by Robert Fogarty
There are few passages in the whole of American literature that are more shocking than the one cited in our opening essay “Birds of the New World” by John Nelson that chronicles the reactions of visitors to America as they saw the bountiful array of birds on our shores. It is from Hector St. Jean De Crèvecouer’s Letters of An American Farmer wherein he writes of his encounter with a caged slave in South Carolina that terrifies him.
Most of Crèvecouer’s observations about colonial America were benign and admirable, but this one shakes him to the core. Nelson quotes from the British historian Keith Thomas who wrote that man’s view of birds was an “odd mixture of superstition, moral judgment, competition, gratuitous cruelty and fond familiarity.”
Encounters, by chance or otherwise, are the stuff of history, astronomy, and anthropology as humankind moved outward beyond the self or inward from self. Melville’s reading of Hawthorne’s Mosses From an Old Manse, for example, came with the shock of recognition that he was in the presence of a the greatest author America had produced: ”For genius, all over the world, stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round.” Continue reading