Alexander Wilson

George and Evert Duyckinck, in Cyclopedia of American Literature (1856; 1875) 1:565-71.

ALEXANDER WILSON, the first to claim the title of the American Ornithologist, was born at Paisley, Scotland, July 6, 1766. His parents were persons in humble but respectable circumstances, and their anticipations for their son seem to have looked forward to a time, as expressed in his own words,

When, clad in sable gown, with solemn air,

The walls of God's own house should echo back his prayer.

The death of his mother, when he was ten years old, and the re-marriage of his father not long after, probably prevented the execution of this plan. July 31, 1779, he was apprenticed to a weaver, and an entry on the indenture, dated "Agst., 1782," records in verse the expiration of his time:

Be't kent to a' the warld in rhime
That wi' right mickle wark an' toil,
For three lang years I've ser't my time,
Whiles feasted wi' the hazel oil.

He continued working at the loom for four years longer, varying his labors, as during his novitiate, with various attempts at poetry. One of the couplets shows the restiveness of his active mind and body, under his sedentary and monotonous employment:—

Good gods! shall a mortal with legs,
So low uncomplaining be brought.

About the close of this period he was at work for William Duncan, his brother-in-law, under whom he had served his apprenticeship. Duncan determined to make a venture as a pedlar, and Wilson, considering that occupation a much more appropriate one for a "mortal with legs," accompanied him. Three years of his life were employed in this manner, during which he visited various portions of Scotland, digressing from his route to all places of literary or romantic interest which lay within reasonable distance. His opportunities of observation increased his taste for writing, by furnishing him with ample material to work upon; and we find him, in 1789, making a contract with Mr. John Neilson, a Paisley printer, for an edition of his poems. He added a number of prospectuses to the varied contents of his pack, and set off afresh with purposes pleasantly recorded in a journal which he kept of his tour.

"As youth is the most favourable time to establish a man's good fortune in the world, and as his success in life depends, in a great measure, on his prudent endeavours, and unwearied perseverance, I have resolved to make one bold push for the united interests of pack and poems. Nor can any one justly blame me for it, since experience has now convinced me, that the merit I am possessed of (which is certainly considerable) might lie for ever buried in obscurity, without such an attempt. I have, therefore, fitted up a proper budget, consisting of silks, muslins, prints, &c. for the accommodation of those good people who may prove my customers, — a sufficient quantity of proposals for my poetical friends; and, to prevent those tedious harangues, which otherwise I would be obliged to deliver at every threshold, I have, according to the custom of the most polite pedlars, committed the contents of my pack to a handbill, though in a style somewhat remote from any I have yet seen.

Fair ladies, I pray, for one moment to stay,
Until with submission I tell you,
What muslins so curious, for uses so various,
A poet has here brought to sell you.

Here's handkerchiefs charming; book-muslins like ermine,
Brocaded, striped, corded, and check'd;
Sweet Venus, they say, on Cupid's birth-day,
In British-made muslins was deck'd.

It these can't content ye, here's muslins in plenty,
From one shilling up to a dozen,
That Juno might wear, and more beauteous appear,
When she means the old Thunderer to cozen.

Here are fine jaconets, of numberless sets,
With spotted and sprigged festoons;
And lovely tambours, with elegant flowers,
For bonnets, cloaks, aprons, or gowns.

Now! Fair if ye choose any piece to peruse,
With pleasure I'll instantly shew it:
If the Pedlar should fail to be favor'd with sale,
Then I hope you'll encourage the Poet."

Though the subscription part of the enterprise was a failure, the book was printed in July, 1790, and the author again made his rounds to deliver copies to the few subscribers he had obtained, and sell to some of the many who were not. Poetry is said to be a drug on a publisher's shelves, and can only be an active commodity of a pedlar's pack when its proprietor is on foot. The second tour produced a disgust to the business, and he abandoned it for the loom at Paisley. That had not been long in motion before he heard of a proposed discussion at an Edinburgh debating society, composed of a portion of the city literati, as to "whether have the exertions of Allan Ramsay or Robert Fergusson done more honor to Scottish poetry?" He borrowed the poems of the latter poet, worked hard by day to earn the means to travel to Edinburgh, and by night at a poem, The Laurel Disputed, which he read at the time and place of the discussion, before the assembled "Forum." The audience did not agree with him in his preference of Fergusson, but the merits of the performance gained him friends — among others, Dr. Anderson, for whose periodical of the Bee he became a contributor.

Before leaving town he recited two other poems, Rab and Ringan, and The Loss o' the Pack, and published with his friend Ebenezer Picken, who had taken the part of Ramsay in blank verse, a pamphlet, entitled The Laurel Disputed; or, the Merits of Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson Contrasted, in Two Poetical Essays, by E. Picken and A. Wilson. On returning to Paisley, when his funds were exhausted, his Edinburgh success induced him to bring out a second edition of his poems. The volume, with the title, Poems, Humorous, Satirical, and Serious, was issued immediately, and the author again attempted to be his own bookseller, and again failed.

In 1792, his poem of Watty and Meg was published anonymously. It met with very great success — one hundred thousand copies being sold within a few weeks — and received the high honor of being attributed to Burns. This was a great gratification to the author, who entertained a high regard for the great poet, and had previously made his acquaintance by a letter which he wrote to Burns on the first publication of his poems, in which he objected to some on the score of immorality. Burns replied he was so used to such communications that he usually paid no attention to them; but that as Wilson showed himself to be a good poet, he would, in this instance, vindicate himself. Wilson afterwards visited Burns at Ayrshire.

A dispute arising between the manufacturers and weavers of Paisley, Wilson, in the interest of the latter, wrote several satirical poems against the former, which were handed around in MS. One of these, The Shark, or Long Mills Detected, he sent in manuscript to the person it attacked, with an offer to suppress it for five guineas. For this he was prosecuted, and on conviction sent to jail for a few days, and to burn his poem in public. The latter portion of his sentence was put in execution on the sixth of February, 1793. In consideration to his feelings, no public notice was given, and the act was witnessed only by the chance passers-by. The poem had already been secretly printed after the commencement of the prosecution, in the preceding May. This occurrence was, no doubt, one of the causes of his emigration to America. The others were his sympathy with the democratic spirit of the early days of the French Revolution, which caused him to be suspected by the authorities, the hopelessness of bettering his condition in the old world, and the alluring prospect of political and pecuniary independence held out by the new. After living for four months at the rate of a shilling a week, he saved money enough to pay for his passage, walked to Port Patrick, sailed to Belfast, and thence embarked as a deck passenger for America.

He landed at Newcastle, Delaware, July 14, 1794, and proceeded forthwith to Philadelphia, distant thirty-three miles, on foot, shooting on the way a bird of the red-headed woodpecker species, the commencement of his ornithological pursuits. On his arrival at the city, he worked for a time at copperplate printing with one of his countrymen, and afterwards tried his old avocations of weaving and peddling. These were abandoned in 1794 for school-keeping. He commenced this portion of his career near Frankford, which he soon abandoned for a better position at Milestown, Pa., where he remained until the commencement of the next century, diligently employed in repairing the deficiencies of his own education, as well as laying the foundations of that of the children in his charge. He also indoctrinated himself in American politics, delivered an oration On the Power and Value of National Liberty, and wrote the song, Jefferson and Liberty, about this period.

In 1802 he took charge of a seminary near Gray's Ferry, on the Schuylkill, four miles from Philadelphia. This brought him into communication with two valuable friends, William Bartram the naturalist, and Lawson the engraver. His leisure hours were now devoted to the pursuit to which he was becoming more and more attached — that of Ornithology.

"I sometimes smile (he writes to Bartram) to think, that while others are immersed in deep schemes of speculation and aggrandizement, in building towns and purchasing plantations, I am entranced in contemplation over the plumage of a lark, or gazing like a despairing lover on the lineaments of an owl. While others are hoarding up their bags of money, without the power of enjoying it, I am collecting, without injuring my conscience, or wounding my peace of mind, those beautiful specimens of Nature's works that are for ever pleasing. I have had live crows, hawks, and owls; opossums, squirrels, snakes, lizards, &c., so that my room has sometimes reminded me of Noah's ark; but Noah had a wife in one corner of it, and, in this particular, our parallel does not altogether tally.

"I receive every subject of natural history that is brought to me; and, though they do not march into my ark from all quarters, as they did into that of our great ancestor, yet I find means, by the distribution of a few fivepenny bits, to make them find the way fast enough. A boy, not long ago, brought me a large basketful of crows. I expect his next load will be bull frogs, if I don't soon issue orders to the contrary. One of my boys caught a mouse in school a few days ago, and directly marched up to me with his prisoner. I set about drawing it that same evening; and all the while the pantings of its little heart shewed it to be in the most extreme agonies of fear. I had intended to kill it, in order to fix it in the claws of a stuffed owl; but, happening to spill a few drops of water near where it was tied, it lapped it up with such eagerness, and looked in my face with such an eye of supplicating terror, as perfectly overcame me. I immediately untied it, and restore it to life and liberty. The agonies of a prisoner at the stake, while the fire and instruments of torment are preparing, could not be more severe than the sufferings of that poor mouse; and, insignificant as the object was, I felt at that moment the sweet sensations that mercy leaves on the mind when she triumphs over cruelty."

A letter written a little after, in June, 1803, shows that the amateur amusement was about becoming the engrossing occupation of his life. Addressing a friend at Paisley, he says: "Close application to the duties of my profession, which I have followed since November, 1795, has deeply injured my constitution; the more so, that my rambling disposition was the worse calculated of any one's in the world for the austere regularity of a teacher's life. I have had many pursuits since I left Scotland — mathematics, the German language, music, drawing, &c., and I am now about to make a collection of all our finest birds." The labors to which he refers had been undergone to supply, not only his own simple wants, but also those of a nephew, who with his family had settled on a farm, of which Wilson and the nephew were joint owners, in the state of New York. One of his various occupations had been to contribute a number of poems, among others his Solitary Tutor, to Charles Brockden Brown's Literary Magazine.

In October, 1804, Wilson, with two friends, made a pedestrian tour to the Falls of Niagara. Winter overtook them on their return, in November, near Cayuga Lake. One of his companions tarried with his relatives until the spring, and the other availed himself of a less fatiguing mode of transportation than that afforded by his legs; but Wilson trudged on with his gun through the snow "mid-leg deep," and arrived home in the beginning of December, after a journey of 1257 miles, and an absence of 59 days. One result of the trip was his poem of "The Foresters," published in the Port Folio; another to confirm him in the resolution he had taken. He says, in a letter to Bartram:—

"So far am I from being satisfied with what I have seen, or discouraged by the fatigues which every traveller must submit to, that I feel more eager than ever to commence some more extensive expedition, where scenes and subjects, entirely new and generally unknown, might reward my curiosity; and where, perhaps, my humble acquisitions might add something to the stores of knowledge. For all the hazards and privations incident to such an undertaking, I feel confident in my own spirit and resolution. With no family to enchain my affections; no ties but those of friendship; with the most ardent love to my adopted country; with a constitution which hardens amidst fatigues; and with a disposition sociable and open, which can find itself at home by an Indian fire in the depth of the woods, as well as in the best apartment of the civilized; for these, and some other reasons that invite me away, I am determined to become a traveller."

Wilson now employed his leisure hours in perfecting himself in drawing and coloring. He also practised the art of etching, and endeavored to engage his friend Lawson in his projected publication on American Ornithology, but without success. Obstacles did not, however, change his purpose. He declared his intention to go on, though the effort cost him his life. "If so," he said, "I shall at least leave a small beacon to point out where I perished." He wrote to Jefferson in 1806, requesting employment in the expeditions fitting out for the survey of the western territory. No reply was received to the application; but private enterprise was now about to furnish the means for the execution of his long cherished project. William Bradford, the publisher, of Philadelphia, engaged Wilson to superintend a new edition of Rees's Cyclopaedia, which he was desirous of issuing. The liberal salary which he paid enabled his editor to abandon the drudgery of school-keeping, and devote himself to this work, which progressed so well in his hands that the publisher agreed to undertake the Ornithology. He worked so unremittingly in preparing for the press that his health began to fail. As a relaxation, he undertook a pedestrian excursion through Pennsylvania in August, 1807, from which he returned with new vigor to the desk.

The first of the nine volumes contemplated was published in September, 1808, the edition consisting of only two hundred copies. The plates were engraved by Lawson. In the same month, the author set out for the eastward to procure subscribers. His letters record the various modes of reception he encountered....

Several amusing incidents, as might naturally be expected, occurred during these and several other canvassing tours at a later period, for subscriptions of $120 each. Not only were private collectors rare in those days, but public libraries were few and generally poor. At Haverhill, N.H., he was arrested in 1812 as a spy from Canada, taking sketches for the use of an anticipated British invasion, and brought before a magistrate, by whom he was promptly released. In 1812, he was made a member of the American Philosophical Society. He resided for a great portion of this and the previous year with his friend, Mr. Bartram, at the Botanic Garden, and at this congenial and delightful residence made rapid progress in his work. The seventh volume was published in the early part of 1813. The author's anxiety to complete his work induced him, in consequence of the difficulty of finding competent artists to color his plates, to undertake the work himself, in addition to his usual severe literary labors, which were crowded so far into the night as to deprive him of his necessary rest. The unavoidable result was impaired health. His friends remonstrated, but his reply was, "Life is short, and without exertion nothing can be performed." In his last letter, written about this time, to Paisley, he says, "I am, myself, far from being in good health. Intense application to study has hurt me much. My eighth volume is now in the press, and will be published in November. One volume more will complete the whole." The last sentence shows the object on which his heart was fixed. Until that "one volume" was out of the printer's hands, there was no hope of any relaxation of his labor. While his health was thus impaired by sedentary toil, it is said that he chanced one day to notice a bird of some rare species, of which he had long been in search. He snatched his gun, ran out, and swam a river in pursuit of his prey, which he secured, but caught a cold which led to a dysentery. Whether this incident, which is related on the authority of "one of Wilson's American friends, who visited Scotland some years ago," in the life prefixed to the reprint of the Ornithology in Constable's Miscellany, is authentic or not, it is certain that Wilson was attacked by dysentery, which, notwithstanding the efforts of the best physicians of the country, caused his death on the 23d of August, 1813. His remains were interred, with great respect, in the Swedish burial-ground, Southwark. During his health he had expressed a wish that he might be buried "where the birds might sing over his grave." Had this wish been known to the friends who superintended his funeral it would have been more fully complied with, than by a grave within city limits.

The eighth volume was nearly through the press when the author's death occurred. The remaining portion was edited by his friend, George Ord, who wrote the letter-press of the ninth and last volume. Both appeared in 1814, with the illustrations, which had all been prepared under Wilson's supervision, prior to his death. Mr. Ord had been Wilson's assistant in several of his rambles, and was well qualified to complete his work. He accompanied the volume with a life of its author.

In 1825, Mr. Ord prepared a new edition of the last three volumes of the Ornithology, and, in 1828, four supplementary volumes by Charles Lucien Bonaparte, Prince of Canino, were published, the first of which was prepared for the press by John D. Godman, and the three last by William Cooper. The entire work was reprinted in 1870, in three volumes imperial octavo, with an atlas of over three hundred choicely colored plates, by Porter & Coates, Philadelphia.

The poems of Wilson reflect his sympathies, his sensibilities, his love of humorous observation among men; as his prose, with its quick lively step and minute discrimination, so freshly pictures the animal world. In his humor and feeling Wilson, as a poet, belongs to the family of Burns. He addresses his friends in verse with the old loving feeling of Scottish brotherhood, has his song for love and beauty, and his similar choice of subject in ludicrous tale or ballad, with a smarting sense of wrong and poverty; while an early observation in natural history, and his pursuit of descriptive poetry, belong especially to Wilson the naturalist. In Scotland he described the Disconsolate Wren, the beauties of Lochwinnock, and the wonderful young scholar Ringan; as, in America, he afterwards wrote his verses on the Blue Bird, sketched the Pennsylvanian scenery of the Foresters, and celebrated the Solitary Tutor on the Schuylkill.