John Lawson: Nature Writer

Phillip Manning presented John Lawson for induction into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame with the following remarks, Sunday, October 14, 2012, at the Weymouth Center for the Arts and Humanities in Southern Pines, NC.

I consider John Lawson to be one of our country’s great nature writers, in the same league with William Bartram and Henry David Thoreau. An important indication of his talent is that 300 years after he took his journey through the Carolina back country, his 1709 book, A New Voyage to Carolina, is still in print. Of course, one reason Lawson’s book is still around is because he was the first European to write about the Carolina hinterlands. But Lawson was more than just a first; he was a fine writer.

One indication of his literary skills is how often his work has been copied. If the most sincere form of flattery is plagiarism, then Lawson should be quite flattered. “Many writers have copied Lawson without giving the proper credit—or any credit at all,” writes Hugh Lefler in his introduction to the UNC Press edition of Lawson’s book.

He then lists a few of them: Johann Ochs in 1711 practically copied Lawson; John Brickell made extensive use of Lawson’s writings in his 1737 book A Natural History of North Carolina; the real author of William Byrd’s Natural History of Virginia was, according to Lefler, not William Byrd but John Lawson.

One writer that Lefler didn’t mention was Mark Catesby. Catesby was open about his plagiarism of Lawson; in fact, he freely confessed it in his book Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands, which was published between 1731 and 1743. But, as it turned out, he did’t plagiarize enough of it—which is one reason why Lawson’s book is still in print and Catesby’s is not.

But having a long shelflife and being widely plagiarized do not, by themselves, make a first-rate book. To be considered first-rate, Lawson’s book must meet the standards of good nature writing. To find out if it does, I consulted The Sierra Club Nature Writing Handbook by John A. Murray. Murray parses nature writing into discrete elements and gives examples of what he considers to be good writing. I chose three of those elements—the opening, the closing, and the writer’s style—to help judge the merit of Lawson’s writing.

To explain the importance of the opening, Murray quotes Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who writes that “In the first paragraph you solve most of the problems with your book. The theme is defined, the style, the tone.” Garcia Marquez does not mention it, but I am sure he was aware that another element of a book—the title—is also crucial in introducing what will follow.

The full title of Lawson’s book is A New Voyage to Carolina: Containing the Exact Description and Natural History of that Country Together with the Present State thereof. And A Journal of a Thousand Miles, Travel’d thro’ several Nations of Indians, Giving a particular Account of their Customs and Manners, etc.

And here is how he sets the stage for this expedition in his opening paragraph.

On December the 28th, 1700, I began my voyage (for North Carolina) from Charles-Town, being six English-men in company, with three Indian- men, and one Woman, Wife to our Indian-Guide, having five Miles from the Town to the Breach we went down in a large Canoe . . . .

The title and opening paragraph of Lawson’s book set the theme, style, and tone of what follows—as Garcia Marquez requires. The theme is a quest to explore and document the natural history of Carolina and the Indians that inhabit it. The style is first-person reportorial; the tone is down-to-earth and practical. The rest of the book follows this pattern—just as Garcia Marquez says it should.

The second element Murray uses to judge good nature writing is the closing. The closing, he writes, “can offer a resolution or conclusion to the story line . . .” Throughout his writings, Lawson was sympathetic to the plight of Indians, and this is how he closes his book.

In my opinion, it is better for Christians of a mean Fortune to marry with the Civiliz’d Indians, than to suffer the Hardships of four or five years Servitude, in which they meet with Sickness and Seasonings amidst a crowd of other Afflictions, which the Tyranny of a bad Master lays upon such poor Souls ….


This seems a more reasonable Method of converting the Indians, than to set up our Christian Banner in a Field of Blood, as the Spaniards have done in New Spain, and baptize one hundred with the Sword for one at the Font. Whilst we make way for a Christian Colony through a Field of Blood, and defraud, and make away with those that one day may be wanted in this World, and in the next appear against us, we make way for a more potent Christian Enemy to invade us ….

This is a powerful closing, startling in its passion for the predicament of both indentured servants and Indians. But Lawson is ever practical. By killing the Indians to convert them, he says, the English may make it easier for another Christian force (presumably the Spaniards) to invade the Carolina colony. This combination of outrage and hardheaded realism is characteristic of Lawson. And by any measure, his closing matches those found in other books of good nature writing.

The last element that Murray lists as important for good nature writing is style. By style, he means writing that reflects the personality of the writer. Or, to use a metaphor by the master of  style himself, E.B. White, “it is the Self escaping into the open.”

Style does not mean that one must write about oneself. Instead, it the writer’s imprint on whatever it is he or she is writing. John Lawson clearly has style; his personality comes through strongly.

To me, the following passage says a lot about Lawson and his style, even though he mentions himself not at all. Remember, this was written during a time when Indians were regarded by most Europeans as subhumans, fit only to be slaves.

They are really better to us, than we are to them; they always give us Victuals at their Quarters, and take care that we are arm’d against Hunger and Thirst; We do not do so by them (generally speaking) but let them walk by our Doors Hungry, and do not often relieve them. We look upon them with Scorn and Disdain, and think them little better than Beasts in Humane Shape, though if well examined, we shall find that for all our Religion and Education, we possess more Moral Deformities, and Evils than these Savages do ….

This is pure Lawson, the Self escaping, and he is clearly a person we can admire. Fortunately, the words of this remarkable man live on in his book. And the honor bestowed on him today may reawaken interest in John Lawson. I hope so, because he was fascinating man, far ahead of his time in many of his views—and an inspired nature writer to boot.

Phillip Manning has walked in most of the natural areas of North Carolina, from the towering hardwoods of Joyce Kilmer to the salt flats of Cape Lookout. Along the way, he kept bumping into another wanderer through the state’s wild areas. That man, of course, was John Lawson. Although Manning’s career has taken him out of the North Carolina woods and into writing about the physical sciences, he has not lost his taste for Lawson’s prose. The great explorer’s language was not the flowery verbal cloud common at the end of the seventeenth century.

Lawson’s sentences were clear, specific, and easily understood. Manning has adopted the same style for his own books—Afoot in the South, Palmetto Journal, Orange Blossom Trails, Islands of Hope, and five titles in the “Essential Chemistry and Science Foundations Series” —but doubts he will ever be as good at it as Lawson.