The Meandering NaturalistPrint
By William Howarth
June 1, 2007
On A Wanderer All My Days: John Muir in New England by J. Parker Huber (Green Frigate Books, $23.95)
We commonly associate John Muir with the Far West, yet he was born in Scotland, raised in Wisconsin, walked from Indiana to Florida, and, in a long, bustling life, toured all the earth’s continents, save Antarctica. Muir was a rover who craved movement, writes J. Parker Huber, and travel gave him his wholeness, a buoyant energy that generated scores of writings and made him the great evangelist for converting American wilderness into public lands or national parks.
Huber, a scholar who has written on Henry Thoreau as traveler, spent nearly two decades tracing John Muir’s visits to New England. Between 1893 and 1912 Muir made five trips there, each time using the railways to journey from his California home. With Boston as a base, he toured the New England states and the eastern seaboard from New York to Florida. Muir was in his 50s and 60s and a well-known author, thanks to his essays in The Atlantic Monthly and his books published by Houghton Mifflin of Cambridge, Massachusetts. On his trips east, where most of his readers lived, he conferred with editors and such fellow public figures as John Burroughs and Gifford Pinchot.
While on these trips, Muir kept a daily journal and wrote letters home to his wife. Those are Huber’s primary sources, but he notes in a prologue that the “absences in [Muir’s] writing arouse curiosity” about people or places he did not record. Huber attempts to fill those gaps with extensive research—and ample speculation. Often this method yields impressive results, as when we read the notes Muir wrote in his editions of Dana, Emerson, or Thoreau. But when the evidence is missing or inconclusive, we must trust to our pilot to keep us on course.
Huber has a comprehensive knowledge of the cultural history of New England, which he generously shares at every opportunity. If we pass near the home of Frederick Law Olmsted, we read about his life and work—whether Muir met him or not. On a stroll through Cambridge, we feel every moment of June 10, 1893, and how it may have resonated within Muir. As we pass Mt. Washington, we ascend it with Thoreau, although Muir arrived in October, too late to go along. The effect is a bit like following Leopold Bloom through Dublin, and, after a while, one senses that wandering, moving with gentle and casual meanders, is exactly what Huber seeks.
A strict constructionist may resist this manner of travel, but Huber uses it, with considerable charm, to explore the vagaries of touring. Through his graceful prose we learn much about New England in the Gilded Age and Muir’s relations to that era. If the narrative proceeds in a conditional mode, with such caveats as “we must imagine” or “this scenario did not come to pass,” the end result plays between actual and possible journeys, exactly grounded or brightly soaring. Huber admires that acme of 19th-century observers, le flâneur, the idler who, in Virginia Woolf’s phrase, witnesses “the spectacle of the moment.” And that may be Huber’s role as a narrator, a guide for our less than leisurely era, as he revisits the tradition of vade mecum.
On his visits to the East, John Muir often strayed from his image as rugged western explorer. The shepherd who slept on granite and dined on berries was also quite at home at sumptuous Victorian tables and dared not visit Central Park alone. He attended a Yale-Harvard baseball game, mostly to watch the antics of its boisterous, youthful fans. He moved easily in the company of artists and birders, painters and presidents. Muir was a sharp self-promoter and a natural politician, making clever quips to the press and picking up honorary degrees. If he failed to save every wild valley that he loved, he left a great legacy to his nation, not only in the descriptions of his epic journeys, but in a torrent of ideas on why we must take them.
William Howarth is Professor Emeritus of English at Princeton University. He has written 13 books on literature and history, and as “Dana Hand” he collaborates with Anne Matthews on fiction and film.
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