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Linnie Marsh Wolfe
Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir

reviewed by Char Miller

(Reprinted from the John Muir Newsletter , Vol. 3, No. 3, Summer 1993)

Linnie Marsh Wolfe
Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir
New York: Alfred A. Knopf

Reviewed by Char Miller, Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas

[Editor's Note: Virtually every student of John Muir's life turns to Son of the Wilderness by Linnie Marsh Wolfe, whatever other biographies of Muir they may read. So it seemed a good idea to have one of today's major environmental historians take another look at the Wolfe biography almost fifty years after its publication.]

Linnie Marsh Wolfe loved John Muir, loved his "flashing blue eyes," his lyrical language, and the wilderness ideals he represented; she also adored the Sierra, that `Range of Light' he did so much to illuminate through thought, word, and deed. Even when she dedicated Son of the Wilderness to her husband, Robert Wolfe, and the shared joy they felt while tramping through "the meadows and groves and along the trails of the Yosemite," she had her mind on that majestic valley's most famed interpreter: in all sorts of ways Muir had made their experiences possible.

Wolfe was nothing if not grateful, as her text amply demonstrates. By immersing herself in Muir's life, for example, by soaking in his correspondence and journals, she was able to craft what amounts to a first-person narrative, the autobiography he never wrote for himself. The book, she believed, would have the added effect of lifting "a few veils that have obscured his rich life among men, thus . . . making him somewhat more than a disembodied voice crying in the wilderness" (vii). For these efforts, Wolfe was awarded the 1946 Pulitzer Prize for biography.

The choice, in retrospect, seems odd, for the book's reception was mixed. Although the Kirkus reviewer found it an "inspiring story," and Richard Hofstadter praised it as the "definitive study of Muir's odd career," many other prominent journals and critics were less impressed. The New Yorker, among others, was disappointed: "Very earnest, very well documented, and considering the material the author had to work with, rather unforgivably dull." More significant still were the concerns about the work's literary propriety and provenance. As Leonard Dubkin observed, "Mrs. Wolfe has let her love for the memory of John Muir overshadow her critical judgement, and the result is none too happy" or could in fact be called an unhappy result, flowing as well from the text's status as an "authorized" life: "one should never write a biography with the subject's daughters looking over one's shoulder." Linnie Marsh Wolfe was a kept woman.

Nearly a half century later, these and other flaws seem all the more pronounced. Wolfe's documentation, for instance, is haphazard -- some direct quotations are cited by sources, many others are not. Was she just sloppy in this respect? Does this signal a protectiveness of her work and her subject? In either event, subsequent historians can neither easily follow nor readily dispute her take on Muir. Then there are the "conversations" she reconstructs throughout the text, as if she had taken dictation while Muir mused upon a mountain top or got down and dirty with his avowed enemies. One stunning example emerges in her depiction of a verbal confrontation between Muir and Gifford Pinchot that allegedly occurred in the lobby of Seattle's Rainier Grand Hotel in 1897, and that she argues not only shattered their friendship but splintered the conservation movement (pp. 175-76). There is one major problem: this epochal moment cannot be confirmed either in Pinchot's or Muir's voluminous archives. In this case, as in others, Wolfe may have been merely repeating dialogue as Muir's aged colleagues (or his children) had remembered it decades later, a careless form of historical research that is compounded when she treated these fragments of memory as if they were as precise and valid as the primary documents she held in her hands. Skepticism was not her forte.

But then Wolfe was dealing with a man who was fast becoming an icon, and whose iconization only intensified following the publication of her generous biography; hoping to humanize Muir, she ended up deifying him. And that may explain this anomaly: despite a number of recent, first-rate studies on Muir, such as Michael Cohen's The Pathless Way and Stephen Fox's John Muir and his Legacy, there has been no full-fledged scholarly biography of him. Wolfe's Son of the Wilderness still casts a deep shadow.

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