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John Muir and the Alaska Book

by Marion Randall Parsons

From Sierra Club Bulletin, John Muir Memorial Number, (January, 1916).


In November, 1912, not long after his return from his last long journey across South America and Africa, Mr. Muir came to Berkeley to begin work on his Alaska notes. For a month he worked at my home with a stenographer, getting an exact transcription of the journals. The travel-worn, weather-stained little books carried on those memorable exploring trips of nearly forty years before were crammed with sketches and voluminous notes, jotted down perhaps in the canoe, or around the camp-fire, but oftenest in the solitudes of the great glaciers in whose study he cheerfully underwent so much cold and hunger and hardship.

It was most amusing to watch Mr. Muir at work. His intense interest in his subject led him to make many a long digression as his notes brought this or that incident to mind. Time meant nothing to him. Household machinery might stop, food grow cold on the table, and the business members of the family miss their morning trains while Mr. Muir pursued the tranquil course of his subject to the end. And so for an hour or more he might discourse while the stenographer sat with her hands folded. Her stolidity and indifference exasperated him beyond measure. To have no curiosity about the "terrestrial manifestations of God," above all to have no interest in glaciers, was to him both incomprehensible and sinful.

Once started on a task Mr. Muir was a tireless worker. The book in hand might have lain fallow for thirty years, but when it began to take form and substance he was all afire with eagerness to see it finishes. Long evenings he spent poring over the notebooks or drawing from them the texts of the monologues he delighted in. His mind, indeed, dwelt with such complete absorption on his work that his conversation nearly always indicated its trend. His speech had all the beauty of phrase, the force and vigor of style of his written word, but with an added spell of fire and enthusiasm and glowing vitality that made it an inspiration and never-ending delight. Many a page of this Alaska book is for me a living record of our fireside hours of companionship.

Not until many months later, however, did I have any close acquaintance with Travels in Alaska. After working on it only a short time,, Mr. Muir laid the book aside to take an active part in the fight for Hetch Hetchy. A few weeks after the final defeat a severe illness, from whose effects he never fully recovered, again interrupted the book. In his weakened condition the mere sifting out of the enormous mass of material was a task almost beyond his strength. Find him day utterly discouraged over it, I offered to go to him a day or two each week to help him until he could find the secretary to his mind. The arrangement proved unexpectedly happy and congenial to us both, and lasted until within a week of his death.

No on unacquainted with Mr. Muir's habits of work and living could appreciate the difficulty, nor, indeed, the humorous nature of the task. He was living alone in the dismantled old home, unused save for his study and sleeping porch. He went to his daughter's home for his meals, but neither she nor anyone else was allowed to touch the study, overflowing as it was with books and papers. Confusion was no word for the state of the manuscripts. He had been collecting material for over thirty years. In the interval that had elapsed since he began real work on it the two typewritten copies of the journals had become mixed, and in some cases both had been revised. Material from certain parts of the journals, moreover, had been used in newspaper letters and again in magazine articles, so as many as five different versions of some passages were in existence. Even had they been collected together and in order, to read and compare and reject would have been sufficiently hard, but fresh versions were constantly coming to light, or in my absence Mr. Muir would unearth a copy of some version already disposed of. He was in the habit of making notes on anything that came to hand - an opened envelope, a paper bag, the margin of a newspaper. No scrap of manuscript could ever be destroyed, and I could devise no system of putting the rejected material aside that served to keep him from "discovering" it at some later date. Finally I took to hiding copied and rejected sheets alike inside a great roll of papers conspicuously tied with red ribbons and labeled in huge capitals "Copied!" and little by little the orange-box full of manuscript and the piles of scattered notes littering desk and table were reduced to a single working copy.

By seven o'clock each morning Mr. Muir had breakfasted and was ready for the day's work, usually lasting, with but the interruption of an hour at lunch and dinner and another at mail time, until ten at night. Composition was always slow and laborious for him. "This business of writing books," he would often say, "is a long, tiresome, endless job." To read his easy, flowing, forceful sentences, as rich in imagery and simple in diction as Bible English, no one would dream what infinite pains had been taken in their creation. Each sentence, each phrase, each word, underwent his critical scrutiny, not once but twenty times before he was satisfied to let it stand. His rare critical faculty was unimpaired to the end. So too was the freshness and vigor of his whole outlook on life. No trace of pessimism or despondency, even in the defeat of his most deeply cherished hopes, ever darkened his beautiful philosophy, and only in the intense physical fatigue brought on by his long working hours was there any hint of failing powers.

Mr. Muir himself, however, seemed to know that the end was near. Very touching were his attempts to rehabilitate the old house, whose forlorn emptiness and desolation were never allowed to weigh upon his own serene spirit, to put it in readiness for whomsoever should next live there. During the latter months of his life he often expressed the conviction that he would never live to write another book. His plan had long been to have his books tell the story of his life and travels, and in the early days of our work together he would often speak of the volumes of this wanderer's autobiography that he hoped yet to complete. But he was curiously untroubled about leaving his work unfinished. To a most unusual degree he seemed to feel that his had been a glorious life, wholly worth while, "Oh, I have had a bully life!" he said once. "I have done what I set out to do." And again: "To get these glorious works of God into yourself - that's the great thing; not to write about them." That nature's beauty had a deep and lasting influence on character was one of his most earnest believes. No impassable gulf between things material and spiritual ever existed for him, and scientific study only served to deepen his natural reverence and faith. Throughout this book, as through all the others, rings his triumphant belief in the harmony and unity of our universe, its imperishable beauty, its divine conception, "reflecting the plans of God."

It was a rare privilege to work with him day by day, a man of the most original thought, of the very highest ideals, of simplicity and truth and kindliness unsurpassed. He gave of his best in conversation. His genial, whimsical humor, his acute appraisal of character and motives, his wide knowledge of literature and intimate friendship with many of the leading men of his time, made him a wonderful companion. The memory of our long hours together will always remain a delight and an inspiration, for they brought me not only increased love and reverence for a beautiful spirit, but a new conception of the spiritual significance of the great world of nature he loved so well.

The work on this book was the chief pleasure and recreation of Mr. Muir's last days, for through it he lived again many of the most glorious experiences of his life. Always I shall remembers the glow that would light his face whenever he paused in his work to tell in stirring words the story of some particularly inspiring day. Many years ago, after watching a sunrise in Glacier Bay, he wrote: "We turned and sailed away, joining the outgoing bergs . . . feeling that, whatever the future might have in store, the treasures we had gained this glorious morning would enrich our lives forever." How true this was, how vital a part of his life these treasures of memory were, no one who met him could fail to know. For him neither time nor age had power to dim the glory of that icy land, after the Sierra Nevada, the best loved of all his wilderness homes.

See also Book Review of Travels in Alaska by John Muir, by Marion Randall Parsons


"John Muir and the Alaska Book" by Marion Randall Parsons, from Sierra Club Bulletin, John Muir Memorial Number, Vol. 10, No. 1 (1916 January), pp. 33-36.



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