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Letters from Alaska by John Muir

Reviewed by Frank E. Buske

(Reprinted from the John Muir Newsletter , Vol. 4, No. 2, Spring 1994)

Letters from Alaska by John Muir
Edited by Robert Engberg and Bruce Merrell
Madison: University of Wisconsin
115 pages; $12.95 paper, $30 hardback

Reviewed by Frank E. Buske

When John Muir, late in life, began work on Travels in Alaska , one of five books he hoped to write about the territory, he had a wealth of material on which to draw. In addition to his prodigious memory, he had letters, notebooks, and, most importantly, newspaper letters he had written in 1879 and 1880 while traveling in Alaska that had been published in the San Francisco Bulletin .

Editors Robert Engberg and Bruce Merrell have assembled some of these letters in their Letters from Alaska , a handsomely produced book from the University of Wisconsin Press. The volume contains seven of the eleven newspaper letters Muir wrote in 1979, the seven letters he wrote in 1880, plus Muir's article about the discovery of Glacier Bay. Muir used a number of these same letters for his book, either exactly as published in the newspaper or in revised copies.

Muir's Alaska experience was a baptism in the pure wildness that he so much relished. In the Yosemite, Muir believed he had found a great valley produced by almost endless years of glacial action but only remnants of the glaciers that had done the work. In Alaska there were huge ice sheets daily sculpting new landscapes. It was, as he had written earlier in another context, "still the morning of creation. . ."

Although Muir's chief interest in these letters is in glaciers, he nevertheless wrote about other things that interested him. He observed the Indians who lived there and came to respect and admire them. Since there was much interest in mining, he also wrote about prospects for finding gold in Alaska.

This book contains a long introduction, a mini-biography of Muir, including some information that needs clarification. Muir came to Alaska by way of the Yosemite but how did he get there? Although he may have seen a painting of the Yosemite while in Indianapolis, he had actually heard of the great valley earlier: "A prophecy in this letter of Emerson's recalled one of yours sent me when growing at the bottom of a mossy maple hollow in the Canada woods, that I would one day be with you, Doctor, and Priest in Yosemite." There is little doubt that when Muir began his 1,000 mile walk to the Gulf of Mexico, he expected to end up in the Yosemite, whatever his wanderings on the way.

Muir may have had conversations about glaciers with the Reverend Sheldon Jackson at the Sunday School convention in the Yosemite Valley in 1879, but he had already heard about possibilities of glaciation in Alaska some years before. In the summer of 1871, Professor M.W. Harrington of the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor had visited Yosemite where he met Muir. In October of that year, Harrington wrote Muir from Dutch Harbor, Alaska, about his impressions (mistaken) as to the extent of glaciation in Alaska.

The fact that Muir published his letters from Alaska in a San Francisco newspaper did not limit their readership. Family and friends in Wisconsin and Indianapolis wrote of having read copies of his letters in local newspapers.

Letters from Alaska contains an abundance of illustrations: some of Muir's sketches, contemporary photographs and maps. Of particular interest is the chronology constructed of Muir's almost day-to-day activities while in Alaska in 1879 and 1880 since it provides a framework for a better understanding of the letters. The Notes on Sources has much valuable information about Muir scholarship.

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