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Was Jack London a “Nature Faker”?

April 28, 2014

"Call of the Wild" on cover (Object ID 2014.0.5.1).

As part of The Big Read Dearborn’s focus on The Call of the Wild, I was recently asked to speak on Jack London and the Nature Faker controversy. During the first decade of the 20th century, this widely publicized literary debate shone a spotlight on the differences between science and sentiment in popular nature-writing. Although the actual controversy is long past, the issues at its root are still relevant today.

Proponents of the scientific approach to nature-writing accused the sentimentalists of creating stories that overly humanized animals, misleading readers by taking the animals’ point of view, and often concluding their stories with far-fetched happy endings. The worst offenders—the so-called “nature fakers”—went so far as to claim that their often fictional accounts were completely true-to-life.

The Nature Faker controversy had its roots in Americans’ growing appreciation for nature during the late 19th century. Natural areas suddenly seemed to offer a rejuvenating respite from the chaos, crowds, and machine-age clatter of urban life. This led to the creation of America’s national parks (Yellowstone being the first in 1872) as well as public parks and nature preserves closer to home.

Typical Camp at Camp Iroquois, Glen Eyrie, Lake George, New York, 1911

Camping, Lake George (P.DPC.031757).

Children's Museum Nature Study Club in Bedford Park, New York, 1890-1915

Photo of Nature Study Club (32.351.136).

During the heyday of this “cult of nature,” nature writing became immensely popular. One particular genre that emerged was the so-called “realistic” wild animal story. For the first time in popular literature, wild animals were depicted in a positive light—as compassionate creatures with which readers could sympathize.

Jack London was one of many authors at this time who wrote in this genre. In his book The Call of the Wild (1903), London revealed the thoughts and emotions of his dog-hero, Buck, with such sophistication and literary skill that it was easy for readers to become convinced that London was truly revealing Buck’s innermost self.

Bookplate of Author Jack London, circa 1905

Jack London’s bookplate (2013.0.3.1).

Enter naturalist John Burroughs—in his 60’s by this time—who was known far and wide for his many essays. These received praise in both literary and scientific circles, as Burroughs believed in both reporting the objective facts of nature and describing one’s subjective feelings. But he was adamant that these should remain clear and separate.

John Burroughs on the Steps at Wyndygoul, Cos Cob, Connecticut, August 1905

Framed picture of Burroughs (29.1764.3).

Naturalist John Burroughs with a Duck on her Nest, circa 1910

Burroughs in field (93.205.36).

Burroughs was incensed by the glowing reviews of the new wild animal stories. He felt that some them blurred the line between fact and fiction. Furthermore, he believed that the authors of these stories were deliberately misleading the public for their own financial gain.

In 1903, he submitted a scathing essay to Atlantic Monthly, entitled “Real and Sham Natural History.” In this essay, Burroughs denounced the perception that many of these stories were true. He claimed that the “sham nature writers” deliberately attempted to “induce the reader to cross into the land of make believe.”

After Burroughs’ essay appeared, incendiary responses both supporting and attacking the “sham nature-writers” frequently appeared in the press. This went on for a good four years—until President Theodore Roosevelt publicly joined the debate.

Roosevelt had long been a nature-enthusiast known for his grand hunting expeditions. In fact, the Teddy Bear, introduced in 1903, originated from stories about his reputation as a hunter.

'Teddy and the Bear' Mechanical Bank, 1907-1928

Teddy and the Bear bank (58.100.31).

After years of corresponding with John Burroughs, he went public with an interview that appeared in Everybody’s Magazine, entitled “Roosevelt and the Nature Fakirs.” In this article, he noted many of the same issues that Burroughs had raised, then singled out several authors by name—including, for the first time, Jack London. This also marked the first time that the term “nature fakir” (soon to be changed to “nature faker”) was used.

London was justifiably hurt by President Roosevelt’s accusations and tried to defend himself in an essay published in Collier’s Weekly:

I have been guilty of writing two books about dogs. The writing of these two stories, on my part, was in truth a protest against the “humanizing” of animals, of which it seemed to me several “animal writers” had been profoundly guilty….

I endeavored to make my stories in line with the facts of evolution; I hewed them to the mark set by scientific research and awoke, one day, to find myself bundled neck and crop into the camp of the nature-fakers.

In the end, however, how could anyone truly argue with the President of the United States? The Nature Faker controversy soon died down. After that, authors and publishers were more likely to check their facts while the public became more skeptical of what they were reading. But few of the people involved in the actual controversy changed their views.

While Jack London unfortunately died at the young age of 40, John Burroughs lived a long productive life into his 80’s. As his legendary status increased, he often entertained luminaries at his home in the Catskills. Among these luminaries was Henry Ford, who admired his writings and invited him to join his group of Vagabonds (consisting of himself, Thomas Edison, and Harvey Firestone) for several lavish camping trips.

Henry Ford and John Burroughs at Woodchuck Lodge, Roxbury, New York, 1915

Burroughs and Ford (P.O.364).

Thomas Edison, John Burroughs, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone on a Vagabonds Camping Trip, 1918

Vagabonds (P.O.6151).

What do you think? Were John Burroughs and President Roosevelt onto something? Was Jack London really a “nature faker”? Or was he just a good storyteller?

Donna Braden is Curator of Public Life at The Henry Ford.

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