Volume VII, Number 2, Fall 2011

"From Thoreau to Muir: Changes in Nineteenth-Century American Conceptions of the Environment" by Robert E. Bieder

Robert E. Bieder has taught at several universities in the United States including Indiana University-Bloomington where he was Professor of History and Environmental Studies. He has held five Fulbights and two postdoctoral year-long fellowships at The Newberry Libary and at the Smithsonian Institution. He has taught in Germany, Malaysia, Finland and Hungary. He is an award-winning author and has published extensively. His books include Science Encounters the Indian; Contemplating Others: Cultural Contacts in Red and White America; A Brief Historical Survey of the Expropriation of American Indian Remains; Native American Communities in Wisconsin, 1600-1960 and Bear, the latter of which has been translated into five languages. Email:

In his book Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Nash wondered about the discrepancy in the public reception to the works of Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) and John Muir (1838-1914). For both men, nature and the wilderness proved an integral part of their lives and both wrote extensively on these subjects but while Thoreau was little known beyond a small circle of friends in Concord, Massachusetts, Muir acquired a national and international reputation as a nature writer and spokesman for the preservation of nature (160). What accounts for this wide discrepancy? What changed in America’s thinking about nature between the years when Thoreau wrote his now classic work Walden; or, Life in the Woods (1854) and Muir’s The Mountains of California (1894)?

Obviously the times in which the two men lived were vastly different. The rather innocent quality and robust confidence that characterized American life before the Civil War had after the war morphed into a kind of melancholy, a bewilderment, a vague sense of “betrayal.” The assassination of Lincoln persisted in the nation’s memory and the photographs of Civil War dead lingered on walls as parlor ghosts. Between 1865 and 1900, a sad weariness set in. As historian Lewis Mumford put it, “[t]he nation not merely worked differently after the Civil War; the country looked different—darker, sadder, soberer” (6). Enthusiastic claims of progress and Manifest Destiny, which had rung out before the Civil War, sounded hollow after the war. Along with the melancholy was a sense among many that America had departed from its simpler ways.

One who believed this departure from simpler ways began much earlier in the nineteenth century was Henry David Thoreau, a one-time school teacher, pencil maker and surveyor of fields and men in and around Concord, Massachusetts. At the age of 28, Thoreau, a critic of contemporary American life, left the village of Concord on Independence Day 1845 and went to “live deliberately” (Variorium Walden 89) for two years, two months and two days in a cabin of his own construction at Walden Pond, a short distance from Concord. The author of many works of poetry and prose, including A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849) and “Civil Disobedience” (1849), is perhaps best known for Walden; or Life in the Woods (1854), a book that many believe is the bible of the environmental movement. Yet this work is less about nature than about man in nature. In Walden, Thoreau reflected upon how far humanity had disassociated itself from nature and thus was prone to “lead lives of quiet desperation” (Variorium Walden 28). He sought to cut through tradition and custom to reach the very core of existence through incorporating a primitive way of looking at the world. One way he did this was through exploring how local Indians expressed themselves and described their universe: Thoreau discovered in their languages a beauty and directness of expressions. During his lifetime, he was seen as a disciple of his neighbor the transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson. It was not until Thoreau’s writing of Walden, however, that he shook off his tepid transcendentalism and thus spurned the philosophy of Emerson (Oelschlaeger 149).

Walden was not a financial success: Americans were too preoccupied with sectional rivalries and racial issues leading up to the Civil War to take much notice of the book. While Thoreau claimed that “in wildness is the preservation of the world” (“Walking” 644; emphasis added), many Americans were beginning to concern themselves with the preservation of the nation.

John Muir matured in the post-Civil War period. Born in 1838, Muir at the age of eleven left Scotland with his family bound for Wisconsin. His early life was spent on a farm where he excelled in tinkering with machines and inventing new ones. One invention won him a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin, where he studied for two and a half years before leaving in 1864 to wander off to Canada.

Returning in 1866, he took a position in a carriage factory in Indianapolis but gave it up in 1867 to make a thousand-mile walk to Florida. Once in the South he thought he might continue on to South America but he changed his mind, and ended up in California in 1868. Working in lumber mills and as a sheep herder, Muir grew to love the forests and canyons of the Sierra Nevada mountains. As a sheep herder, Muir had the opportunity to observe geological formations and came to the conclusion that the Sierra Nevada were shaped in part by glaciers. By 1874, Muir came to believe that “his mountains” were endangered through encroaching economic development. He became involved in attempting to preserve the grandeur of Yosemite Valley when the city of San Francisco sought to create a reservoir through acquiring a section of Yosemite Park. Muir lost this battle but in the fight created the Sierra Club, which still exists as a major environmental protection organization. He also fought to protect California’s giant redwood forests. Most of all, however, he sought to awaken Americans to an awareness of the beauties and importance of nature. For Muir, nature became a religion and his protection of it became a kind of worship. The redwoods, mountains and canyons became temples, and preventing their destruction became for Muir a “religious” crusade.

Muir’s scientific writings as well as his many articles on nature, trees, and his adventures in the wilderness appeared in the major magazines of the day. A popular lecturer, Muir also served on several government geographical surveys and was a frequent petitioner to Congress and presidents demanding greater efforts on wilderness preservation. He became a legend to urbanites who dreamed of such wilderness adventures. Muir’s publications, The Mountains of California (1917), Our National Parks (1901), and The Yosemite (1912) became best sellers. Invitations and visits from scientists, conservationist, publishers, politicians including Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Howard Taft spread his fame. Roosevelt sought out Muir as a camping partner relishing not only his knowledge of nature but also his campfire stories.1

After the war, America needed rebuilding but wherever people turned they seemed blocked by large financial institutions and industrial developments. Urban populations exploded as emigrants poured into the United States after the Civil War. Slums festered in polluted air; tenements were overrun with vermin and prone to fire and disease. Some believed that the solutions to urban problems lay in a return to nature. Many urbanites who could afford it sought refuge beyond the city in suburbs to escape the stresses and strains of urban life: disease, odors, bad water and crowding. Suburbs represented a trip both back to nature and back in time. The building of suburbs, although begun before the Civil War, greatly accelerated after the war as street car lines, built beyond the city and allowed commuters to live in nature and work in the city. Suburbs held out the promise of health, happiness, safety and oneness with nature.2

Doctors prescribed outdoor activities as cures to the ailments of crowded, sedentary life in tenement flats. Many called for small urban parks or what the English called “lungs of the city,” so called because it was believed that such small parks allowed air circulation, an antidote to smog produced by thousands of coal fires. New York City’s new Central Park served as a model for other cities. Its vast size provided a “country-like” atmosphere. Unfortunately, many of the urban poor were excluded from the parks partly through park rules that prohibited the kinds of entertainments the poor wanted to engage in but mostly because they could not afford the street car fare, which often meant a week’s wages.

Psychologist G. Stanley Hall in the 1880s strongly supported the shift to the suburbs. He wrote of the “unnaturalness” of urban life, “ ‘those who grow up without knowing the country are defrauded of that without which childhood can never be complete or normal’ ” (qtd. in Schmitt 78). Hall argued in his “recapitulation” theory of genetic psychology that “ ‘just as the human embryo [passed] through a series of stages, so the human psyche must [repeat] the cultural epochs of human history’.” According to him, “ ‘the prehistoric period must and will recapitulate itself in every young life’ ”(qtd in Schmitt 78-79). To fulfill this vital stage of development, youth must have access to the wilderness or at least country life.

Others, including Muir, reached similar conclusion. The artist-naturalist, Ernest Thompson Seton in a series of articles in The Ladies Home Journal, outlined a program which he called the Woodcraft Indians to introduce boys to the wilderness. Other programs such as the Sons of Daniel Boone and Boy Pioneers, promoted in such journals as the Women’s Home Companion and The Pictorial Review, sprung up intent on achieving the same ends. The Boy Scout movement, founded in the United States in 1910, brought several of these groups, including the Camp Fire Club of America, into one organization. Writing in the first Boy Scout Handbook, Seton noted that the rise of cities had produced an unfortunate degeneracy in American life. According to Seton, “those are happiest ‘who live nearest to the ground, that is, who live the simple life of primitive times’ ” (qtd. in Nash 148). Such adventures were not just for boys: similar organizations such as Girl Scouts and Camp Fire Girls were founded. By the turn of the century both boy and girl groups such as Boy Pioneers, the Woodcraft League, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Camp Fire Girls all sought to introduce youth to the out-of-doors. Camping, hiking, nature study and boating were all activities thought to improve youth not only in health but in civic virtues.

But how was one to return to the simple life of primitive times? This worried historian Frederick Jackson Turner, who made clear in a speech before the American Historical Association in 1893, that the frontier was gone and with it that primitive environment that had shaped Americans for generations (Nash 145-46). The Reverend William Murray had already provided the answer. After spending a summer in New York State’s Adirondack Mountains, he wrote Adventures in the Wilderness or Camp-Life in the Adirondacks (1869). He extolled the physical and psychological benefits he experienced. According to Murray, “ ‘the wilderness provides that perfect relaxation which all jaded minds require’.” He further claimed that he left the mountains “ ‘swarth and tough as an Indian’ ” (qtd. in Nash 116). Murray’s exploits were duplicated by others. Numerous works followed by authors also relating similar trips into the wilderness. The wilderness proved an elixir: a restorer of health.

This health restoring aspect of the wilderness and nature went far to promote the national park movement. The public’s rush to escape to the country and especially to the wilderness was so widespread by the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth that it took on the status of a wilderness cult (Nash, Chapter 9). New transcontinental railroads proved eager to assist a vacationing public to the new national parks. President Theodore Roosevelt, a nature enthusiast, urged people to get out into nature and exercise. To facilitate such excursions, Roosevelt, following the founding of Yellowstone Park in 1872, created several more national parks, along with forest preserves and bird sanctuaries.

During the late nineteenth century the book market reflected this new interest in the outdoors and nature. Bookstores became glutted with novels and essays on outdoor adventures that underscored the theme of nature. Novelist Gene Stratton Porter, who wrote from a 14-room log cabin in Indiana, filled store book shelves with books such as Freckles (1904); Girl of the Limberlost (1909); The Harvester (1911) and Laddie (1911). As Porter said of her novels, “ ‘they were nature studies coated with fiction’ ” (qtd. in Schmitt 125-26). Other popular works that promoted outdoor life were Owen Wister’s The Virginian, A Horseman of the Plains (1902), and Jack London’s The Call of the Wild (1903) and Harold Bell Wright’s The Shepard of the Hills (1907) and The Winning of Barbara Worth (1911). Another best-selling novelist who took his readers to the woods was James Oliver Curwood, who wrote twenty-six wilderness novels that were translated into ten languages and also made into films. All of these novels were critical of urban life and saw God in nature.

Many of the popular stories for youth were also situated in nature. Generally they revolved around camp life even before the founding of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Some works were serialized in magazines while others came out as books like Canoe Boys and Campfires (1907), The Rover Boys in Camp (1904) and The Motor Boat Club on the Great Lakes (1912). Girls read of adventures situated far from the city in The Camp Fire Girls at Pine Tree Camp (1914) and The Motor Maids at Sunrise Camp (1914). Many of these tales were of middle- or upper-class youth but some of the stories dealt with poor city kids who were thrust out into nature where open fields, woods and outdoor activities reformed them, or so many thought, into upright citizens. It was the environment that made the man or woman.

There were, of course, some real-life examples that mirrored this beneficial effect of nature. Theodore Roosevelt, after the death of his wife, left New York City in a fit of depression. He fled to a ranch in South Dakota where he rapidly regained his mental health. In yet another case, an overweight commercial artist, Joseph Knowles, in 1913, posed naked for photographers and then plunged into the Maine woods vowing to lead the life of a primitive. Two months later he sprung from the forest slim and healthy, wearing the skin of a bear (which he was fined for having killed the bear out of season). His book Alone in the Wilderness (1913) sold thousands and he made thousands of dollars more on the lecture circuit.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, many Americans sought to experience nature in various ways. This period saw the founding of national parks, ornithological societies, hunting clubs, city parks, nature preserves, zoological parks or gardens, botanical gardens, urban playgrounds, golf courses and country clubs. In urban schools, teachers used their ingenuity to promote nature study by collecting insects, leaves, flowers, feathers, frogs, rocks and anything that would connect the student to nature. This period also saw new organizations devoted to wilderness preservation like the Sierra Club (1892), the Boone and Crockett Club (1887), and The Wilderness Society (1935). (The first, founded by Muir, arose to protect the integrity of Yosemite Park while President Theodore Roosevelt—who saw the protection of the country’s natural resources as integral to the security of the nation—created the National Forest Service.)

Muir did not start this new national appreciation of nature, but he did ride the wave of its enthusiastic acceptance. His articles and bestselling books not only benefitted from the movement but helped to move it along. They contributed to the growing national library promoting nature, wilderness, preservation, and the simple life. While Thoreau wrote at a time when, for many, nature still posed a threat, Muir confirmed the growing popular image of the wilderness as a place of serenity, beauty and light. Thoreau wandered the fields and roadways around Concord and demonstrated a miniaturist passion for details. He wrote of ant battles and of evolution in a thawing bank of sand. Muir wandered the Sierras and painted large canvases with broad strokes: burning sunsets, awesome redwood forests, snow-capped mountains and plunging canyons.

The writings of Thoreau and Muir differed stylistically as well. Thoreau’s elegantly structured prose often filled with riddles and sharply pointed barbs, proved harder for the public to comprehend. Thoreau understood both the sublime effects of nature and, after his visit to Mount Katadin in Maine during his writing of Walden, its violent horror. Muir’s writing in contrast was clear, easily understandable and he depicted nature in more sunny terms. Thoreau was a philosopher who led a “private war against the herd-spirit, against materialism and conformity, against smugness and hypocrisy, against injustice and slavery.” He wrote about nature and some have seen him as America’s greatest naturalist, but his chief concern “was not society but man himself” (Melzer ix-xi). An individualist, Thoreau noted “if a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer” (Variorium Walden 261). Thoreau came to maturity when America was still a nation of farmers; when more people lived in rural areas than in cities. When farmers on the Midwestern prairie were fighting drought, fire and locust, they had little time to contemplate nature and the wilderness in other than hostile terms. Although Muir grew up in a rural American environment, he wrote at a time when the shifting demographic trends in the United States tilted toward urban living, and Americans embraced a more idealized nature.

During his lifetime, Thoreau enjoyed limited success. Only after his death and in the twentieth century did Thoreau’s reputation achieve the greatness it deserved. Many years after his death, Thoreau’s daily journal, which contained his greatest contribution to nature study, was published in a fourteen volume edition. Muir, however, claimed an audience primarily of urbanities who sought an escape to nature and needed someone to lead them forth. Unlike Thoreau, Muir wrote at a time when national interest in camping, nature, bird watching, open air activities, parks and hiking in the wilderness, was at its peak and thus Muir had a receptive national audience for his ideas which helped to spread his fame. Muir also proved more adroit at publishing his works in popular outlets. Thoreau used nature in an attempt to reform humankind. He wrote at a time when “perfection“ was in the air with the flowering of “utopian” societies such as the Oneida Colony, Brook Farm, and the spread of evangelical camp meetings that in the rolling, singing, shouting and barking engaged in by those who attended, promised salvation. Muir also drew on nature not to reform but to implore the public to respect the land and work for the preservation of nature at a time when the forces of industry and demography were arrayed against it. Thus, returning to Nash’s question of why Thoreau and Muir received such different public receptions, this paper argues that it was not so much the writing of the two men but the larger environmental context in which the two men wrote that greatly determined their contemporary acceptance and fame.


Works Cited

  • Jackson, Kenneth T. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford UP, 1985.
  • Meltzer, Milton, ed. Thoreau: People, Principles, and Politics. New York: Hill and Wang, 1963.
  • Mumford, Lewis. The Brown Decades: A Study of the Arts of America 1865-1895. New York: Dover, 1955.
  • Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven: Yale UP, 1967.
  • Oelschlaeger, Max. The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology. New Haven: Yale UP, 1991.
  • Schmitt, Peter J. Back to Nature: The Arcadian Myth in Urban America. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins UP, 1990.
  • Stilgoe, John R. Borderland: Origins of the American Suburb, 1820-1939. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988.
  • Thoreau, Henry David. The Variorium Walden. Ed. Walter Harding New York: Twayne, 1962.
  • —-. “Walking.” Walden and Other Writings. New York: The Modern Library, 2000. 625-63.
  • Wolfe, Linnie Marsh. Son of the Wilderness: The Life of John Muir. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1973.



1 Material on John Muir in these paragraphs comes from Wolfe, Son of the Wilderness, and Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind.

2 Based on Jackson, __Crabgrass Frontier_, and Stilgoe, Borderlands.