Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Different, But Alike

Three famous men of the 19th century had lives that were dissimilar but also followed the same pattern. John Powell, born in 1834, Mark Twain, in 1835, and John Muir, in 1838, grew up in the developing Midwest -- Illinois, Missouri, and Wisconsin. 

Powell studied biology and geology eagerly. As a teenager, he took several river trips rowing on the Illinois River, studying mollusks along the way and observing variations in appearance up and down the river. He was doing a pre-Origin of Species study of evolution. He studied at Illinois College and at Oberlin but never completed a degree. When the Civil War was imminent, he studied military science and then joined the northern army. He served in the artillery at stations along the Mississippi until he was wounded by an artillery shell and lost an arm. When he recovered from his wound, he returned to active duty. After the war, he planned and went on the trip that he is famous for, down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Powell didn’t make this trip just to do it. He made it to study the history of the earth. The Colorado cuts through rock layers progressively earlier and earlier. He could plot out much of the development of the earth’s crust on this trip.

John Powell in 1881.
Powell went on to serve as director of the U.S. Geological Survey for thirteen years. One of the interesting positions he took as a result of his Grand Canyon trip was that less than 2% of the west had sufficient rainfall to support agriculture. He predicted correctly that development of irrigation systems that removed water from rivers would lead to endless litigation and disappointment. His life led him from rural Illinois to the wilds of the west and then east, to Washington D.C. He died in 1902, age 68, in Maine.

Sam Clemens -- Mark Twain -- grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, on the banks of the Mississippi River. After his father’s death, he dropped out of school and worked as a printer. After a few years, at age 18, he left Hannibal and went east, working as a printer in New York and Philadelphia. When he returned home, he decided to take a trip to South America. But he got no further than New Orleans. He became an apprentice river boat pilot and then embarked on a career as pilot, a profession that paid well and entailed glamour and prestige. He might have stayed on the river if the Civil War hadn’t closed the Mississippi to traffic.
Twain then followed his brother to Nevada where he became a newspaper man, doing more than typesetting, learning to write. Twain left Nevada for San Francisco then to the Sandwich Islands. Two years later he went on what amounted to the first cruise ship cruise, traveling to the Holy Lands.
With his publication of Innocents Abroad, the story of that cruise, his writing career was launched. He soon moved east and settled in Hartford, Connecticut. But Twain’s best known books are the three that involved the Mississippi River. We group together Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn as his most memorable characters, overshadowed, perhaps, only by his own persona. Mark Twain was after all his best known character.

John Muir was born in Scotland but came to the United States when he was four. His parents established a farm in southern Wisconsin. Muir grew up there and did his share of farm work, but he also had a penchant for things mechanical. He built, among other things, a thermometer that was based on the principle of iron shrinking in the cold. And he built a device that would tip him out of bed at 2 in the morning so he could read and learn undistracted by his family.
John Muir and his beard.
He attended the University of Wisconsin, but when his brother left for Canada to avoid conscription into the army, Muir followed him. He soon found himself working at a saw mill where he redesigned the equipment to make it more efficient. In 1866, he moved to Indianapolis and redesigned a factory there. But then a tool broke. He was hit in the eye and lost sight in that eye for several months. At this point, Muir decided he wanted to live a different kind of life. He packed a small kit and started afoot, walking to Florida. After a couple of false steps in Florida, he booked passage to California. He worked at various jobs, but his work as a shepherd led him into the mountains and even to Yosemite. He had read that Yosemite was created by earthquakes; however, his close look at the striations on cliff sides of streams made him conclude that glacial action had created them. He didn’t keep his opinion to himself but challenged the foremost geologists on the subject. Ultimately, his conclusions proved right. Muir began
to write extensively on a variety of subjects, principally on nature. Muir took up grape cultivation and built an extensive and profitable vineyard. He joined and led an outings/mountain climbing club and began to advocate preservation of natural resources. Eventually the club became the Sierra Club.
Unlike Powell and Twain, Muir did not settle in the east. Instead, he kept a home base in California. He hiked there and traveled north to Alaska and southeast to the Grand Canyon. Muir lived a bit longer than Twain, dying in 1914.
These three were strong, unique, creative individuals caught in the same period of American history. Each grew up in the farm culture that prevailed. Each, in his own way, escaped the confines of that culture. They were inquiring, largely self-educated men using their talents to take on the givens of their world.
In a sense, they proved the limits of the Jeffersonian agricultural ideal. In a sense, the Civil War was a catalyst that moved each away from childhood, away from family, away from home. All three moved west. Only Muir stayed there. But they were part of the American frontier experience. 

-Phil Coleman

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