Wednesday, October 1, 2014

William Henry Harrison Murray invents the American vacation - You feel as if the very air was God

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”!


  1. Sounds like the beginnings of a tour guide book: the Frommer's of the Adirondacks.

  2. Exactly. Murray must have modeled that part of the book after the Baedeker guides, like this one on Switzerland.

    But having 2/3s of the book be short stories and first-person adventures - that is an innovation! I wonder which part got people more excited, the practical guide to fishing or the narrative about not quite landing a monster trout?

  3. That's good stuff, the attention to the sounds. "heavy thug of the boat against the bank" is really good. "thug" is exactly the sound.

    I like the bit in the first chapter about delicate consumptive girls gaining a pound a day in the wild, eating venison steak. You don't see that in National Park brochures today.

  4. This is SO American. Writing about roughing up in the wilderness and driving other people to do the same.

    I can't think of a French equivalent except for Southern writers waxing poetic about hiking in the garrigue (Pagnol, Giono...) or Frison-Roche and his Premier de cordée.

  5. So American - and so German, and so Norwegian. But definitely not French. Although we saw people camping in the Massif Central. Maybe those people were British. I don't know how much of le camping sauvage there is in France.

    Now that I think of it, the most famous book about camping in France was written by Robert Louis Stevenson. He also wrote a book about canoeing in France (on canals, though, not in the wilderness)!

    You are right, Emma, that this is a real cultural difference - it is a difference in the direction Romanticism took in different countries. Different ideas about the meaning of nature and wilderness. The American version is British (Wordsworth, Lake District, long hikes) mixed with Transcendentalism and the presence of a real, and huge, wilderness frontier.

    Young consumptives gain a pound a day in the Adirondacks if they are not eaten by mosquitoes. That early travel guide section is full of strange things. Good things, too, but some are just amusing.

    1. Most French camp sites are full of Dutch. The French vision of camping implies going to an organised camp site with a swimming pool and drinking an apéro on a camping chair. One of my Dutch colleagues told me once that camp sites in Ardèche is where her children get to speak Dutch.

      "Camping sauvage" is forbidden. In this case "sauvage" means unlawful, not "wild"

      I haven't read Stevenson but I know about his travel book in France.

    2. Forbidden! in that case I have been misinformed by M. Wiki.

      Dutch, that is plausible. There were lots of Dutch tourists in the Massif this summer.