The backwoods genius with the magic pen

Wandering the Ontario wilderness, Ernest Thompson Seton blazed a new literary trail. His “realistic” animal stories—the first ever written— started the whole conservation movement a century ago and still enthrall millions of youngsters


The backwoods genius with the magic pen

Wandering the Ontario wilderness, Ernest Thompson Seton blazed a new literary trail. His “realistic” animal stories—the first ever written— started the whole conservation movement a century ago and still enthrall millions of youngsters


The backwoods genius with the magic pen

Wandering the Ontario wilderness, Ernest Thompson Seton blazed a new literary trail. His “realistic” animal stories—the first ever written— started the whole conservation movement a century ago and still enthrall millions of youngsters


Man today has a respect and concern for wild animals which contrasts strikingly with the callous indifference that existed before the turn of the century. This concern has produced militant conservation groups, humane societies, game laws and wildlife sanctuaries. Most such social movements have obscure beginnings, but this one had a specific time of birth. Its growth has been gradual, but its birth was a sudden dramatic event in 1898 — the publication of a book entitled Wild Animals 1 Have Known, which quickly became one of the most widely read best sellers of all time.

Its author was a shaggy-haired, many-faceted genius from the Canadian backwoods named Ernest Thompson Seton. A restless wanderer, he had sought cultural inspiration, fame and fortune

as a writer and artist in Paris, London and New York. But during childhood rambles through the ravines of Toronto, Seton had acquired a fanatic love for the outdoors, and this love lured him back repeatedly to the rugged lonely life of the frontiers. Here he found his real inspiration among birds and animals. And here the fame, fortune and artistic success that had eluded him in the cultural capitals of the world eventually overtook him.

In Wild Animals I Have Known, Seton originated a strikingly new literary form known now as the “realistic” animal story. In all previous fiction of this type the animals talked and thought like humans, but Seton tried to show animal lives and personalities as they are in

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“Our homegrown belittlers of Canadian culture overlook Seton’s contribution to literature”

nature. Many biologists today, viewing Seton in the sharper light of modern biological knowledge, claim he fell short of depicting animals as they actually are; but sixty years ago Wild Animals 1 Have Known was a new and monumental step toward realistic animal portrayal. It revealed to millions of readers that animals have loves and tragedies not unlike our own. It started a whole generation looking with new understanding at the world of nature. It was the real beginning of the movement which grew into today’s vigorous conservation crusade.

Probably a majority of today's naturalists and biologists had their interest sparked first by Seton’s stories, for he turned thousands of boys to the outdoors. I remember vividly the impact of Seton on my own generation — the classroom in tears as the teacher read Raggylug or Lobo, King of the Currumpaw; the library waiting list for Two Little Savages, which most boys reread religiously each year; the hours in the woods trailing animals, building Indian tepees, with a Seton woodcraft book as our Bible and constant guide. Seton is still in demand, I hear, holding his own despite the Lone Ranger and Wyatt Earp. It was a moving and reassuring thing recently to lift a tattered copy of Two Little Savages from a library shelf and find a bundle of dried pine needles in its pages — evidence that Seton is still going into the woods with boys. I hope that, like Tennyson's brook, he goes on forever, and he shows good signs of doing so. Recent paperback editions have pushed Seton book sales to three million. The Seton message — "We and the beasts are kin” — lives on.

But Seton has a special significance to Canada other than the fact that he has kept three generations of us animal-conscious. Our homegrown belittlers of Canadian art and culture, who bemoan that Canada has originated nothing of artistic merit, overlook that Seton's wildlife fiction was an original Canadian literary form that was quickly imitated by Kipling and other literary greats throughout the world. Though he was born in England and lived most of his life a U. S. citizen, Ernest Thompson Seton wrote his first stories in Canada, and most of his wildlife characters were animals he studied here. Because of this, and because another Canadian, Charles G. D. Roberts, followed quickly along the literary trail that Seton blazed, the realistic animal story is now recognized as a Canadian contribution to world literature.

Seton had three careers — art, science and writing — and he won recognition in all of them. But his fiction writing, the career that interested him least, was the one that brought him wealth and fame. He had begun it merely as a hobby, as an expression of his love for nature, and even after it had thrust him into world prominence he still wished to be known first as a scientist. The recognition he gained in scientific circles as a competent. self-taught biologist he prized more than all the fame and wealth he won as a teller of animal tales. Of his forty-two hooks, he was proudest of his huge fourvolume Lives of Game Animals, a scien-

tific work to which he devoted ten years of his life. He obtained a wry satisfaction from the fact that his Lives, though it established him as a scientist, sold only twenty-six hundred copies while his animal fiction sold millions and made him a millionaire. Today, almost fifty years later, Seton’s Lives is still a must for every mammalogist’s library and second-hand copies are in demand at five times the original price.

But despite his reputation as a scientist, there are glaring scientific flaws in his popular fiction. Some of Seton's stories show a fallacy common for his time — the error of anthropomorphism, or unduly humanizing of animals. Modern biologists contend that Seton’s animal heroes are too liberally endowed with human emotions like love, grief and hate. Some possess too much reasoning power to be acceptable as animals today. There is the small bear in Biography of a Grizzly, for example, which rolls a log up to a tree and stands on it so that it can reach up and leave a higher claw mark in the bark, hoping to make other grizzlies believe there is a monstrous bear inhabiting the region. Modern authorities on animal behavior say this and other episodes imply a degree of intelligence that animals just don’t possess. But the anthropomorphic flaws are more than offset by sound scientific realism that characterizes most of Seton’s work.

Seton’s was a strange double life of contrasts — a constant restless commuting between cities where he hobnobbed with a cultured and scientific elite and the frontier where he lived among cowpunchers and backwoodsmen. He was born in 1860 at South Shields, the English. seaport on the Tyne, twelfth in a family of fourteen boys. His father was a wealthy domineering ship-owner who insisted that his sons rise and stand at attention when he entered a room. When Seton was six his father’s wealth was suddenly lost because of several ship sinkings and the family came to Canada and settled on a farm near Lindsay, Ont. Here the impressionable young Seton had his first contact with nature and the Canadian backwoods and he loved it from the beginning.

Seton’s business-trained father was unfitted for pioneer farming and after four years they moved to Toronto where the father got work as an accountant. Queen’s Park, the Don Valley and Rosedale Ravine, now in the heart of Toronto, were then virgin bush and Seton spent his boyhood roaming these areas, to the disgust of his father, who disapproved of such futureless activity. Seton had no hooks on nature; he learned the names of birds and animals by studying the specimens in taxidermy shop windows.

Some of his best-known wildlife characters, now immortals in the ranks of literary heroes, were birds he learned to know at that time in wild regions that are midtown Toronto today. They include Redruff, the Don Valley Partridge, and Silverspot, the Castle Frank Crow.

Sugar Loaf Hill, a landmark in several Seton stories, was in the Don Valley just north of the present Bloor Street viaduct. I stood on this bridge one afternoon last

May and watched sadly as bulldozers leveled Sugar Loaf for Toronto’s new Don Valley Expressway. 1 walked away feeling I had lost a boyhood chum.

In his early teens Seton began to display unusual talent as a wildlife artist. This, to his father, made sense, and the boy was apprenticed to a Toronto portrait painter. But his training there consisted mainly of using flesh-tinted oils to paint out the black eyes of street brawlers. This was a much more lucrative business in the Toronto of that day than portrait painting. So Seton began attending night classes at the Ontario College of Art. He did well, won a gold medal and on the strength of it persuaded his father to send him to London for art study. In 1879. now nineteen, Seton went to London.

He was one of six chosen from two hundred contestants for free art instruction at London's Royal Academy. An allowance his father had promised rarely came and he was always hungry and illdressed. But life in London brightened when he discovered the huge natural history library of the British Museum. All his youth he had had a hunger for nature books and there were more of them here than he had ever dreamed existed. He began spending every night reading in the museum library. But after two and a half years he began to feel a yearning he was to feel many times in later life — a yearning for the North American backwoods. With proceeds from a small book-illustrating assignment he bought a steerage ticket and returned to Toronto.

His father, never very industrious, felt the time had come when his sons should be supporting him. He handed Seton a bill for $537.50 covering every cent he had spent raising the boy. including the doctor’s bill for his birth. He showed Seton his account book in which it was all recorded and said that henceforth he would be charging six percent interest

on the debt. If Seton wanted an itemized statement, the father would prepare one at no extra cost. Seton, stunned and angry, said it would not be necessary.

Seton sold some wildlife sketches to a Toronto Christmas card publisher, bought a flock of chickens and headed west to join one of his brothers on a Manitoba homestead. Because of deep snow, the train trip took three weeks, during which Seton subsisted on eggs his chickens laid in the baggage car. In his brother's log shanty at Carberry, a hundred miles west of Winnipeg, Seton’s career as a scientist began, for he spent more time observing and collecting animals than he did caring for his chickens. Frontier living and its wildlife thrilled him. At this time his first reports on wildlife observations begin to appear in scientific journals and here Seton wrote his first experimental piece of wildlife fiction. The Life of the Prairie Chicken, which appeared in the Canadian Journal of February. 1883.

After a year and a half the wanderlust bit him again. His love for nature and the backwoods began to conflict with his desire for artistic success and in November, 1883, he went to New York. For several days he lived on bread and drank water at street fountains until he got a fifteen-dollar-a-week job as artist for a commercial art firm. It was the only desk job of his career and he couldn't endure it long. When spring and singing birds filled him with restlessness he headed again for the Manitoba prairies. But during this first six-month stay in New York, Seton made important strides in all three of his careers. He wrote animal stories which began appearing in St. Nicholas and Forest and Stream magazines. The recognition he was now winning as a scientist is attested by his election at that time to the select scientific company of the American Ornithologists’ Union. One of his newly acquired scientist friends.

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ornithologist Dr. C. Hart Merriam. called him the best animal illustrator in America and ordered fifty drawings for books Merriam was preparing. But all of this failed to impress his father and when Seton stopped in Toronto on the way west, the father reminded him that interest had added another sixty-five dollars to his debt.

An inveterate rolling stone, Seton seemed compelled to move whenever he could afford to buy a train ticket. There were more junkets between Manitoba. Toronto and New York and in 1887. Seton. now twenty-seven, was back in Toronto for another visit. His mother begged him to settle down. Another brother had a summer resort at Lome Park ten miles west of Toronto and Seton became its resident manager. He lived there two years before the venture finally failed. The failure had two causes: a select residential development, the Lome Park Company, objected to having the shoestring Seton outfit next door and made trouble at every opportunity; and Seton spent too much time wandering in the surrounding bush instead of tending to business. But here Seton met animal heroes which later went into some of his most famous stories—the Springfield Fox. Molly Cottontail, Dabbles the Coon and others. Also during this period he managed to buy some property in Toronto which he sold at a nice profit. He paid his father in full, including interest, and with the remainder bought a steamer ticket for London to study art again. He could earn a living now doing animal illustrations, but fine art lured him and a few months later he went to Paris to study at Julian’s Academy.

The love of Canadian wildlife was still in his heart and his first major painting was a sleeping wolf done at the Paris zoo. It was accepted for the Paris Grand Salon that year. 1891. Encouraged. Seton tackled a bigger project for the Grand Salon of the following year — a large canvas showing a pack of w-olves devouring a peasant they had killed. He called it Triumph of the Wolves and the judges rejected it unanimously as too horrible and offensive to be hung as a work of art. Disgusted, and tired of Paris now' that he had spent two years there, Seton packed up his paintings and headed again for the Canadian West. Triumph of the Wolves was shown in Toronto on his way west and it created so much attention that even U. S. critics came to sec it. Critics either despised it or acclaimed it as a great masterpiece. After bitter controversy it was selected for inclusion in the Canadian art exhibit at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.

Seton was now recognized as a wolf authority. In New York he met the owner of a New Mexico cattle ranch w'ho complained that wolves were killing cattle and causing huge losses. One particular old one. known as Lobo, had for five years defied all efforts to shoot or trap it. The rancher wished to hire Seton to go out and teach his cowboys how to bring down wolves, especially Lobo. Seton had several illustrating assignments but here was frontier adventure he couldn't resist, so he dropped everything and in the fall of 1893 went to New' Mexico as a wolfhunter.

He trailed Lobo that winter into the wild Currumpaw Valley and read from his trail the great wolf's single weakness — Lobo had taken as his mate a reckless white bitch named Blanca. After four months of trailing, Seton finally trapped the impetuous Blanca and then, using her body as a lure, he soon trapped Lobo too. But as soon as he saw the giant wolf in his traps. Seton was sorry for what he had done. Inspired by the wolfs cunning

and defiant fight. Seton wrote his great story Lobo. King of the Currumpaw, recognized today as his finest animal story. A true account, it appeared in Scribner's magazine that November of 1894 and won immediate widespread acclaim. Seton said many times later: "It was the beginning of my worldly success." But by this time he was no longer in America to accept the plaudits. The wanderlust had bitten him again. He had used the proceeds of the Lobo sale to go back to Paris for more art study.

Here he met Grace Gallatin, a socially prominent New Yorker, and on his return to New York two years later they were married. Now thirty-six. he tried to settle down as a wildlife illustrator, but even marriage failed to tie him down. He continued periodic rambles to the w'est and around this time discovered a new purpose for traveling — lecturing tours.

In 1898 he offered eight of his most popular magazine stories to Scribner's, the book publishers. Scribner agreed to publish them but warned Seton it was a hazardous publishing venture and told him he would have to be satisfied with a ten percent royalty. Seton asked how many copies he must sell to cover initial publishing costs. Scribner answered: “Two thousand." Seton was so confident of its success he said he would accept no royalties on the first two thousand copies on condition he receive double royalties on all copies sold above two thousand. Scribner balked, but he had set his own trap and couldn't escape. So that was the deal they made.

Wild Animals 1 Have Known appeared in October. 1898. Critics shouted hosannas and the public loved the new. realistic and sympathetic picture of wildlife it gave. Two thousand copies sold within three weeks and Seton then began collecting his double royalties. Three more large printings sold out before Christmas. Seton. the struggling footloose wildlife artist, suddenly found himself a wealthy and famous author on the strength of a few nature stories written as an evening pastime.

His fame created a great demand for him as a lecturer. He had a powerful voice and stage personality. His skill at imitating animals and acting out his stories was soon earning him six hundred dollars a week on lecture platforms and he needed a manager to handle this phase of his business alone. One such demonstration — an impromptu one — embarrassed an august assembly of scientists who were its unwilling audience. At a convention of the American Ornithologists’ Union in Washington, several distinguished scientists had gathered for an evening with suitable refreshments in Seton’s hotel room. The evening wore on. the refreshments began to have their effect, particularly on Seton who decided to demonstrate wolf howls. Suddenly he announced that the room was too small to obtain the necessary resonance and he led his reluctant guests to the lobby downstairs. Seton crouched wolf-like on the lobby fioor, threw back his head and let forth with the most realistic wolf howl Washington had ever heard. Satisfied now with the resonance, he repeated it again and again. One by one his embarrassed guests slipped away until Seton was alone, squatting on his haunches and still howling dismally at the ceiling. Hotel detectives finally led him back to his room.

Following his success w'ith Wild Animals I Have Known, art became secondary and Seton began devoting much more time to w'riting. Book followed book almost annually, all illustrated with his own drawings. There were Lives of the Hunted, Biography of a Grizzly,

Animal Heroes, Rolf in the Woods and many others. Between writing sessions and lecture tours he also rambled off on a trip into the wilderness somewhere each year. To the dismay of his publishers he was usually out of touch somewhere in the distant hinterlands whenever a business crisis arose over his books.

But his lack of a permanent address was not as serious as another difficulty that dogged him — the lack of a permanent name. His boyhood name was Thompson, not Seton, but since Thompson was merely a name assumed by a

Jacobite great-grandfather to escape detection, there was disagreement about what the family’s name should be. The disagreement was solved for the Toronto branch of the family when the father fell heir to the name Seton, which included an earldom. However, he did nothing about legally claiming it. This annoyed his sons, who began using various combinations of the tw'o names. The mix-up was complicated by a pious mother who thought there was something irreligious in a family being divided with different names, and from time to time she per-

suaded them to revert to the original — Thompson. As a result, Seton’s art and writings had been signed by three different names at various times — his boyhood name, Ernest Evan Thompson; the compromise Ernest Seton-Thompson, and the name he preferred, Ernest Thompson Seton. It produced a copyrighting chaos for his publishers and finally, in 1901, Seton’s mother now dead, they summoned him back from a wilderness trip and had the Supreme Court of New' York designate him Ernest Thompson Seton.

Remembering his own lonely and

harshly disciplined boyhood, Seton created an outdoor organization for boys that survives today as the Boy Scouts, perhaps his greatest monument, but a monument on which ironically his name does not appear.

His original boys’ organization he called the Woodcraft Indians, and its members were instructed to pattern themselves on the North American Indian. The organization, its laws, system of merit badges and outdoor activity he set down in detail in a four-hundred-page book he called The Birch Bark Roll. Hundreds of groups had sprung up in Canada and the U. S. by 1906 when Seton went to England to promote the idea there. Lord Roberts, commander in chief of the British Army, was intensely interested and turned Seton over to Boer War hero General Baden-Powell, w'ho was ordered to get the movement rolling in Britain. Seton gave Baden-Powell his Birch Bark Roll and the two had long talks and, later, detailed correspondence on the subject. But two years later, when the Boy Scouts sprang into being in England, Seton was ignored. Baden-Powell’s book, on which the new scout movement was based, was a thinly disguised rewrite of Seton’s Birch Bark Roll, with only one important alteration — Seton’s emulation of the Indian was thrown out and the new British Boy Scouts was strongly military instead. Seton commented: “My sole object was to make better citizens; Baden-Powell’s was to make better soldiers.”

World War I was brewing, military organizations were in fashion and BadenPowell’s Boy Scout movement emigrated back to North America, where it slowly replaced the Seton Woodcraft Indians that had fathered it. Influential friends on both sides of the Atlantic urged Seton to seek recognition as the Boy Scout founder. One of them, Lord Northcliffe. publisher of the London Times, wrote to Seton: “No one acquainted with the facts has any doubt that you are the originator of the Boy Scout movement and have been unfairly treated by Baden-Powell.” He offered Seton the columns of the Times “to expose Baden-Powell’s imposture.”

But Seton was too interested in the scout movement to jeopardize its early years by engaging in a race for honors with Baden-Powell. It was probably the only fight in his life he ever declined. He told his defenders that “slow but reliable history" would some day give him the honor he had earned. But history never has.

Seton’s constant wandering on lecture tours and wilderness safaris was more than any marriage could endure. His thoroughly urbanized wife tried to keep up with him for a few years, then became a writer of travel books and began extensive travels of her own. They kept an estate at Greenwich, Conn., but were rarely there together. Their one child, Ann, also became a writer. Today, as Anya Seton, she is well known as the author of several best-selling historical novels, among them Dragonwyck, Katherine and the Winthrop Woman.

In 1930, explaining that “the call of the west was ever in my heart,” Seton moved to New Mexico where in the land of Lobo he built a sprawling stone castle and museum. Here, following a divorce, Seton married a second time in 1935 at the age of seventy-five. But his fabulous Seton Castle became a headquarters and not a home, because Seton remained a restless rolling stone to the end.

He died at eighty-six in October, 1946, a few days before he was to embark on a six-month, ten-thousand-mile lecture tour of the U. S. ★