Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Literature

"Naked in the Woods: Joseph Knowles and the Legacy of Frontier Fakery"
by Jim Motavalli (Da Capo, $26.95)

Review by Larry Cox

 

 

 



This is the strange-but-true story of Joseph Knowles, a 45-year-old part-time painter, ex-Navy man and hunting guide, who went into the woods of northwest Maine during the summer of 1913 -- alone and basically naked -- to see if he could survive for two months using only his wits. The stunt was announced with great fanfare by the Boston Post newspaper.
On Aug. 4, 1913, Knowles met with a small crowd of well-wishers near the foot of the Spencer Trail. He told them that he planned to "live off of the land" just as his ancestors had done. Although he was walking into an area teeming with bears and wildlife, the Post's description of it as a wilderness was a bit of a stretch. Even Knowles admitted that his new base near Big Spencer Lake, about 275 miles north of Boston, was surrounded by hunting and fishing camps. Nevertheless, he waved and then walked into the woods that sunny August day.
Knowles sent dispatches each week written in charcoal on birch bark, which were published in the Sunday editions of the Post. As circulation soared, Knowles quickly became a minor celebrity.
When Knowles emerged on Oct. 4, he was met by 200,000 cheering fans in Boston. Then a rival newspaper, the Hearst-owned Boston American, accused Knowles of being a fake. Reporters claimed there were bullet holes in the bearskin he wore and accused him of living in a comfortable cabin while in the woods. And although Knowles was exposed as a fraud, that was not the end of his story.
Jim Motavalli, a journalist and editor of E/The Environmental Magazine, has dusted off the incredible story of Knowles and his stunt and written a fascinating book complete with photographs. He also investigates why it is so important, even today, to our American psyche to believe that a man can survive in an untamed wilderness.
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