Today’s book is minor as literature but major as history: Adventures in the Wilderness: Or, Camp-life in the Adirondacks (1869) by William Henry Harrison Murray, a Boston preacher who loved nothing more than fishing, hunting, and canoeing in the forests of northern New York state, so much so that he wrote this book, cover on the left.
The book became a surprise best-seller, during tens of thousands of city-dwellers into the forest to “get a glimpse of the magnificent scenery which makes this wilderness to rival Switzerland” (9), which you might think would ruin it all but as of now has preserved it; Adirondack Park is the largest U.S. park outside of Alaska. Murray “broached the then-outrageous idea that an excursion into raw nature could actually be pleasurable,” as Tony Perrottet writes in his outstanding April 2013 Smithsonian article on Murray and the Adirondacks. I will direct readers there for more on the book’s significance. The article makes the case better than the book itself does.
It is such an odd book. I urge anyone curious to page through it (this is the Google books version of the original that I read – many thanks to the Harvard Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology). Murray begins with sixty pages of nominally practical advice – when to visit, how to hire a guide, how to avoid the nightmarish black flies (“a myth, – a monster existing only in men’s feverish imaginations,” 56, but maybe skip the woods during June), which hotel features “that modern prolongation of the ancient war-whoop modified and improved, called ‘operatic singing,’ in the parlors” (44) and which has “such pancakes as are rarely met with” (45), and where you should buy your tackle and flies. The answer to the latter: J. C. Conroy &Co., No. 65 Fulton Street, New York (see right). Another firm sells “’Bronze Yacht Guns,’ One-pounders, Mounted on Best Mahogany Carriages” (238), useless in the woods.
Then follows a collection of what are obviously short stories. A canoeing exploit, a fishing exploit, a hunting exploit, a hunting failure in which Murray and his guide chase a loon around a lake – why on earth do they want to shoot a loon of all things? One story, about a Union officer and his beloved horse, has nothing whatsoever to do with the Adirondacks. Another is an imitation of Mark Twain (“Now Southwick was the best dancer there; that is, he covered the most ground,” 95). Another is, of course, a ghost story, but really another excuse to brag about canoeing. Murray and his guide chase a spectral Iroquois maiden in a canoe over a twenty-five foot waterfall. There is way more about the handling of paddles than about the ghost.
And there is “Sabbath in the Woods,” the heart of the book, a day of wilderness experience as communion with God.
Even the Bible lies at your side unlifted. The letters seem dead, cold, insufficient. You feel as if the very air was God, and you had passed into that land where written revelation is not needed; for you see the Infinite as eye to eye, and feel him in you and above you and on all sides. (195)
Murray was writing Emerson for tourists. Tourists, it turned out, wanted Emerson for tourists.
Before I abandon Murray, I want to note a stylistic quirk I enjoyed. I only noticed it three times:
With the thunder of the falls filling the air with a deafening roar, barely thirty rods away, with the siz-z of the current around me as we dashed down the decline, I felt as calm and confident as though the race was over and we were standing on the bank. (163, in the ghost story)
But all of a sudden, when heart and hope were about to fail, some distance ahead of us we heard the well-known sounds, k-splash, k-splash, and knew that a deer, and a large one too, was making for the shore. (180)
The heavy thug of the boat against the bank… (186)
A minor writer, but an attentive one. “Siz-z”!