Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Naked In The Woods

You may notice, from my posts here, that I've recently been catching up on my news feeds after an absence of several days. Here's an intriguing new book that goes on my "must read" list: Naked in the Woods: Joseph Knowles and the Legacy of Frontier Fakery by Jim Motavalli. Carolyn See's Washington Post review, Into the Wild and Woolly (February 15, 2008), is a bit ambivalent about it, but her reviewer's reservations only make me more curious.

When you review a book every week for more than a couple of decades, you're bound to run into a wacky one or two, but "Naked in the Woods" stands in a class by itself. The subject matter is wacky -- no other word for it; the scholarship, though extensive, is deeply uneven and strange; and the structure and organization make the book seem put together in a funhouse hall of mirrors.

It's hard to know how to approach this nonfiction account of Joe Knowles, Maine hunter, trapper and all-around woodsman, who, as part of a publicity stunt sponsored by the Boston Post in 1913, decided to go into Maine's Dead River wilderness clad only in an athletic supporter. With no tools or supplies of any kind, he promised to stay there for two solid months and then emerge "sufficiently clothed to walk the city streets." He was 43, out-of-shape, chubby. He planned to send the paper progress reports written with charcoal on birch bark. There is a photo of him, white, plump and madly naked, shaking hands with a group of journalists, woodsmen and well-wishers just before he goes in, looking as peculiar as can be.

Knowles stayed in the woods two months and came out on the Canadian side of the border wearing a bearskin shirt and deerskin leggings. He'd lost 30 pounds, he was tan and reeking, and for some reason America went wild about the man. He'd killed the bear, he said, by trapping it in a pit and clubbing it to death. He'd wrestled the deer in hand-to-hoof combat. He'd lived off berries and bugs and fish. He'd proven that a naked man could exist in the wilderness by his wits and skills.

This happened at about the time of Tarzan and Teddy Roosevelt and manly men everywhere, but the author suggests that the driving force behind the national celebration of Knowles was America's anxiety about the loss of the frontier, and who's to say no to that?

Knowles went on a national vaudeville tour afterward. He made fire onstage by rubbing two sticks together. But soon a reporter from a rival newspaper interviewed everyone he could get his hands on in the Maine wilderness and revealed that Knowles was a fraud, that he'd lived on baked beans and other canned goods and slept in a cozy cabin. Knowles hotly denied all this!

1 comment:

Lori Witzel said...

What a great find -- need to add to my pile of "must read when I get more time"! Thanks for sharing the tidbit.