In 1903 John Burroughs published an Atlantic Monthly article attacking popular nature writers—among them William J. Long and Jack London—as "sham naturalists."
The spirited "nature fakers" controversy that ensued reveals much about public attitudes toward nature at the time. Burroughs's argument that the writers invented facts and reported them as the gospel truth prompted a public literary debate, fueled by the avid participation of the nation's leading magazines and newspapers, and President Theodore Roosevelt's own denunciation of the 'faker' contingent. At issue was the conflict between science and sentiment as methods of understanding the creatures of the wild.
Ultimately, as Ralph Lutts demonstrates in The Nature Fakers, the dialogue resulted in a new standard of accuracy for the responsible nature writer and reflected a new way of thinking about moral responsibilities to wildlife.
A lively and imaginative inquiry into the origins of many of the current disputes over animals. [Lutts] focuses on the bitter dispute between the writers of nature books for young readers and their critics in the scientific establishment.... Lutts has given us a good read, as well as a vital backdrop for today's no less vitriolic disputes.
Fascinating... [the issues raised by The Nature Fakers] have broad implications both for public policy and for the emotional attachments people often feel for animals.
In his enlightening and discursive study, Ralph Lutts turns over some new ground in the 'nature fakers controversy.'
Ralph H. Lutts is an independent scholar of environmental history and environmental humanities, and a part-time instructor at Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia, and Goddard College. He is also the editor of The Wild Animal Story: Animals, Culture, and Society.