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Review of The Writings of John Muir

reviewed by Mark Van Doren


A review of the book set:
The Writings of John Muir. (Sierra Edition, 8 volumes)
Publisher: Boston and New York, Houghton Mifflin company, 1916-1924..
from The Nation, April 12, 1922 Vol. CXIV, No. 2962

The Writings of John Muir was a book series first published in 1916 as a 10-volume limited edition Manuscript edition of 750 copies. The subsequent Sierra edition of 1917 was also a 10-volume set with a much larger print run. Edited by William Frederic Badè; except for volume 3, prepared for publication by Mrs. Marion Randall Parsons. The volumes of the set were published by subscription over a series of years, between 1916 and 1924.
Table of Contents: v. 1. The story of my boyhood and youth, and A thousand-mile walk to the gulf. v. 2. My first summer in the Sierra. v. 3. Travels in Alaska. v. 4-5. The mountains of California. v. 6. Our national parks. v. 7. The cruise of the Corwin. v. 8. Steep trails. v. 9-10. The life and letters of John Muir.

The following book review by Mark Van Doren reviews the then-current 8-volume edition, rather than the subsequent 10-volume set, since volumes 9 and 10 - The Life and Letters of John Muir was not published until 1924. Kimes lists this edition as #353 in his John Muir: A Reading Bibiography (1986).

The Manuscript Edition now often sells for thousands of dollars, while the Sierra Edition may now sell for under $1,000. But The Nation in this 1922 publication references the price as $20.

"John Muir"

By Mark Van Doren

The infinite spectacle of what we are in the habit of calling Nature has produced almost as many species of observer as there are species of wind and rock and animal and plant to be observed. There are idiotic animals and plants, and we have been plagued with idiotic Nature-writers, plagued until we incline to shy at new ones, fearing that if we encourage them they will strike an attitude or babble a gospel. Still, there are the eagle and the bluebird, the otter and the fox; there are Audubon, Thoreau, Burroughs, Hudson, Muir.

John Muir died in 1914, or he might have been better known. Death on a different scale was about to occupy the energies of the race, and not much attention was paid to the passing of an old naturalist who had devoted his life to mountains, forests, and glaciers, and who never had liked killing. Now, however, when there are many readers for a quiet man like W. H. Hudson, and books are called forth by the death of Burroughs. there may be a movement toward Muir. An examination of his collected works shows them to be as fresh and strong as ever, and urges the belief that they already are American classics.

Burroughs said once, with characteristic modesty and accuracy: "Thoreau . . . has a heroic quality that I cannot approach." Muir is one of the heroes. There is a thrill in his books such as we do not get from Izaak Walton, Gilbert White, Richard Jefferies, Burroughs, of course, Fabre, or even Hudson, much as we may love those men in their respective times and places. He was no worker in pastoral prose like the immortal Angler, nor was he immovable in a parish like the naturalist of Selborne, soaking up Nature as a turtle soaks up the sun. He did not have the pathological dependence on field and hedge row that the lonely Jefferies had; he did not concentrate upon the fascinating minutiae with which the books of Burroughs are methodically filled; he did not do his looking with the almost insect eyes of Fabre. And he lacked—as who does not - the genius of Hudson for telling tales, the beautiful, baffling gift of a simplicity that never on two pages is the same. Muir belongs with Audubon and Thoreau. Not that he is anything like either, or that anyone is like Thoreau. But he shares their boundless energy, and he plunges into Nature with their particular type of enthusiasm. Audubon careering through deep forests and along wide rivers after birds, Thoreau vaunting his anarchy among the hickories and woodchucks of Walden, Muir keyed by the sublimities of the Sierra to a forty-years' ecstasy - these are substantially the same.

Muir came with his father from Scotland to Wisconsin in 1849, when he was eleven. The last of his books which he ever saw printed, "The Story of My Boyhood and Youth," and it is one of the most admirable American autobiographies, gives proof that even as a boy in Scotland he had been extraordinarily ex cited by powerful, free movements in the natural world. Here is an account of the skylarks at home:

"oftentimes on a broad meadow near Dunbar we stood for hours enjoying their marvelous singing and soaring. From the grass where the nest was hidden the male would suddenly rise, as straight as if shot up, to a height of perhaps thirty or forty feet, and sustaining himself with rapid wing-beats, pour down the most delicious melody, sweet and clear and strong, overflowing all bounds, then suddenly he would soar higher again and again, ever higher and higher, soaring and singing until lost to sight even on perfectly clear days. . . . To test our eyes we often watched a lark until he seemed a faint speck in the sky and finally passed beyond the keenest-sighted of us all. 'I see him yet!' we would cry, 'I see him yet!' 'I see him yet!' 'I see him yet!' as he soared. And finally only one of us would be left to claim that he still saw him. At last he, too, would have to admit that the singer had soared beyond his sight, and still the music came pouring down to us in glorious profusion, from a height far above our vision, requiring marvelous power of wing and marvelous power of voice, for that rich, delicious, soft, and yet clear music was distinctly heard long after the bird was out of sight. Then, suddenly ceasing, the glorious singer would appear, falling like a bolt straight down to his nest, where his mate was sitting on the eggs."

In Wisconsin Muir worked very hard on his Calvinist father's backwoods farm, growing to great stature and strength and educating himself in poetry and the sciences under difficulties that few boys on earth would have surmounted. Bed-time in winter was eight o'clock, and the father was so great a stickler for rules that he rebuked the son for lingering in the kitchen, as he often did, ten minutes with book and candle; adding, how ever, that he could get up any morning as early as he liked. Pathetically grateful for this concession, Muir did nothing less than rise at one each zero morning of his fifteenth winter and read in the kitchen or work in the cellar with tools. He developed an uncanny genius for mechanical invention, contriving in scrap iron and wood a number of marvelous clocks, a huge thermometer that could be read from any corner of the farm, and a machine that would dump him out of bed in the morning—though he had little need of that last, as his father grimly observed. He soon became famous in the neighborhood and was encouraged one year to exhibit his inventions at the State Fair. He went to Madison, made a hit, secured employment of several sorts, worked his way through the State University, and by thirty was equipped for whatever distant wildernesses most irresistibly called him. "I wish I knew where I was going," he wrote in a letter at twenty-nine. "I wish I could be more moderate in my desires, but I cannot, and so there is no rest."

The demon drew him first to Florida, whither he went on foot from Indianapolis in 1867, botanizing. The journal which he kept on that excursion has been posthumously published as "A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf," and is rich not only in delicate observation but in humor. He was entirely happy, tramping the back paths of Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida, for specimens abounded, and the shade was thick and continuous, but he was also quick to observe the people as they passed, and in those post-Rebellion days the people were curious when they were not pathetic. He slept several nights under live-oaks in the Bonaventure graveyard near Savannah, at home there because he accepted death as he accepted life, with a whole mind. "Death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life . . . the grave has no victory, for it never fights." From Florida he took a boat to Cuba, where he was seized with a passion for California, and April of the next year landed him at San Francisco. The rest of his life, so far at least as it can be read in books, was identified with the mountains of the West and North. He went to Africa once, and once to Siberia, but his writing was about the Sierra Nevada, Alaska, and the Arctic Ocean, and his best and greatest writing was about the Sierra.

"Looking westward from the summit of the Pacheco Pass one shining morning, a landscape was displayed that after all my wanderings still appears as the most beautiful I have ever beheld. At my feet lay the Great Central Valley of California, level and flowery, like a lake of pure sunshine, forty or fifty miles wide, five hundred miles long, one rich furred garden of yellow compositae. And from the eastern boundary of this vast golden flower-bed rose the mighty Sierra, miles in height, and so gloriously colored and so radiant, it seemed not clothed with light, but wholly composed of it, like the wall of some celestial city. Along the top and extending a good way down, was a rich pearl-gray belt of snow; below it a belt of blue and dark purple, marking the extension of the forests; and stretching along the base of the range a broad belt of rose-purple; all these colors, from the blue sky to the yellow valley smoothly blending as they do in a rainbow, making a wall of light ineffably fine. Then it seemed to me that the Sierra should be called, not the Nevada or Snowy Range, but the Range of Light And after ten years of wandering and wondering in the heart of it, rejoicing in its glorious floods of light, the white beams of the morning streaming through the passes, the noonday radiance on the crystal rocks, the flush of the alpenglow, and the irised spray of countless waterfalls, it still seems above all others the Range of Light. In general views no mark of man is visible upon it, nor anything to suggest the wonderful depth and grandeur of its sculpture. None of its magnificent forest-crowned ridges seems to rise much above the general level to publish its wealth. No great valley or river is seen, or group of well marked features of any kind standing out as distinct pictures. Even the summit peaks, marshaled in glorious array so high in the sky, seem comparatively regular in form. Nevertheless the whole range five hundred miles long is furrowed with canyons two to five thousand feet deep, in which once flowed majestic glaciers, and in which now flow and sing the bright rejoicing rivers."

So lofty and so vibrant was the world Muir made the dwelling-place, now of his body, now of his imagination, during the remainder of his many years. The energy of the paragraph just quoted can be matched on almost any page of the five volumes which he devoted to his mountains. It is a miracle of literature, this rapture maintained at so high a pitch over so long a time. He passed the prime portion of his life climbing these cliffs, exploring these valleys, measuring and mapping these glaciers, threading these forests, sleeping upon these peaks, pausing upon these precipices "transparent as glass" to the beauty around him, and zealous to enter that beauty in his journal. The legend of his mountaineering is still strong in California. He could and would go anywhere, and he always brought back poetry with his facts; for he was a scientist, an authority on glaciers, as avid after data as an Agassiz or 8 Darwin.

Perhaps a greater miracle consists in the fact that his books have the virtue of variety. There was every chance for them to be monotonous. Clarence King, mountaineering in the later 1860's, found comic relief from the exaltation of the Sierra in pack-mules and the squalid Digger Indians whom he met and occasionally camped with. If the readers of Muir grow tired of the "high, cool, green pastures" where he feeds their minds. it can never be for long, because relief is near in the animals which he inimitably describes, the shepherds and the Indians he hits off. No pages of Burroughs or Thoreau or Fabre are livelier than those of Muir on bears, on bees, on mountain sheep, rattle-snakes, on the Douglas squirrels, and on those equally living things, the redwoods and the valley flowers. Or take this shepherd who accompanied him up the mountains in the summer of 1869:

"Our shepherd is a queer character and hard to place in this wilderness. His bed is a hollow made in red dry-rot punk!' dust beside a log which forms a portion of the south wall of the corral. Here he lies with his wonderful everlasting clothing on, wrapped in a red blanket, breathing not only the dust of the decayed wood but also that of the corral, as if determined to take ammoniacal snuff all night after chewing tobacco all day. Following the sheep he carries a heavy six-shooter swung from his belt on one side and his luncheon on the other. The ancient cloth in which the meat, fresh from the frying-pan, is tied, serves as a filter through which the clear fat and gravy juices drip down on his right hip and leg in clustering stalactites. This oleaginous formation is soon broken up, however, and diffused and rubbed evenly into his scanty apparel, by sitting down, rolling over, crossing his legs while resting on logs, etc., making shirt and trousers water-tight and shiny. His trousers, in particular, have become so adhesive with the mixed fat and resin that pine needles, thin flakes and fibers of bark, hair, mica scales, and minute grains of quartz, hornblende, etc., feathers, seed wings, moth and butterfly wings, legs and antennae of innumerable insects, or even whole insects such as the small beetles, moths, and mosquitoes, with flower petals, pollen dust, and indeed bits of all plants, animals, and minerals of the region adhere to them and are safely imbedded, so that though far from being a naturalist he collects fragmentary specimens of everything and becomes richer than he knows. His specimens are kept passably fresh, too, by the purity of the air and the resiny bituminous beds into which they are pressed. Man is a microcosm, at least our shepherd is, or rather his trousers. These precious overalls are never taken off, and nobody knows how old they are, though one may guess by their thickness and concentric structure. Instead of wearing thin they wear thick, and in their stratification have no small geological significance."

The account may close with Muir's two Arctic volumes, "Travels in Alaska" and "The Cruise of the Corwin," which are triumphs of the same sort. The danger in their case was that too much should be said about ice and snow. Muir, whose constitution after all was of the purest and coldest stuff, who looked upon the universe with veritably "glacial eyes," got all the whiteness possible into his report, but when he had got that in, resorted to Eskimos and reindeer, seals and polar bears, for entertainment. The Arctic volumes, like all the others that he stole good time from Nature to assemble from old notes, have every sign that they will seem refreshing and important as long as there are persons to read them.


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