Book Shelf, Book 2 — Naked in the Woods

August 15, 2008

Naked in the Woods: Joseph Knowles and the Legacy of Frontier Fakery

By Jim Motavalli
$26.95 Da Capo Press

Reviewed by Bill Kovarik

Hermits and wild men of every shape and motivation have long been fixtures of world folklore. From John the Baptist to TV's Bear Grylls, survival in the wilderness has been a hallmark of integrity and, sometimes, intelligence.

In America, stories of mountain men who adapted to harsh conditions and matched wits with the original inhabitants formed foundation blocks of a national identity.

By the same token, a new aura of anxiety surrounded wilderness stories when the frontier closed in the early 20th century.

Perhaps that explains why so many Bostonians fixed their attention on the exploits of Joseph Knowles as he stalked off into the woods on Aug. 4, 1913, leaving behind the last vestige – and vestment – of civilization.

As part of a publicity stunt cooked up for the Boston Post, the self-taught artist and hunting guide was stark naked when he began his survival experience in a remote area of Maine.

Knowles reported the daily details of making his own tools, shelter, and even clothes. He also trapped and killed a bear with primitive tools, using his kill for both food and clothing.

Daily accounts and illustrations done in charcoal on birch bark kept the Post's readers entertained for two months. When he emerged from the woods on October 4, some 200,000 cheering Bostonians turned out to greet him.

A rival newspaper, Hearst's Boston American, was not impressed. Hearst reporters knew something about stunts, and they claimed that Knowles' bearskin had bullet holes and his primitive lean-to was really a comfortable cabin.

Knowles defended himself and soon Hearst's San Francisco Chronicle challenged him to another round of frontier survivalism, this time to be fully supervised. The feat would be promoted in newspaper columns and lecture halls from Boston to San Francisco.

The fact that Knowles was so wildly popular tells us more about popular culture in the early 20th century than it does about the innate human desire and ability to match wits with nature.

Although Knowles probably engaged in some fakery, he was also part of a long and colorful tradition that had genuine roots in the American struggle for survival on the frontier and the attempt to describe that experience in vivid and accessible terms.

Naked in the Woods is an engaging and often hilarious account of a five-star media stunt. It reveals the spirit of an age that hardly seems as confident or innocent as it is often portrayed. And it provides a deep insight into wilderness as a wellspring of the American psyche.

Bill Kovarik is a journalism professor at Radford University in Virginia.

** From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer 2008.