Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

American Wilderness Writing (February 2016): Henry David Thoreau and John Muir

By Erik Hage

Henry David Thoreau and John Muir

In terms of conservation and preservation, the nineteenth century is dominated by two giants, Henry David Thoreau (1817–62) and John Muir (1838–1914), who produced influential publications about contact with wild places.  These two writers also spurred a nonanthropocentric viewpoint and displayed a protoecological sensibility, as they endeavored to show, through their writing, the interrelatedness and interdependence of all things in the natural world.  Thoreau had a huge impact on Muir, and his work remains, to this day, the baseline and standard for nature writing.  But Muir used his platform to better effect, in terms of public interest, contributing to the establishment of the National Park System and the creation of the Sierra Club while at the same time presenting his own explorations as the embodiment of a life lived close to and mindfully with wild nature.

Much of Thoreau’s work is based on his rambles and discoveries in his native Concord, Massachusetts, and this work falls into the broad (relatively tame) category of “nature writing.”  The Maine Woods—comprising the essays “Ktaadn,” “Chesuncook,” and “Allegash & East Branch”—is his greatest contribution to wilderness writing.  It is based on three excursions Thoreau took (1879, 1880, 1890) into the still relatively unsettled Maine interior, exploring Mount Katahdin, the Chesuncook region, and the Allegash River and East Branch of the Penebscot River.  The essays are significant not only for their wilderness impressions but for Thoreau’s deliberations on the relationship between civilization and wild spaces.  Another of Thoreau’s key essays is “Walking,” in which he makes his famous proclamation, “I wish to speak a word for nature, for absolute Freedom and Wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and Culture merely civil.”  Though wilderness itself is not the obvious subject of “Walking,” the essay is important for its ideas about nature’s rawest places.  All these writings are available online at The Thoreau Reader.

Muir’s earliest wilderness writings appeared in article form in the 1870s, often in newspapers (particularly San Francisco’s Daily Evening Bulletin), and are collected in John Muir Summering in the Sierra, edited by Robert Engberg.  Muir often stressed in letters that he found book writing a chore, but later in life he produced many volumes that will interest those seeking to understand the infrastructure of his thought regarding wilderness and preservation.  Foremost among these books are The Mountains of California, Our National Parks, Travels in Alaska, and My First Summer in the Sierra.  Muir’s writings are readily available online at Sierra Club Online, John Muir Exhibit, and in print collections, e.g., The Eight Wilderness Discovery Books; and The Wilderness World of John Muir, ed. by Edwin Way Teale.

Works Cited