Sore Loser


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The great Welsh litterateur and naturalist Thomas Pennant was born 291 years ago on this date. Friend and correspondent of Gilbert White, colleague and competitor of John Latham, Pennant, though not nearly as famous today as those contemporaries, is still remembered by some in Britain. But here in North America, he is almost entirely forgotten.

There’s a reason.

In February 1785, Pennant described the genesis of his recently published two volumes on the animal life of North America:

This Work was begun a great number of years past, when the empire of Great Britain was entire, and possessed the northern part of the New World with envied splendor…. I thought I had a right to the attempt, at a time I had the honor of calling myself a fellow-subject with that respectable part of our former great empire; but when the fatal and humiliating hour arrived, which deprived Britain of power, strength, and glory, I felt the mortification which must strike every feeling individual at losing his littler share in the boast of ruling over half of the New World.

Even in his pique at the loss of the American colonies, Pennant decided not to discard his Zoology of North America. He did, however, change the title.

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Simultaneously, he expanded the geographic scope of the work to include much of the Old World Arctic, too, simultaneously making the book more valuable to naturalists worldwide and re-asserting the unity — scientific, if no longer political — of the cooler reaches of the Northern Hemisphere.

And with only slightly grudging generosity, he wished his erstwhile “fellow subjects” well and assured them that someday the New World, too, would see “the powers of literature arise” in a native naturalist. Meanwhile, though, Pennant reminded his American readers of what they had lost in giving up their share of imperial glory, namely,

the peculiar spirit of the English nation, which has, in its voyages to the most remote and most opposite parts of the globe, payed attention to every branch of science.

We did catch up, eventually, and then we made Pennant’s birthday into Flag Day.

Thanks to David for correcting my math! 

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