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Book Review: Travels in Alaska by John Muir

Reviewed by Marion Randall Parsons

Source: Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol. 10, No. 1 (1916 January), pp. 121-122.


Travels in Alaska.
By John Muir. Houghton, Mifflin Company, Boston and New York. 1915. Price, $2.50.

Whatever in the future may be given to the world of the journals and other unpublished writings of John Muir, nothing is likely to come to us more alight with his personality than are the two volumes published since his death. They bear an interesting relationship to one another, for not only do the Letters end just as he was embarking on the first of the journeys recorded in Travels in Alaska, but the latter book, the last to leave his hands, is still expressive of the ideals and enthusiasms of the young John Muir so vividly revealed to us in the letters. It is not often given to a man to have lived his life with such singleness of purpose, nor at three-score years and ten to have so completely fulfilled the aims and ideals of his youth.

Travels in Alaska is a record of three journeys of exploration by canoe and afoot among the fiords and mountains of Southeastern Alaska. Although prospectors, traders and a handful of missionaries were scattered among the islands, and were beginning to push up the great river valleys, the greater part of Alaska was in 1879 still unexplored, its fiords uncharted since Vancouver's day. With Fort Wrangell as his base, Mr. Muir made several short steamer trips, which gave him the opportunity to learn something of the glaciers and forests of the vicinity. After his return from an extended trip up the Stickeen River in October, he set out with Mr. Young, a Wrangell missionary, and a crew of Indian canoe men, to visit the fiords to northward, near the country of the war like Chilcat tribes. Their eventful journey culminated in the discovery of Glacier Bay and its glorious company of glaciers, the largest of which bears Mr. Muir's name. The following year he continued his explorations, particularly in the region of Sum Dum Bay and the Taku Fiord, and in 1890 returned a third time to the Muir Glacier for a more extended exploration of its upper fields and study of its flow.

Today, a generation after the journals were written that are the basis of this book, it is easy to under-rate Mr. Muir's great service to science. He was the first American geologist to grasp the extent and scope of the glacial phenomena of our continent. Others have followed in the paths of research that he pioneered, and have laid before the world the truths he was the first to recognize. "Many detailed proof-facts will be required to compel the assent to this in the minds of most geologists . . . but the glacial millennium will come." In this, as in many another passage of the original journal, omitted in the book, one may read Mr. Muir's quiet confidence in the truth of his theories, his knowledge that the time was not ripe for their general acceptance. It is wonderful tribute to the thoroughness and soundness of his early investigations that none of his theories had to be modified in the light of later discoveries. His long, patient revision of his notes was devoted entirely to the task of bettering the expression of his early thought, never to any change in the substance of the thought itself.

No attempt has been made to rewrite or finish the book, which is presented as Mr. Muir left it, with the exception of some of the chapter divisions and the transposition of certain passages, and even these minor changes were made in accordance with Mr. Muir's expressed intentions. It is not complete, inasmuch as it ends in the middle of the trip of 1890, nor as a whole can it be regarded as a finished production. The inequalities at once apparent in its style were not at all due to failing powers, but only to the fact that time was not granted him to finish it. mr. Muir's best work was always slow of fruition. To appreciate fully what the world has lost, one has only to compare the earlier published story, Stickeen, with the passages in Chapter SV, which give the incidents of that story practically as they were first written in the journals. The vivid, forceful language is there, the keen delight in the wild, stormy, icy day, the sense of oneness with elemental things, and yet it lacks something of the flashes of insight, the philosophy, the poetry, the illuminating touches of the master hand that made the little story a classic.

Nevertheless the book abounds in passages of wonderful beauty. the description of his camp-fire in the storm, of the auroras, of the sunrise in glacier Bay, of the view from Glenora Peak, and a score of others, will rank among his best work. An interesting aspect of the book is the new light in which it places Mr. Muir in his relation to humanity. His fine, broad understanding of the Indians, their virtues, their failings, the hopelessness of their situation, where the approach of civilization brought mainly the "contamination of bad whites," is manifested most sympathetically throughout. His meeting with the coureur-de-bois, Le Claire, and their intimate companionship for a day and a night before life parted them forever, is another revealing glimpse of the John Muir known to his friends, the big-hearted, open-minded companion, the lover of all things simple, sincere and best in mankind.

In this as in all his other books two qualities stand out pre-eminently - the sincerity of his enthusiasm, the intensity of his religious faith. The sound in the flow of a stream, the note of a thrush, the roar of a rain-laded gale - each of nature's voices was to him the "very voice of God, humanized, terrestrialized, entering one's heart as to a home prepared for it." Perhaps in the years to come his greatest claim to the world's love and reverence will be that in an age of groping, dark materialism he kept alight the flame of simple faith in God, of belief in the spiritual character of nature's influence on man.

See Also John Muir and the Alaska Book by Marion Randall Parsons


Source: Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol. 10, No. 1 (1916 January), pp. 121-122.


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