WHILE WORKING ON A documentary biography of John Muir, I received the following warning from a Smart Revisionist Historian: “Anytime you’re dealing with a forceful, charismatic individual, he will try to take you over, even if he’s dead. You can just imagine what force he had as a living person if he still has such force now.” She’s right about that.
In books, interviews and the world wide web, I’ve found a coterie of genuine and amateur Muir scholars, admirers and cultists who are, to varying degrees, under the spell of the famous naturalist. At this point, this includes me. All of us have our own view of why Muir was important, who he was and how he lived his life. I put the list in that order because how individuals convey the details of his life depends on why they love him – or hate him, as a few vociferously do.
First, a brief summary of Muir’s life. He was born in Dunbar in East Lothian and emigrated to America as a boy of ten. In Scotland and on the farm his family hacked out of the Wiscon-sin woods, he suffered under the harsh punishment of a pious and brutal father. He escaped this servitude by leaving home at the age of 22 to go to Madison, Wisconsin where he entered the University of Wisconsin to study geology and botany. He didn’t seek a formal degree, choosing instead the “university of the wilderness”, as he put it, wandering first in Canada, then in the American South. After a 1,000 mile walk from Kentucky to the Gulf of Mexico, he set sail for California and the Yosemite Valley which became his spiritual home. After years of walking through the High Sierra, he embarked on a successful career writing passionately in favour of the preservation of America’s natural landscape. His writing led directly to the founding of the Sierra Club, a major environmental advocacy group, and indirectly to the founding of the National Parks Service which views him as its spiritual founder. (At least, this is the currently acceptable version of his life.)
Muir was a famous author and advocate when he died in 1914. During his lifetime, his name was given to the Muir Woods north of San Francisco and soon after his death his name was attached to the John Muir Trail along the crest of the Sierra Nevada. But in the next decades, his fame waned outside of California, until the 1970s. His present or posthumous fame was acquired when the post-war environmental movement caught fire. Muir’s own works began appearing in print again and eventually a new crop of biographies were written, some of them very good. Most of his biographers cast Muir as the neglected hero of the early nature preservation movement. Interestingly, most follow a uniform pattern of incidents highlighted and incidents omitted, qualities praised and qualities ignored – creating a new and politically correct John Muir.
The difficulty is that the historic evidence – he seems never to have thrown away a piece of paper – casts much of the politically correct version of Muir’s life in doubt, starting with Muir’s notoriously brutal father. Those who have read John Muir’s The Story of My Boyhood and Youth have learned that Daniel Muir was a dour, child-beating, religious fanatic who tried to suppress the individuality and love of nature in his eldest son. Muir senior was a typical Scottish skinflint who denied his son money when he left home to seek his fortune at the age of twenty-two. He refused to give John his blessing when he chose to become a naturalist and walk from Kentucky to the Gulf of Mexico. But John Muir’s papers reveal that his father sent him money throughout his university years. And his mother, Ann Gilrye Muir, also refused to give her blessing to a walk of a thousand miles through dangerous, war-ravaged countryside with no job and no destination.
There is much evidence that Muir didn’t see his father as just martinet. From his father’s deathbed in 1888, he wrote to his wife Louie, “His last years were full of calm divine light, and he oftentimes spoke . . . of the cruel mistakes he had made in his relations towards his children, and spoke particularly of me, wonderful how I had borne my burdens so well and patiently, and warned my sister Joanna . . . to govern her children by love alone.” During his father’s last days, Muir climbed into bed with him and held his hand. After, he wrote Daniel Muir’s obituary for a local newspaper: “He never had a single vice excepting perhaps the vices of over-industry and over-giving. Good scripture measure ‘heaped up shaken together and running over’ he meted out to all . . . ” After John Muir’s own death, a lock of his father’s hair was found preserved among his papers. Clearly Muir had mixed feelings about his father. But why have so many of his biographers suppressed these complex feelings and chosen only the harsh father of Muir’s memoir? Does that version make Muir a heroic victim whose triumph is all the greater for the trials he overcame?
To me even more peculiar is the small but fierce controversy over Muir and the Civil War Draft. As background, the American Civil War began in 1861, while Muir was studying at the University of Wisconsin. For the next three years, he saw the returning wounded in local hospitals and witnessed the periodic calls for volunteers. He wrote of both events with horror. Whenever these calls failed to produce enough men, there would be a local draft of young men. Though we now know that his name never appeared on any of these draft rolls, he didn’t know that, nor did his mother who wanted to prevent her sons being drafted into this notoriously savage conflict. She sent her son Daniel into Canadian exile to avoid the draft and presumably urged John to do the same.
There are a group of Devoted Lovers of Muir’s Memory who accept all of these well-documented facts – but will not accept that Muir, knowing full well that there would be a draft on March 10, 1864, chose to go to Canada ten days prior and remain there until after the Civil War was over. As proof of their conviction, the Devoted Lovers cite the absence of any letter in which Muir wrote, “I am going to Canada to dodge the draft.” This, apparently, would have been an intolerable stain on his honour, though I don’t know why.
Draft dodging is an honoured tradition in America, especially among immigrants many of whom came to America to get away from the draft in their home country. No less a literary light than Mark Twain actually deserted from his unit during the Civil War, went West and wrote Roughing It, a work without equal in my opinion. In my version of John Muir’s life, the great man also saved himself from a senseless death and went on to write My First Summer in the Sierra also, in my opinion, a work without equal.
Muir was a mountain man, a popular type in American Western lore and one that Muir cultivated in his writing. This image is still so strong that his biographers have largely ignored his wife, his two daughters and the fruit ranch that he ran for thirty-four years at a distance of 250 miles from the mountains of California. Many of his biographers are actually hostile to his farm life. He couldn’t have enjoyed raising fruit. He must have hated every day that he was away from his mountain paradise. He only endured such an inappropriate life because he had to provide a living for his family.
To some extent, his new biographers can blame Muir himself for this skewed version of his agricultural career. He wrote almost nothing about his ranch years, presumably because he wanted to be thought of as a mountain hermit, nature’s prophet coming down from the heights to bear witness to the glory of God’s wilderness. This makes sense to me. Muir used his wilderness life as a teaching example: follow me and you too will see how valuable the natural world is and how worthy of preservation. He had no corresponding reason to instruct his readers in how to grow pears and get them to market before they rot.
Still, for a very long time the evidence has been available that Muir wrote regularly and affectionately to his wife and daughters and that he was a skilled horticulturalist who earned a quarter of a million dollars running a fruit ranch of which he was proud. To complete the picture, Muir also grew grapes that he pressed and fermented into wine which presumably he drank. The only plausible explanation for the biographers’ disdainful and dismissive view of his ranch years is that they just don’t want their mountain man to be a farmer and certainly not to enjoy being a farmer.
Even more bizarre, however, are the Smart Revisionist Historians who gleefully point out the contradiction, hinting at hypocrisy, of Muir the naturalist manipulating plants for food and profit – and hiding his murky double life by refusing to write about it. One can only assume that this kind of argument bolsters a Unique Academic Pose at departmental meetings and scholarly conferences.
Muir wrote beautifully about nature. But it’s only partly true that his writing influenced hundreds of thousands of people to join in a movement that would preserve America’s great natural heritage. Here, I think, the new Muir biographers have come closer to the truth.
Muir was a writer from the age of thirty-four until his death. For much of that time, he was a journalist. He travelled and sent back dispatches, on deadline, designed to fit the space constraints of newspaper columns. The books by which he is now known didn’t appear in print until he published The Mountains of California in 1894. Certainly his writing did have an enormous effect during his lifetime and more after his death. But the American nature writer John Burroughs was probably more popular than Muir in the nineteenth-century and he had little lingering effect on the conservation movement in America. The difference between the two men is that Muir was also an effective propagandist, organiser and politician.
Muir’s writing brought him important friendships in the academic and literary worlds. Those friends furthered his reputation and his role as an activist in the creation of the Yosemite National Park, the Forest Reserve system and the Sierra Club. Muir understood how power worked. His first and best friend was Jeanne Carr who introduced him to the geologist Joseph LeConte, painters Albert Bierstadt and William Keith, and the Transcendentalist Sage Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Muir’s second powerful ally was Robert Underwood Johnson, editor of Century Magazine (the New Yorker of its day) and the sort of well-born, well-connected New York intellectual who could talk to senators, judges, cabinet secretaries and presidents. Sitting over a campfire in the Sierra Nevada in 1888, Muir and Johnson plotted how they would create a Yosemite National Park: Muir would write about a paradise on Earth and Johnson would harangue powerful friends to preserve that paradise forever. With their combined prose and politics, it took the two men just two years to pull off their plan.
Underwood brought Muir to the attention of an elite and urban readership with influence. Through his writing for Underwood, he became known to Andrew Carnegie, President Theodore Roosevelt and to railroad magnate Edward H. Harriman (the same E.H. Harri-man who chased down Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.) Harriman gave Muir free passage on his trains and his steamships and gave him the votes that he needed in the California legislature to give the Yosemite Valley back to the federal government for a national park.
There is at least one Muir characteristic that very few scholars have noticed. In the nineteenth-century, anyone campaigning for a cause in America used patriotism as part of the pitch. America should build transcontinental railroads to make America a great railroad nation. America should build more libraries to make America a great library nation. This was the rhetorical wallpaper of a self-conscious and pompous age. Muir never used this kind of language. He pulled every other linguistic tactic out of his bag of tricks, but never patriotism.
Though he lived the great part of his life in America and the great part of that life in Cal-ifornia, Muir remained a Scot. He retained a Scots accent all of life. His bookshelf contained the works of Burns, Scott and Carlyle, the margins filled with pencilled commentary. All his life, he cosied up to any Scot he met as if to a warm blanket on a cold night.
Why then didn’t he go home to live again in Scotland? We only know that he didn’t do that.
One of the best Muir biographers writes that all his life he was searching for home. To my mind, he never found it and he constantly found it, in the natural world. Muir was taken with the Norse notion of Heim-gang – home-going. He wrote, “So the snow flowers go home when they melt and flow to the sea, and the rock ferns, after unrolling their fronds to the light and beautifying the rocks, roll them up close again in the autumn and blend with the soil.”