Domesticity, tourism, and the national parks in John Muir's late writings

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Many critics and biographers of John Muir have observed a general shift in Muir's priorities over time, a move away from an emphasis on the experience of the solitary observer in nature and toward a more lenient understanding of the experience of other humans in the world-both as residents of domestic space and as tourists in the wilderness. Roderick Nash articulates a version of this observation when he describes the change in Muir's rhetoric from his early advocacy of the "rights of nature" to his later use of more anthropocentric arguments."Why did Muir abandon the environmental ethics approach?"Nash asks. The reason, it seems clear, is that he got into politics and became pragmatic.Muir believed the only way to save the American wilderness was to persuade the American people and their government of its worth to them. Consequently he tempered his biocentricity and the ethical system it implied, hiding them in his published writing and speeches under a cover of anthropocentrism. It is important to recall that Muir's remarks about the rights of nature appeared first in his private, unpublished journals and not in book form until after his death.Muir knew very well that to go before Congress and the public arguing for national parks as places where snakes, redwood trees, beavers, and rocks could exercise their natural rights to life and liberty would be to invoke ridicule and weaken the cause he wished to advance. So he camouflaged his radical egalitarianism in more acceptable rhetoric centered on the benefits of nature for people.1 That Muir tempered his radicalism over time has long been acknowledged as a truism among scholars, but to suggest that Muir was less than forthright with his readers minimizes in important ways the very real changes Muir underwent over the course of three decades.Moreover, such an interpretation rests upon an incomplete understanding of Muir's rhetoric as simply the manipulation of language rather than the negotiation of a complex cultural discourse. A more subtle understanding of Muir's representations of nature has begun to be articulated by Michael L. Smith, Robert L. Dorman, Steven J. Holmes, and other critics, who emphasize the importance of the domestic in Muir's writing.2 This chapter will contribute to this trend by arguing that Muir's late writings about Yosemite, such as those found in The Mountains of California (1894) and Our National Parks (1901), were not an attempt to camouflage Muir's true beliefs but were rather a reflection of the domesticating influence exerted by both his audience and his family.3 Muir's initial rejection of the domestic life in favor of the wilderness sojourn, and his location of God in the mountains instead of the home, came in reaction to the strict Calvinism imposed on him by his father. As his reputation as a writer grew, however, and especially once he became a husband and a father, Muir became more sensitive to the value of the domestic-and its touristic counterpart-as an essential element in the preservation of nature.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationJohn Muir
Subtitle of host publicationFamily, Friends, and Adventures
PublisherUniversity of New Mexico Press
Number of pages20
ISBN (Print)0826335306, 9780826335302
StatePublished - 2005


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