Monday, October 25, 2010

Two Awesome Moustaches Vs. The President Of The United States

Charles G.D. Roberts and his moustache
Once upon a time (by which I mean the late 1800s and early 1900s) stories about intelligent, anthropomorphized animals were all the rage. The trend had been sparked by Darwinism and then took off with the publication of Black Beauty. After that, the classics came quick: The Jungle Book, The Wind In The Willows, White Fang and The Call of the Wild, Beatrix Potter books and the tales of br'er rabbit. And though we don't remember them as well, two of the most famous authors of "animal fiction" were Sir Charles G.D. Roberts and Ernest Thompson Seton. Both were Canadian. Both were incredibly popular writers. And both had awesome fucking moustaches.

Roberts was from New Brunswick and wrote such proudly nationalistic, nature-loving verses that he was hailed as The Father Of Canadian Poetry and known—along with three of his cousins—as one of the four Confederation Poets. Later, he would move to New York, start writing prose, and eventually end up living in Toronto, which is where he spent the last years of his life.

Seton, meanwhile, grew up here, where he developed his passion for nature as a child by exploring the wilderness of the Don Valley back in the days when it really was a wilderness, filled with deer and foxes and salmon. He too would eventually end up in the States, which is where he co-founded the Boy Scouts of America, wrote the first edition of The Boy Scout Handbook and joined Roberts among the ranks of the famous animal authors thanks to books like Lobo, Rag and Vixen and Wild Animals I Have Known.

Ernest Thompson Seton and his moustache
 But not everyone loved those stories. Like, say, John Burroughs. Or the President of the United States. Burroughs was a famous naturalist, the "Grand Old Man of Nature", armed with a beard so awesome it nearly rivaled the Canadians' own facial hair. He attacked Roberts and Seton (along with a couple of other writers who, boringly, had nothing to do with Toronto at all) in an Atlantic Monthly article called "Real and Sham Natural History". Offended by the lack of hard science behind their stories, he accused them of misleading the world's children with tales of clever and compassionate beasts, dubbing the authors, in his old-timey spelling, as "nature fakirs" and denouncing them as "yellow journalists of the woods". 

The piece kicked off a fierce battle. Some of the writers fought back. There were newspaper articles. Magazine features. Book prefaces. A full-page editorial in the New York Times. The "Nature Fakers Controversy" raged on for years, only coming to an end once Burroughs convinced Theodore Roosevelt, the President of the United States himself, to wade in on his side. Though Roosevelt knew Seton, admired Roberts' writing, and admitted it wasn't a good idea for the President to get involved, he wrote two essays condemning the authors' lovable animal stories as "an outrage", "a genuine crime" and "an object of derision to every scientist worthy of the name, to every real lover of the wilderness, to every faunal naturalist, to every true hunter or nature lover."

And that was that. The controversy died down, Burroughs and Roosevelt had won, and the official wisdom declared that animal stories were bad for society. Case closed.

No one ever read The Jungle Book or Black Beauty or The Call of the Wild ever again.


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