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E. Hall Martin. MOUNTAIN JACK AND A WANDERING MINER. 1850. Oil on canvas. 39 1/2" x 72". Courtesy of Oakland Museum of California. Gift of Concours d’Antiques, Art Guild. JOHN OF THE MINES: Mu ir ’s Pic t u r e s q u e Rew r ite o f t h e Go l d Ru s h N i c o l a s W i t s c h i Was John Muir a Gold Rush writer? Certainly not. A nd yet, he had quite a lot to say about this key event and its impact on California’s scenery, so much so that his prose was greatly affected by the effort. In the 1870s, the Gold Rush still provided the dom inant narrative filter through which Californians viewed their m ountains, and Muir, who effectively begins his career as an environmental writer and journalist in 1871 San Francisco, is very much framed by this con­ text. However, while the critical literature on M uir’s achievements as an environm ental advocate is quite vast, none of it even begins to address Muir’s writerly engagem ent with the history of mineral extraction in the Sierra N evada.1 The problem with this critical blind spot is that it fails to render a fully historicized account of Muir and his work. Consider, for N IC O L A S W lTS C H I 317 example, the publication circumstances of Muir’s “The New Sequoia Forests of California,” an early, foundational essay that would become the centerpiece of the chapter “The Forests” in his memorable first book, The Mountains of California (1894). Published in the Novem ber 1878 issue of Harper’s (vol. 57: 813-27), this essay appeared along­ side the following items: “The Valley of the Yomouri” (828-29), an idyllic poem about the sultry jungle pleasures of Cuba; “Wild Babies” (829-38), an anthropological study of how native peoples around the world raise their children; and “The Sea Islands” (839— 61), a report on Georgia’s Gullah communities, which closes with an etching of an old black man playing a fiddle, to which the caption reads, “Music hath charms” (861). One might easily argue from its placem ent that M uir’s article on the sequoia participates in the exotification of the strange, of the other. A quick read through the essay itself, however, makes this interpretation hard to sustain (though one might still attribute such a motive to the magazine’s editors). The point is that a contextualized Muir begins to look like a very different writer. A s will be discussed below, while it does not deal with racial othering, “The New Sequoia Forests” does reflect significantly on the discourse of the Gold Rush in that it offers a picturesque and aging forty-niner turned harmless forest hermit. Moreover, this her­ mit disappears altogether from the landscape once Muir adapts his essay for book publication. If, as Sim on Scham a recently hinted, Muir’s ecological agenda requires that he “carefully and forcibly” edit “the mining companies . . . out of the idyll,” then attention must be paid to the editing as it happens (7-8). Historicizing the environ­ m entalist writings of John Muir forces us to revise our understanding not only of Muir’s ecological vision but also our current state of what Lawrence Buell calls the Am erican “environmental im agination.” Despite his eventual elision of California’s defining historical moment, M uir’s development of a nature aesthetic depends very much on the representational framework provided by the literary his­ tory of the G old Rush. “T e l l in g a B r e t H a r t e S t o r y ” In the early fall of 1874, John Muir left San Francisco and headed for the hills. Having spent “a period of three hundred days” immersed in what he called “the processes and vicissitudes of civi­ lization,” Muir rejoiced that “[a]t the close of this season of fog and refinement I fortunately made good my escape to the mountains” 318 WAL 3 4 .3 F a l l 1999 (Engberg 21...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 316-343
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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