- Historic Sites
WHEN JOSEPH KNOWLES STRIPPED TO THE BUFF AND SLIPPED INTO THE MAINE WOODS IN 1913, HE HOPED TO LEAD THE NATION BACK TO NATURE.
April/may 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 3
Knowles did a vaudeveille turn for a few weeks and finished his book, which sold more than three hundred thousand copies. He received at least two cheers for it from the distinguished Nation magazine, which published a long review of Alone, calling the volume “vivid and detailed,” although the reviewer did point out that Knowles’s diction was “faulty” and his conclusions “fatuous.” The journal noted that the whole adventure was viewed with skepticism by “a small part of the public.” Meanwhile the Post blocked the publication of further damaging stories in the American by getting a court injunction. The Hearst paper dropped its projected exposé, not wishing to be the defendant in a libel suit that, whatever its merits, would only give Knowles more public exposure.
Other Hearst publishing properties, however, took a surprisingly supportive position on the social value of Joe’s sojourn in the wilds, having noted its exhilarating effect upon circulation. Hearst’s Magazine editorialized: “We thank Knowles for his experiment. It is a noble piece of poetry...more comforting to our proper human pride than the erection of a Woolworth building.” The Hearst newspaper flagship on the West Coast, the San Francisco Examiner, invited Knowles to repeat his woodsy adventure in July, 1914, in the untamed wilderness of the Siskiyou Mountains in California. There, it was planned, Joe once more would flourish and astonish by living for sixty days on nuts and berries, plus whatever animal protein he could obtain with his bare hands. There were cougars in this region, which inspired the Examiner’s banner announcement: WILD BEASTS ROAR INVITATION TO JOE KNOWLES. All went according to the scenario until the man versus nature story was blown off the front pages of the Examiner and all the lesser papers of the Coast region by the outbreak of World War I in Europe. This untimely event landed the Knowles plans back among the classifieds, where they quietly expired.
In 1916 the New York Journal teamed up with Knowles in another attempt to repeat the “nature-man-of-Maine” success, this time in the Adirondacks and with a new twist—the assistance of a lovely young woman of the theater (with chaperone), who was engaged to play Jane to Joe’s Tarzan. But the mosquitoes were too much for her. Even as the Journal spread the news DAWN GIRL SLIPS NAKED INTO DARK FOREST, the young lady had second thoughts and spoiled the story by slipping back to her Riverside Drive apartment and the stultifying life of tango teas and Broadway matinees which she had but lately scorned.
“She just couldn’t take it,” was Joe Knowles’s gloomy appraisal of this aborted experiment that promised so much of an educational nature.
Joe Knowles spent his last days in the state of Washington, living in a driftwood shack with a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean. The Portland Oregonian looked him up in 1933, found a healthy, bronzed, fully clothed Knowles who was turning out enough calendar art to live on the quiet scale he preferred. He was his own man and remained so until his death on October 21, 1942. “...A man has his freedom here,” he told the Oregonian. When visitors dropped by to pay tribute to the man who had tackled nature in the raw, he spoke approvingly of the Boy Scout movement and somewhat sententiously of fresh air and “Mother Ocean,” which washed many interesting and useful articles up on his bit of beach. Knowles gave the impression of a man at peace with the world and himself. But he was reticent when tourists pressed him to talk about the return to the primitive which made him famous, except to say that he regretted not carrying out the “fine idea” of emerging from the woods leading a small, tamed bear cub on a leash of twisted willow withes.
Thus spake the dawn man. Ever the artist.