Northern Illinois University Press

Describing Early America

Bartram, Jefferson, Crèvecoeur, and the Rhetoric of Natural History

Pamela Regis

"An intelligent and provocative treatment of an important subject."—The Journal of American History

Embedded in the rhetoric of some of the key writings on early America Regis finds the concepts and presuppositions of natural history. Describing Early America examines Bartram's Travels, Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, and Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer—texts that previously have been viewed as belles lettres—and shows how these writings employ recognized scientific methods in recording observations of the new world. Focusing on the descriptions of plant, animal, and human life in the new territories, Regis reestablishes the scientific framework of these texts and offers a reading "based on the lost paradigm of the science of natural history."

According to Regis, writers observing the new world extended the Linnaean system developed for classifying plants to their descriptive narratives of the land, its animals, and its inhabitants, including the native populations and blacks. These descriptions, Regis argues, ultimately ligitimized in scientific terms a view of the natural order of the world, expressed in the idea of the Great Chain of Being, which in a hierarchy places "savages" below "Homo sapiens europaeus." Such historyless and faceless descriptions resulted in a portrayal of America as a static, timeless tableau awaiting occupation.

Regis considers natural history in its original context, examines the rhetoric of natural history writing—its organization, sentences, and diction—and links the genre to early descriptive narrative through an analysis of Travels, Notes, and Letters. In her persuasive rediscovery of an intellectual tradition, she offers a fresh view of the way in which such texts were conceived and drafted and how they contributed to the self-definition of America.

(1992) 203 pp.
ISBN: 978-0-87580-166-7
cloth $33.00

Table of Contents

Prologue: Recovering a Lost Paradigm
Chapter One: Natural History in Context
Chapter Two: Description and Narration in Bartram's Travels
Chapter Three: Jefferson and the Department of Man
Chapter Four: Crèvecoeur's "Curious observations of the naturalist"
Chapter Five: The Passing of Natural History and the Literature of Place
Works Cited

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ISBN: 978-0-87580-166-7
cloth $33.00