Saturday, May 10, 2008


A Forgotten Nature Writer

Thanks to Dave Lull for drawing my attention to Charles Conrad Abbott, The Rambles of an Idler (Philadelphia: George W. Jacobs, 1906).

Charles Conrad Abbott (1843-1919) was a contemporary of fellow nature writers John Burroughs (1837-1921) and John Muir (1838-1914). Burroughs and Muir are still read, but Abbott is largely forgotten. Kessinger Publishing has reprinted a few titles, but Abbott doesn't appear in anthologies such as Robert Finch and John Elder, edd. The Norton Book of Nature Writing (New York: W.W. Norton, 1990), and Thomas J. Lyon, ed. This Incomparable Lande: A Book of American Nature Writing (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989), and not one of his works has been transcribed for Project Gutenberg.

Although not a nature writer of the top rank, Abbott is nevertheless lively, genial, observant, and entertaining. Here is the beginning of his essay "In Defence of Idleness," from Recent Rambles, or, In Touch with Nature (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1892), pp. 220-221:
Chesterfield asks somewhere, of some one, "Will you improve that hour instead of idling it away?" That depends. For myself, I hold it most righteous to idle away many an hour, for, paradoxical as it may seem, with folded arms and half-closed eyes we may wax wiser with every hour. An "idle hour" is a contradiction. The world does not pause because your step becomes a shuffle; and where, out of doors, is it empty? Custom is a cruel taskmaster; but when his back is turned it is well to watch a chance and give ourselves over to receptive idleness. It is the enjoyment of such moments in anticipation that makes labor tolerable. One day in seven is every man's by law, and so he values it at far less than its real worth. A stolen week-day hour, for which one plans and struggles, is a tidbit more clearly remembered than a month of Sundays. I never met him yet who had no love for a holiday. Toil is necessary, but it does not charm; labor per se is not man's chiefest aim, but to complete a life-work as soon as possible, that the inactive contemplation of it may be indulged. So universal is a love of such idleness that, it is safe to assume, idleness is the aim of life. Every one disputes this, but it matters not. We all know it as a feeling hidden in every breast; else why every one wishes he was so far rich that he need not labor? Not necessarily to sit with folded hands and dream; but to be able to follow the whim of the moment,—to do as he pleases,—to indulge in idleness.

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