Paul Andersen: John Muir — wilderness-loving racist
John Muir’s poetic words have often graced this column. Now, his name is disgraced with racist overtones for disparaging Blacks and Native Americans. Can Muir’s lofty words about nature atone for disparaging his fellow humans?
For insight, I look back a decade ago when I met Sydney Hyman, author of “The Aspen Idea.” Sydney was intimate with the early years at the Aspen Institute, which his book describes. Sydney was in his 90s when I met with him at his Chicago apartment after having spent two days at the University of Chicago researching the Paepcke collection for insights into Aspen’s cultural renaissance at the 1949 Goethe Bicentennial.
Having read a disquieting depiction of Walter Paepcke’s “ego-affirming infidelities” in James Sloan Allen’s book, “The Romance of Commerce and Culture,” I asked Sydney how Paepcke could be lionized for his formative role establishing Aspen’s cultural high ground despite his known indiscretions.
“Not all great men are good men,” Sydney answered with a sage nod to inconsistencies in human behavior among notables. No one is immune to the internal Faustian contest between good and evil.
Impugning luminaries like Muir and Paepcke shakes up civilization, just as it has with Thomas Jefferson’s misconduct. It’s easy to point a finger at wrong-doers in places of high esteem, but that finger must ultimately point to oneself.
“He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone,” said Christ in a parable about the stoning of an accused adulterer (John 8:7). Chaucer put it like this: “People who live in glass houses should not throw stones.”
Racism dampens my respect for Muir as a noteworthy person, but his impassioned paeans to wild nature remain relevant to man’s larger relationship to the universe. Muir’s shortcoming was his inability to equate all of humanity with the nature he so fervently worshiped.
Muir lived in a far different world than ours. When he made his famous 1,000-mile walk from Indiana to Florida through the destruction of the post-war South in 1867, Civil War battlefields were hardly dried of the blood shed there. Blacks had only recently been “freed,” and many endured post-war languor.
Muir’s views of Native Americans reflected the abysmal, dehumanizing treatment of the natives who had been subjected to genocide and other depravities. Muir’s vision of the American West was conditioned by remnants of subjugated tribal people whose squalid conditions impaired Muir’s grand vistas.
“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world,” Muir idealized. Such a grasp of holism was surprisingly limited where Muir’s view of humanity was concerned.
Witnessing the downtrodden, devastated people of his time, Muir’s apparent reaction was disdain. There was no apparent remorse or sympathy, which might have nuanced his prejudice and tempered his disparagement.
In the Roaring Fork Valley, do we feel empathy for the Utes, on whose land we live? Or do we think of them at all?
I imagine that Muir, a sensitive man, were he alive today, would have shed his unenlightened bigotry and found just cause for a spirit of generosity toward those trammeled down by white supremacy, just as Muir had been trampled down by his overbearing father.
Muir was 21 when Darwin published “Origin of the Species” in 1859. Muir died in 1914, 11 years before the Scopes Trial brought evolution to the fore of modern thinking.
Muir lived before social acceptance of Darwin’s “theory” that all of life springs from the same fount, that animals and humankind have evolved together. Had Muir embraced Darwin’s science, he might have adopted a more kindred view of humanity.
I can’t defend Muir’s bigotry, nor that of slave owners like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, all men of righteous convictions who were sullied by moral contradictions. And so is much of American history mired in moral violations.
Historically, many great men were not good men, and we judge them now through the fuzzy lens of cultural relativism, which blurs their slurs over time. Given the prejudices that sadly exist today, at even the highest levels of national leadership, it’s time to redefine the values society attributes to great men.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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