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Book Review: The Wilderness World of John Muir, Edited by Edwin Way Teale

Reviewed by Anthony Netroy

(October, 1955)


Of the great American naturalists of the nineteenth century, John Muir is actually the least known to our generation. [No longer true; this was written in 1955.] His books are not easily obtained , and most of them are out of print. [No longer true.] The cult of John Muir has been largely confined to the Far West, where devotees have kept his name alive in such organizations as the Sierra Club, and in connection with natural places like Muir Woods or Muir Glacier in Alaska. Few anthologists of American prose seem to be acquainted with the bulk of Muir's works, and the ideas he propagated have naturally more appeal to Westerners than Easterners.

We must therefore hail with enthusiasm The Wilderness World of John Muir, ably edited by the sensitive naturalist Edwin Way Teale, a selection of writings arranged (with pertinent editorial notes) in such a way as to present in sequence the running story of Muir's life. While an anthology cannot give the reader the full scope and magnificence of Muir's books, it whets the appetite. Many who will dip into it will not be content to stop there. They will wish to read The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf , My First Summer in the Sierra , Travels in Alaska, Our National Parks , and the Journals.

What kind of man was John Muir and what does he have to say to us? Teale's short introduction is an admirable précis of his life and character. Of Scotch ancestry, Muir was transplanted as a boy to a wilderness farm in Wisconsin. He had no formal schooling after leaving Scotland, but managed to spend four years at the University of Wisconsin without, however, taking a degree. Quite early he showed his love for naturalistic observation - the outdoors was his schoolroom, and nature his teacher.

Oddly enough, Muir had a practical bent and made a reputation as an inventor both at the university and later. His ingenious clocks and other contraptions made him famous in Madison, and as manager of a wagon-wheel factory in Indianapolis he was well on the way to a fortune. But an accident to his eye turned him forever away from machines. When his sight was sufficiently restored he set out on a thousand-mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico, and never stopped wandering for the rest of his life. In middle age Muir married and partly settled down, managed a ranch at Martinez, and was said to have cleared $100,000 in ten years.

Unlike such naturalists as Thoreau, Muir traveled far and wide across North America and eventually to other continents. He was not merely the observer, recording in poetic form impressions of winds and storms, mountains, glaciers, and forests, but an analytical scientist whose greatest contribution was to point out the role glaciers played in forming the Sierra, particularly the Yosemite Valley.

Teale's anthology ranges the gamut of Muir's writings. It contains reminiscences of his youth, exultation in his Sierran wanderings, descriptions of Far Western forests, and the record of explorations among glaciers and Indian villages in Alaska. Muir's style is revealed in all its subtlety and power - the exact observations of birds and game animals, mountains and plains, and the hymns to nature; description of strange people met on his ramblings; conversations with sheepherders, hermits, prospectors, Indians; and above all, the conservationist's plea for restraint in slaughtering wildlife and mutilating natural features of the landscape.


Source: Sierra Club Bulletin, Vol. 40, No. 8, October, 1955.


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