The Fabulous Fungus of Sensationalism

Is there such a thing as “good nature writing”? Mabel Osgood Wright seems to think so in her essay “Life Outdoors and Its Effect Upon Literature”. Mostly, her criteria for good nature writing is based upon the idea of practical – the Life outdoors is for the “the betterment of health and mental energy” (157), genderless – “nature is one and indivisible, the eternal male and female” (156), and factual writing – “a public appeal… for information… must take a permanent rank as literature” (157).

She dismisses those who do not approach nature writing in this practical yet still, in her mind, lovely way. Wright reminds me of a skeptic who can’t stand gossip magazines at the grocery stores – she demands an even-keeled, non-discriminatory, yet still artistic way of presenting “truth”. She writes, “There are originators and there are imitators. There are discoverers and there are guessers, there are seers and there are braggarts. That a distinct line should be drawn between these classes is of the greatest importance to those who wish ‘to know'” (158). Her dismissal of a more subjective approach to nature makes me wonder what DOES it mean “to know”? Is there any precise and absolute thing about nature that I absolutely need to know? If it means reading inventories such as the journals of Lewis and Clark or the exhaustive observations of Susan Fenimore Cooper, then I must personally object. To me, that kind of writing is as uninteresting as reading a textbook. Trying to confine nature writing to the clean and clear takes away the messiness and beauty of art.

Of course, Wright calls that messiness and beauty something else: “Sensationalism is a fungus of the early morning that appears in the generously fertilized flower-beds of all branches of literature and is generally dispelled by the sun long before noon” (159). In her essay, I sense that she wants to be that sun to dispel this fungus of sensationalism. She is the voice of reason, she is the call to arms. I can almost imagine her wrinkling her nose at such imaginative “fungus” literature!

And I wrinkle my nose at Wright. After all, sure we decry gossip magazines, but one must admit that they’re intriguing. Let’s put it bluntly: there’s an imitator, guesser, and braggart in all of us. And I would dare say that maybe there’s a part of Wright that wishes she could let that side show. At the end of her essay, Wright describes the merits and demerits of several animal stories and says at last: “Aside from the controversial side as to whether these eight stories are to be classified as natural history or fiction, these tales of the northern trails are dull and lifeless… For some reason, we care very little bout the animals portrayed… insistence upon truth and verbosity of detail and palpable word painting are not creative qualities, and nowhere is there a single breath of… genius” (162).

Come on Wright, maybe that “genius” is sensationalism.

 

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