Non-Fictional Prose

by Charles G.D. Roberts

Edited by D.M.R. Bentley and Laurel Boone


Ernest Thompson Seton*


If there be one man, since St. Francis of Assisi, whom all the kindreds of the wild have cause [text illegible] it is Ernest Thompson Seton. It is he who is strictly responsible for the vogue of the modern "Animal Story." The effect of the modern animal story has been to persuade people that the wild creatures are of interest in their personalities, in their psychology, and not merely as things to be shot or put in shows. This has resulted in a more sympathetic and understandingly humane attitude toward our inarticulate kin.

When I credit the vogue of the modern animal story to Ernest Seton, I am not unmindful, needless to say, of the inimitable Mowgli. But those unrivalled creations of Kipling’s are, obviously, of quite another species. They derive from the old fabliaux and from the folk-lore tales. Their natural history may be sound enough, as far as it goes, but it is incidental, and concerns us only so far as it helps along the story. The tales of Seton and his disciples, on the other hand, derive directly from the work of such close and loving observers of nature as Richard Jefferies and John Burroughs. They aim to present carefully observed fact. But to give it wider currency and more concrete personal interest, they present in the form of fiction. They individualise the bird, beast, fish, or insect with which they deal. But, unlike the old fabliaux and their kind, they are careful not to humanise their subjects. They are either fragments of animal biography, or they are formally developed nouvelles, each with a central figure, about which gather the experiences which observation has shown appropriate to its kind. On the material side, such nature stories are fact disguised as fiction. But there is another side to these stories, and it is the pre-eminently distinctive side. They aim above all to get at the psychology of their subjects. They are not content to deal with the skins of the wild creatures, but the seek to get inside those skins. From observed actions they strive to deduce motives and emotions. They are based on the conviction—shared by practically all experienced hunters and successful keepers or tamers of animals, and denied chiefly by closet theorisers—that there is an animal psychology. The old animal stories, if they went beyond mere external incident or adventure, simply humanised their subjects, ascribing emotions and motives that would be proper, in like circumstances, to human beings. Seton has taught us to expect, in the animal story, a psychology immeasurably simpler, to be sure, than that of man, a psychology to the last degree limited, indeed, but none the less real and worthy of investigation. He spurns the theory that all animal life below the human plane is the blind and helpless slave of reflex action.

As spokesman of the inarticulate kindreds, Ernest Seton is uniquely qualified. He approaches them from so many points. He knows them in so many ways. And he is untainted by that excess of sensitivity towards them which too often perverts the view of the sympathetic nature-lover. As a country boy in Canada he began their acquaintance very early, and found it so much to his taste that he has been following it up and extending it diligently ever since. He is an expert with gun, trap, and camera. Cunning as an Indian to unravel the tangled trails, and patient as a lynx in watching, he has been able to spy upon the wild things when they least suspect it, and so get at the intimate side of their lives. He has seen more than other men. And he has seen with such discriminating, accurate, and conscientious eyes, that I should be inclined to doubt the evidence of my own eyes, if I found it conflicting with that of his. I might, perhaps, join issue with him in a matter of the psychology at work behind the facts; but as to the facts themselves, gathered by his own observation, I would never regard them as open to question.

Having gained, as hunter and naturalist, so close an acquaintance with the creatures of the wilderness, Seton’s first thought was to depict them as painter, as a draughtsman. In the classrooms of the Royal Academy he trained his native aptitude for the brush and the pencil, and became a skillful artist—needless to say, not of the Post-Impressionist school. There is never any likelihood, for instance, of one of Seton’s grizzlies being mistaken for a view of St. Paul’s in a rainy sunrise. The product of his pencil is always so definitely and distinctively what it sets out to be, that the most austere of scientific naturalists may accept it as a label. At the same time we nature-lovers, who care more about the personal characteristics of a beast than about the number and configuration of his molars, are given that intimate individual touch which we are always seeking.

But when Ernest Seton undertook to convey his rich knowledge and fine enthusiasm, he found he had much more to say than brush and pencil could express. His own pictures drove him to writing about them. With the true instinct of the story-teller, his funds of authentic and verified material fall naturally into the form of fiction. The result was that fresh, vital book, "Wild Animals I have Known." To the credit of the popular taste be it said, this pre-eminently sane and convincing book won instantly a success as emphatic as that of the most sensational novel. It was no mere "boom" success, however, but an enduring one. His other books in the same vein drove home the triumph; and the modern Nature tale was established in a popularity which neither travesty nor attack has been able to undermine.

But to the temperament of this vigorous nature-lover even the pen and the pencil together did not seem to offer outlet enough. He had mimetic and dramatic faculty, a powerful and flexible voice accustomed to carrying across the wooded valleys, and the gift of telling a story vividly beside the camp-fire. These gifts he impressed to the task of interpreting his shy wilderness friends to the public. He went on the lecture platform and hundreds of thousands who had been left cold by the printed page were reached and roused to interest by his magnetic personality. With his tall, lithe form, sinewy from much following of the trails, his lean and swarthy face, his wavy black hair worn rather longer than convention prescribes, his dark and watchful eyes, his head held somewhat up as if to sniff the air and search the hillsides, he looks his part as interpreter of the wilds. And when he adds to the convincing force of his narration his amazingly accurate mimicries, reproducing the calls of the beasts, the pipings and the cries of birds, the spell is so strong that the lights and the intent audience fade away, and once more one goes furtively with alert eyes and restrained breath, through the transparent but confusingly shadows of the ancient forest.

In this brief note I have concerned myself exclusively with Seton’s work as interpreter of the animal world to the world of men. Because of this work of his, men everywhere are growing more considerate of their feathered or four-foot kin. But his wholesome activities are by no means limited to this one field, broad as it is. Himself incorrigibly a boy, his understanding of boys and his enthusiasm about them led him to a novel venture. He bethought him that innate in the heart of the natural boy was the desire to play Indian. He felt—and I think most if us will agree with him—that the boy could hardly be better employed when not learning arithmetic and Latin verbs. Upon this theory he founded the "Set Indians," an organization to promote the art of "camping out," to spread the cult of wild life. It taught scouting, trailing, swimming, canoeing, and courage, insight, truth, endurance. It found its material wherever boys were boys. It spread; and it formed the foundation of one of the most virile and admirable movements of modern-days—the Boy Scout movement—of which, in America, Seton is naturally the inspiring influence. When the effect of this movement begins to manifest itself, as it must, in the finer, more unselfish, and more robust ideals of manhood of the generation now maturing, it seems to me that the kindreds of men, no less than the kindreds of the wild, will have reason to be grateful to Ernest Seton.


"Ernest Thompson Seton," Bookman (London) 45:267, December 1913, 147-49 [back]