After going to much effort to support Edgar M. Robinson (an executive with the YMCA) in the formation of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) during the summer of 1910, Ernest Thompson Seton soon found himself in conflict with BSA management. I have given an account of the conflict in my book on Seton.* In this essay, I want to skip to the end, when Seton gave his resignation at a news conference held at his New York studio. His anger at BSA was triggered in part by a private nastygram from Dan Beard, but Seton aimed his public ire at James. E. West, the executive director of BSA. By then, the two had a built up a significant history of antagonism. Among other comments from Seton:
It should be clearly stated…that I esteem the Executive Board of the Boy Scouts to be a splendid lot of men, giving freely of their time and money to the work. My only criticism is that they have allowed all direction and power to centre in the hands of James E. West, a lawyer who is a man of great executive ability but without knowledge of the activities of boys; who has no point of contact with boys, and who, I might also say, has never seen the blue sky in his life.
“Blue sky” was the slightly mysterious term used by Seton’s Woodcraft League. It’s inclusion by Seton in lambasting West was no accident. But what is its meaning? Last fall I was copied an email discussion of this by two close observers of Scouting history, Nelson Block and Todd Plotner who took an interest in Seton’s 1915 exit from BSA. According to Mr. Plotner:
“The subtlety of the “blue sky” quote is interesting. Although I’m far from certain, because the “Watch Words” for Woodcraft were “Blue Sky”, it is possible to read that line in two different ways: (1) West has never even gone outside and has no idea how an outdoor program works or (2) West has never seen the spiritual side of Woodcraft. Clause (2) is somewhat more generous.”
James West disability
As to the first possible meaning suggested by Mr. Plotner, slamming West for not being a blue sky outdoorsman was a cheap shot (or a spiteful one) by Seton. West, who had spent much of his boyhood in an orphanage, had a significant physical disability making walking difficult. He could never be a wilderness explorer like Seton or an active camping leader like Beard. Accusing him of not having contact with boys was factually incorrect. He had raised himself up from the most unpromising life circumstances (more difficult than what Seton overcame) to make a stellar career of youth activism on several fronts including advocacy for a juvenile justice system before joining BSA.
The second criticism, a philosophical critique of West not understanding the spiritual context of nature and the outdoors is, I believe, much more damning, at least from Seton’s perspective: West is interested in paper shuffling and rule making and legal issues more than getting kids outside. West does not understand the communitarian values of service (based on American Indian tradition) nor the essential spiritual renewal that comes from connection with nature. “Blue sky” encompasses the mystical element inherent to contact with wild nature. Maybe. But while Seton and Beard were outdoors happily camping, someone really was needed to mind matters back at the office.
The Spiritual Father of Scouting
West came to represent for Seton a destruction of his dream of leading the outdoors education movement. More specifically, Seton wanted to be recognized as the spiritual father of Scouting, although he was happy enough to let others do the hard work of institution building (e.g. West). He meant to hurt West, and given several vengeful actions West subsequently took, Seton must have managed to wound him deeply. (Mr. Block commented:
“My study of the lives of West and Seton has made me an admirer of them both, though I must say I’m glad neither was my dad. Based on my work on Urner Goodman’s career, I have the impression that one of the jobs of the senior men at the old BSA national office during Dr. West’s tenure was to clean up relationships. West ‘got things done’ but Goodman, Schuck and others ‘kept things going’”)
My thought is that Mr. Plotner’s interpretation of the two meanings of “Blue Sky” are both correct, although whether in the moment Seton meant to emphasize one or the other (or something else) will remain unknown. Although the use of “Blue Sky” was intentional, Seton may not have worked out the subtle implications in advance. Our later interpretations of statements made by literary figures may be more accurate that the author’s own conscious intent at the time. In the end, Seton and West were both highly successful in delivering devastating blows to the other. Lost in this fight were the interests of the children they were trying to serve, although both of them would have argued against my statement, saying they were solely motivated by what was best for children. And while Seton and West made America (and the world) better for their contributions, in their war of personality, they were rather more selfish than altruistic.
Wishing Blue Skies to all!
*For more insight into the quarrelsome and fascinating events of 1910-1915 see The Scouting Party by Dave Scott and Brendan Murphy; Ernest Thompson Seton: Man in Nature and the Progressive Era, by John Wadland; Ernest Thompson Seton, Founder of the Woodcraft Movement by Brian Morris; and Ernest Thompson Seton, The Life and Legacy of an Artist and Conservationist by David L. Witt – all available in the Seton Library at the Academy for the Love of Learning, Seton Village, Santa Fe.