Fresh off his 800-plus-page Theodore Roosevelt biography, Wilderness Warrior, historian Douglas Brinkley tackles eight decades of American conservation history in The Quiet World: Saving Alaska’s Wilderness Kingdom, 1879-1960. Comparatively svelte at 576 pages, A Quiet World is the second of what Brinkley hopes will be his “Wilderness Cycle”.
“Allan Nevins wrote eight volumes on the Civil War and Dumas Malone wrote five volumes on Thomas Jefferson. My plan is to do something similar for U.S. conservation history,” Brinkley writes in his acknowledgments.
That’s a bold promise. Both authors won Pulitzer Prizes (although Nevins’ was for his biography of Grover Cleveland in 1933 and for Hamilton Fish in 1937) and Malone also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Anyone attempting to move onto their shelf will have to deliver the goods.
Brinkley mostly does, providing an exhaustively detailed account of the evolution of public policy and conservation philosophy that swirled around the 49th state from 1879, when John Muir began his eloquent prose epistles that brought “Seward’s Folly” into the popular imagination, to 1960, when what now is known as the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was established. It’s a historical and intellectual terrain as complex and outsized as the state itself — with just as many hazards. Among them are the towering peaks of American conservation: Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold. Brinkley carves these well-known figures with the tools of a skilled biographer. More importantly, the iconoclastic environmentalists who should be more familiar — Charles Sheldon, Bob Marshall, William Temple Hornaday, Olaus and Margaret “Mardy” Murie, Lois and Herb Crisler, among others — rise in three dimensions in Brinkley’s hands, getting overdue credit for their varied roles in saving wilderness in a state that was their cause célèbre and muse.
Brinkley also unflinchingly wades into intellectual turf that might intimidate pure environmental writers, including the “nature faking” Roosevelt derided in Jack London’s work, and the cinematic fraud of early Disney documentaries, lambasted by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, whose role in conservation, Brinkley correctly notes, also is underappreciated.
Walt Disney had a keen interest in Alaskan wildlife and virtually adopted naturalists Herb and Lois Crisler, talented wildlife cinematographers. He deemed their idea of filming caribou herds too boring and persuaded them to buy two wolf pups from Eskimos and raise them. “When Herb Crisler realized that two pet wolves weren’t generating enough entertainment value, Disney’s cameramen raided a den and swiped five more pups for Lady and Trigger to raise,” Brinkley writes.
Such antics, along with selective editing that anthropomorphized animals and fictionalized their habits, summoned high disdain from Douglas, a lifelong defender of wilderness: “In my time Walt Disney did more than anyone to distort and depreciate our wildlife… Disney got the wolverine to fight the bear by starving both animals for weeks in a Los Angeles zoo.”
Yet Disney’s popular animated feature “Bambi” did “more than all of John Muir’s books combined to turn American popular culture against deer hunting,” Brinkley rightly notes.
Brinkley’s tendency toward the expansive serves him well when he looks at artist Rockwell Kent, whose prose (yes, prose) on Alaska “kicked out the doorjambs” and drew favorable comparison to Walden.
“Wandering around the mud streets of Seward, reading Goethe and Schopenhauer aloud, playing his battered flute for tips, rowing out to Bear Glacier at a speed of one knot, Kent was like an off-beat Adirondacks hermit in exile,” Brinkley writes. “Never before had such a gifted poet-philosopher contemplated Alaska’s subzero climate, long winter nights and rainy landscapes with such imaginative flair.”
Such imaginative flair, however, flashes mostly when Brinkley quotes his predecessors. While some of the author’s passages promise a keen sense of place, Brinkley’s narrative largely reposes in a world whose quiet is more academic than Alaskan.
To be enamored with character is hardly a literary sin. But it’s a choice that ultimately gives short shrift to Alaska as a place, and that saps the momentum of the narrative. Too often, Alaska disappears for long passages that are located in the great elsewhere. Biographical mode ultimately diverts the trajectory of Brinkley’s thesis. Quiet World is linear in the manner of a spread deck of cards — with overlap and repetition.
It remains to be seen, for instance, whether an entire chapter on the Beat Generation of poets was in order, even if, as Brinkley insists, they were the impetus under which “Alaska opened up to spiritual wanderers, seekers of the northern lights, tripsters, permaculturists, wildcrafters, greenhousers, seedsmen, backpackers, quartz collectors, kayakers, misfits, highway bums, seasonal workers, dropouts, malcontents, and survivalists.”
This tangent sticks out boldly when, 18 pages into his dharma wilderness excursion, Brinkley reveals the U.S. Atomic Energy Agency’s proposal to drop a nuclear bomb in Point Hope to excavate a deep-water port to facilitate large-scale extraction of Alaska’s coal and oil. The bomb never drops; the topic does, in favor of more Beat Generation literary analysis. The test explosions in the Aleutians, an environmental crime, wind up spread among chapters. That’s a confounding choice for any environmental opus.
Still, this volume is required reading for anyone even mildly interested in the antecedents to U.S. environmental policy in the 21st century — particularly as politicians such as Sarah Palin resurrect the atavistic view of the West as a natural-resource larder. With a newly emboldened Republican right in the House of Representatives, expect another rekindling of the debate over drilling for oil in ANWR. It’s worth plowing through this iconoclastic tome if only to arm yourself.
But if Brinkley’s ambitions are to shelf himself beside Nevins and Malone, he might consider their pace. Nevins took roughly 30 years to complete his opus, and Malone took 34. Brinkley promises his next volume in 2014, the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. “The Great Wilderness Generation: Stewart Udall, Rachel Carson, William O. Douglas and the Modern Environment Movement, 1961-1975” will span fewer years, but its title hints at biographical sprawl.