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H A R O L D P. S I M O N S O N University of Washington The Tempered Romanticism of John Muir To what extent the tension between Romanticism and an inherited Calvinism influenced John Muir becomes an important issue in any assessment of his life and writing. It is true that on the surface he appears to have exchanged his father’s Calvinist teachings for the Roman­ ticism of nineteenth century America. Evidence comes directly from his own autobiography, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, written in 1908 after he had become famous. But Thomas J. Lyon raises the intriguing possibility that perhaps Muir’s public persona required a simpler story, or even that Muir had genuinely forgotten the intellectual struggles and contradictions of his early years. The important question Professor Lyon asks is how “the ideas in Muir’s authoritarian upbring­ ing could have been so completely reversed in his mature philosophy.” For, Lyon argues, “there is not a single point in the theory of Calvinism which Muir, the man, failed to overthrow.” Roderick Nash is persuaded that one of “several formidable obstacles” Muir overcame was “a father whose Calvinistic conception of Christianity brooked no religion of nature.” Similarly, Kevin Starr thinks that Muir’s conversion to a reli­ gious reverence for nature “filled the void left by an abandoned Calvinism and cured some of its scars.”1 ’•Thomas J. Lyon, John Muir (Boise, Idaho: Boise State College Western Writers Series, No. 3, 1972), pp. 13, 15; Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the Ameri­ can Mind (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1967), p. 123; Kevin Starr, Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973), p. 185. 228 Western American Literature It is, I think, too easy to say that Muir abandoned Calvinism. What is more important to recognize is how his early training deepened his reli­ gious perspectives and sharpened the conflicts within himself that Roman­ ticism could never annul. At the age of seventy-four he wrote with admiration that his father had been like the New England Puritans — “types of the best American pioneers whose unwavering faith in God’s eternal righteousness forms the basis of our country’s greatness.” Despite his father’s stem piety, John Muir did not develop an antagonism to reli­ gious orthodoxy. William Frederick Bade insists that Muir’s father “had no such effect upon John.” Nor, according to Bade, did Muir relax his hold on the “essentials” of his Protestant faith, despite that fact that his sympathies leaned towards religious liberalism. In breaking away from his father’s narrow Biblicism, he adopted a more rational historical interpre­ tation of the Bible that saved his faith both in religion and science. “The two books [nature and the Bible],” Muir said, “harmonize beautifully, and contain enough of divine truth for the study of all eternity.” Yet even this affirmation fails to hide an anxious preoccupation over the great doctrines of the Fall of man and the wonders of Redeeming Love about which, Muir confessed, nature is silent: “It is so much easier for us to employ our faculties upon these beautifully tangible forms than to exercise a simple, humble living faith.”2 Most people know John Muir as a keen observer of nature and a wide-ranging traveler who, by the end of the century, had become a powerful voice in influencing legislation regarding national Parks and Forests. But to understand the deeper John Muir it is necessary to see that behind these activities was a mind at work trying to reconcile conflicting ideas that pertained, on the one hand, to nature that conforms to the mind’s eye and projects the drama of one’s developing self; and, on the other hand, to nature as divine emanation, as revelation, as typological figure presupposing a distinctly separate and sovereign God. With the first, religious experience celebrates the self as reconciler of all things visible and invisible and the word as symbol of this reconciliation. With the second, the experience sharpens the distinction between the self and the greater infinitude of spirit, and makes praising God an acknowledgement of one’s own dependency. For Muir, the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 227-241
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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