Letters from Alaska by John Muir
reviewed by Bill Hunt
A review of the book
Letters from Alaska by John Muir
Edited by Robert Engberg and Bruce Merrell
Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1993
(115 pages; $12.95 paper, $30 hardback)
"John Muir was no ordinary tourist in Alaska"
By Bill Hunt
Anchorage Daily News
February 6, 1994
"Go," said John Muir to readers of the
San Francisco Chronicle
, "go and see!"
Muir's newspaper letters, composed on his 1879 and 1880 cruises to
Southeastern, echoed his sense of wonder. He was no ordinary tourist, and if
some fellow travelers thought his wild enthusiasm for the Alaska scenery
"crazy," others grasped his sense of gratified amazement.
In time, Muir's disciples became a social and political force in America and
formed a tradition and a program of nature preservation.
Editors Robert Engberg, a California teacher and author, and Bruce Merrell,
the Alaska bibliographer at Anchorage's Z.J. Loussac Library, have combined
their scholarship and enthusiasm to make
Letters from Alaska
authoritative, providing numerous illustrations, an excellent introduction and
descriptive annotations to the text.
Muir's first Alaska letter was written from Wrangell, then "a rough place"
and the staging area for mining in the Stikine River area. A temporary
journalist, Muir dutifully described the excitment of mining, even though he
preferred to focus on nature: "The forests and the glaciers are the glory of
Of a glacial valley, he wrote of a "broad, continuous ice sheet." Of the
rainforest, he wrote of "dense trees that never suffer thirst.... never have
been wasted by fire ... and have never been touched by the ax of a lumberman."
Any traveler could report on scenery, Indians, misssionaries and the mining
excitement that had been extended from Wrangell to Juneau, but Muir propounded
lessons from glacial and forest scenes. Drawing on visions stimulated by the
mountains of California, he urged readers to experience the ultimate adventure -
a journey of the spirit inspired by the wilderness.
In Alaska, Muir traveled with Indians and missionaries and seems to have had
little patience for the interests of the latter - though he was pleased when the
clergy was stimulated by nature's glory, as when he and his fellow travellers
navigated Wrangell Channel amidst forested mountains.
"Forgotten now," Muir noted, "were the souls of the Chilkats and the whole
system of seminary and pulpit theology, while the word of God was being read in
those majestic hierogrlyphics blazed along the edge of the sky. The earnest,
childish wonderment with which this glorious page of Nature's book was
contemplated was hopeful and reassuring. All evinced a commendable desire to
Muir was pleased to answer the clergymen's questions about the extent of
glaciers and their icy depths because he was the foremost preacher of the
"glacial gospel," a religion with no churches save canyon walls and no concern
with arid, ancient disputations.
Muir enjoyed chiding his pious companions, reminding them that divinity
could be found in a sparkling summer day like that on whch they voyaged.
"There was plenty of free religion in the air, and about the islands amid
which we now traced our way, and in the chaste seawater and dancing spangles.
Sermons, too, in the glacier boulders on the beach where we landed, and how
impressive was the ceremony of the baptism of the landscpae in the drenching sun
flood that day."
Muir was more impressed by Alaska's Indians than those he encountered in
California and was concerned about their future. As little as he liked
missionaries, he hoped their influence would protect Indians from more rapacious
whites. He had no expectation that government would protect Natives.
Muir's observations on Alaska, also formulated in the posthumous publication
of his book, "Travels in Alaska," announced a new chapter in Alaska's history.
He did not denounce the mining development, but called attention to values that
transcend the economic. Increasingly, Americans who have learned from
, Muir and their successors have come to question some kinds of resource
This book is a good start toward understandng Muir's contribution.