Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor
John Muir’s America. Text by T. H. Watkins, photographs by Dewitt Jones. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1976. Illustrations. Photographic Notes. Index. 159 pages. $20.00.
John Muir’s Wild America. Text by Tom Melham, photographs by Farrell Grehan. Washington, D. C.: National Geographic Society, 1976. Illustrations. Index. 199 pages. $4.75.
Reviewed by Douglas H. Strong, Professor of History at San Diego State University, Book Review Editor of The Journal of San Diego History, and author of several articles and books on environmental history.
When two, well illustrated books on American naturalist John Muir are published at the same time, a comparison is inevitable. The two volumes, while similar in format and length, are markedly different in content.
T. H. Watkins’ book is a short, 40,000 word life of Muir. It was written with the hope that an understanding of Muir’s vision of nature and wilderness would help Americans toward better environmental planning in the years. The author emphasizes Muir’s message that all living things are interrelated and that all have worth. Although Watkins recognizes the danger encountered by previous Muir biographers—that of becoming infatuated with the man and glorifying his deeds—and has aimed at giving a dispassionate account, he finds little to criticize in Muir’s words or actions. Watkins’ brief biography is effectively organized, highly readable, and ably describes the exploits and accomplishments of Muir. The author traces Muir’s life chronologically from his boyhood in Scotland and Wisconsin, through his adventurous years as explorer and naturalist, to his later years as successful farmer, author, and lobbyist in the cause of preservation of wilderness, particularly of the Sierra Nevada. The book touches broadly on the varied aspects of Muir’s life including some topics often neglected in earlier studies such as Muir’s trips to Russia and the Amazon Basin.
Watkins’ book is intended primarily for the general reader rather than the scholar. It has neither footnotes nor bibliography, and the author makes only a limited effort to place Muir in the context of the times in which he lived or to describe the efforts of other conservationists of that period. In addition to the text there are 48 color photographs by Dewitt Jones and several original drawings by Muir. The photographs, ranging in subject from an Alaskan glacier to a Sierra waterfall, justify the price of this attractive volume.
In contrast with Watkins, Tom Melham, in John Muir’s Wild America, gives us a first person description of many of the areas visited by Muir as they appear today. Melham himself retraced much of Muir’s 1867, 1000 mile hike from Kentucky to Florida, and many of Muir’s subsequent trips to such places as Alaska, Mount Rainier, and the Sierra. The book is, therefore, as much a story of Melham’s own adventures as of Muir’s. We may wonder as we read of Muir’s adventures that he survived to the age of 76 considering his many brushes with death—being swept away in an avalanche, crossing a precarious ice bridge over a bottomless crevasse, freezing in a blizzard on a mountain top, teetering on a slippery rock on the brink of a waterfall. The picture of Muir that emerges from Melham’s description is one-sided: Muir the rugged mountain man. Lacking in Melham’s adventure story is a sense of Muir as a person—husband, businessman, and political lobbyist.
Melham’s book also lacks focus and cohesiveness. The author never clarifies his purpose in writing the book; there is no introduction and no chronological or other logical principle of organization. The spotty treatment of Muir’s life and times, the evidence of scant historical research, and the absence of notes and bibliography make this book of limited interest to historians. The numerous photographs, however, should attract those interested in an inexpensive volume that portrays John Muir’s America as it can be seen and experienced today; and those who enjoy adventure will likely be entertained not only by Muir’s adventures but by Melham’s account of his own.