Sunday, May 27, 2007

Ernest Thompson Seton.

Every once in a while someone will ask me who was the greatest influence on me in relation to my writing.

I never hesitate. The answer has always been Ernest Thompson Seton.

I’m now almost 50 years old, and even by the time I was eight years old—when I first discovered Seton’s work—he was already largely forgotten by American youth. Between the time he began writing and the 1930s, he was one of the most popular American writers, not only for the youth at whom he aimed much of his work, but also quite popular among the general reading public.

Many of his collections and novellas were best sellers in their day, and his artwork was highly regarded and published worldwide.

For myself, I had to discover his work in the form of second-hand books I’d find in libraries and in the stacks in one or another of my dad’s used bookstores. I suspect that it was my mom who first suggested his work to me, but I can’t recall if that was actually the case. All I can say is that I discovered his books and that for about two years I pursued any of his works that I could find in my dad’s shops or in any of the libraries to which I had access.

Luckily, the elementary school that I attended in Decatur, Georgia had a number of his books on the shelves. I’d check them out and read them and go back to them time and again until such time as either my mom or my dad found a duplicate copy in the bookshop that I could keep as my own.

The most important lesson I got from Seton was illustrated in the title of the book that was his most popular, and which remains the most famous of those he released:

Wild Animals I Have Known.

At once, the title is a radical statement in and of itself. Had any writer before considered any creature other than a Man as someone? He could easily have given the book a less provocative title, but there it was. Animals were not things. They were, in effect, persons. They had emotions and desires. They were possessed of individual personalities.

I already knew this from having had animal companionship from dogs that had lived with my family. Each of these animals had personalities and qualities that I’d witnessed. Each of them were, in effect, persons to me. As a kid, I had no problem with Seton’s assurances to his readers that animals were to be known, if one were lucky enough to have the experience to make their acquaintance.

Sadly, Seton seems to be even less well known today than his fading fame at the time of my childhood. It’s a rare reader who knows the name if I bring him up in conversation, or when I answer that question concerning the writer who was my main influence.

If you wish to learn more about Seton, you can find out about him at the website for The Seton Institute. I heartily recommend his works, wherever you can find them.


David L. Witt said...

For updated information on Seton please visit Academy for the Love of Learning, home of Seton Castle, Seton's residence from 1931-1946. The Academy is a nonprofit educational organization. Among its many programs is the Seton Legacy Project including a gallery of original art work by Seton.

James Robert Smith said...

Thank you for the update.