At the inaugural Outside the Frame—a new programming series featuring three experts talking on some aspect of one work of art from the Corcoran’s collection—the focus will be on Albert Bierstadt’s masterpiece, The Last of the Buffalo. Fittingly, one of the featured speakers will be author Stefan Bechtel, whose book Mr. Hornaday’s War: How a Peculiar Victorian Zookeeper Waged a Lonely Crusade for Wildlife that Changed the World, offers an in-depth look at the early conservation efforts around the American bison population.
What originally sparked your interest in this subject?
I actually stumbled across the story of William Temple Hornaday while researching a book I wanted to write about “a year in the life of the National Zoo.” Hornaday, the zoo’s founder and first director, just jumped off the dusty page for me because he reminded me so much of my grandfather—another 19th century man who was cantankerous, intimidating, quirky, and difficult. My grandfather, who was the one who taught me to love the woods, became my “secret door” into this story. I could practically smell his pipe smoke while I was writing. That’s why I dedicated the book to my “gramps,” Earl S. Krom.
What was the process like of researching and collecting information for your book? What was the most surprising story you uncovered?
There is a fabulous archive of material about Hornaday at the Library of Congress (more than 86,000 items) so I spent days digging through these rich and amazing files. One thing that proved irresistible were his letters to his beloved wife Josephine, whom he referred to as “The Empress Josephine,” “Fairest of Ten Thousand,” “Solace of My Soul,” and all manner of other sobriquets. I suppose this kind of language was more commonplace in the Victorian age, but it really touched me, and showed that they clearly had a lifelong love affair which lasted for 60 years, until his dying day.
Why is this an important topic for people to be made aware of today?
Hornaday was one of the loudest, most persistent, most belligerent, and most authoritative voices for conservation in the 19th century, standing up for wild things and wild places (probably second only to his friend and ally Theodore Roosevelt.)
He was, of course, the single most important person in the fight to save the bison from extinction, but he also fought to save the Alaskan fur seal, birds, small mammals, and a host of other species who did not have a voice in Congress or anywhere else. What struck me most powerfully was that these fights of his are not dusty, half-forgotten skirmishes of a bygone time – they continue to this day. The story of some of these fights could be ripped out of this morning’s Washington Post. For instance, he fought to curtail the netting of migratory songbirds in the rural South and Italy – and there
was a story on this very subject a couple of months ago in National Geographic. This terrible practice continues. Though the natural world would be considerably poorer without Hornaday, “Mr. Hornaday’s War” is far from over.
What can attendees expect from your talk on Wednesday?
I would like to give people an entertaining introduction to a fascinating character from American history—one who has been almost completely forgotten—but whose work deserves to be remembered. I’d also like to give people a glimpse into the appalling state of “conservation” a hundred years ago, and remind them that it could still happen again.
Is there any other information you would like to share?
You could call this book a “biography” of a semi-crazy Victorian zookeeper, except that my agent said the word “biography” is the kiss of death. Just think of it as a rollicking adventure story whose ending has yet to be written.
‘Outside the Frame: The Last of the Buffalo‘ takes place on Wednesday, January 29, at 7pm. The program is free for Corcoran members, staff, faculty, and students, and $5 for everyone else. Please register in advance here.
- “American Buffalo 2,” Eric Vondy, 2010.