The Importance of John Muir's First Public Lecture, Sacramento, 1876

presentation by Steve Pauly


This paper focuses on Muir's first public lecture and its importance as one of several turning points in his evolution as a public figure. The venue was the Congregational Church in Sacramento in January 1876. The lecture was the fifth in a series sponsored by the Literary Institute. Muir approached this task with fear, began poorly and with apology, finally recalled his topic, enthralled the large audience with his discussion and illustration of the current and ancient glaciers of California, and built enough confidence to agree to his second lecture, a few months later in San Jose. One of several turning points in his life, this lecture is seen as a trial, conceived by Muir to determine whether he could succeed in the public appearances necessary to further his chosen role: educator of the public on natural resource preservation and enjoyment.

Although not the primary focus of this paper, Muir's glacial studies were important in three other ways: 1) he advanced the science of glaciology at a time when the principles of glacial erosion were not well understood, 2) his careful observations and rigorous reasoning became a model for scientific research technique, and 3) his simple, clear, and entertaining writing style inspired many to take up careers in nature.

Muir was 38 at the time of the lecture and had survived a harsh and cruel childhood, finished two and a half years at the University of Wisconsin, walked the thousand miles to the gulf of Florida, and recently completed several years of intense study of the glaciation of the Sierra.

We now discuss the factors that preceded and conditioned the first public lecture: the previous turning points in his life, his personality and interests, his education, books in his library, and magazine articles he had authored. The paper includes a reconstruction of the 90-minute lecture, using Muir's words from his articles on glaciers and glaciation, and is based on the January 26, 1876 lecture report in the Sacramento Daily Union.


For a copy of Steve Pauly's entire presentation on "The Importance of John Muir's First Public Lecture, Sacramento, 1876, download a PDF of Vol. 9, No. 1, Winter 1998-99 issue of the John Muir Newsletter by the University of Pacific John Muir Center for Environmental Studies. Also avaialble is Vol. 9, No. 2, Spring, 1999 issue, which inccludes Steve Pauly's re-creation of the lecture.


Steve Pauly is a volunteer for the John Muir National Historic Site in Martinez, California. He impersonates Muir for regional events and for visitors to the Site and has impersonated Muir's landscape artist friend, William Keith for the Hearst Art Gallery at St. Mary's College, Moraga, California. His wife, Patty, plays period music on the West Parlor square grand piano at the Site. Born in 1936 and educated at Stanford University, Steve owns Digital Technology Associates, importers and distributors of seismological instrumentation. Steve's research interests are Muir's literary life and the Muir/Keith friendship.


1996 John Muir Conference

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