly became a much more enlightened person than William Bartram with one foot in the
next century, in Romanticism
S: Yes, very, very contrasting figures. That William Bartram is absolutely
fascinating, that Very beautiful. It is not dated. It looks like I share your sense,
that it came some time in the 1790s. It had to come later than that dated letter, but we do not
know how much later than that. We can try to date it based on where it comes in the
papers, which makes perfectly good sense. You just do not assume that they have been
resorted. He gets there first in the way most papers get there, by saying that the true evil
is the slave trade, that it is really the traffic in human beings that presents the necessary evil.
There too, though, there is a difference between reaching a sense that the slave trade was
evil in its methods of transporting people against their will across the ocean, and the
difference between that and being a master. What takes them an unaccountably long
time, given the fact that there were any number of Quakers who were teaching this lesson
decades before is that to own a slave is to have participated in the slave trade. There is no
way out of that logic. You cannot say that slave trade is horrible, yet I can be a good master.
You cannot do that. But, he is able to sustain that distinction in a way that seems quite
remarkable for a man who is as sensitive as he is, for as long as he is able to do that.
Q: I want to commend you for the way you have captured Bartram seeing
ecosystems that has escaped many of us. Embarrassingly, I have to confess that
S: No, it is the other way around that you should be embarrassed about.
Q: The thing, though, that I find so vexing is how, at least, in William Bartram's case and, to
a lesser extent, John's, they were so incredibly ignorant out of all of the natural history
that has been recorded through in fifty years. It was not It was
Suddenly, one night, it became a So, I guess my concern is, did the Bartrams, or
especially William, have any concept of context, that anyone had ever been here before,
that anyone had ever written about Alachua 250 years ago about the largest army
ever to invade
S: No. They had no knowledge of that, as far as I know, none at all of the history. Like
most Americans-I think this is true-up through the present, they had no knowledge of the fact
that the Indians existed in a relationship to the land that changed the land as well. So, what
they thought they were seeing was land that was unchanged from the Creation, or, if not from
the Creation, at least...
[End of Tape.]