The Autobiography of John C. Van Dyke: A Personal Narrative of American Life, 1861-1931

The Autobiography of John C. Van Dyke: A Personal Narrative of American Life, 1861-1931

The Autobiography of John C. Van Dyke: A Personal Narrative of American Life, 1861-1931

The Autobiography of John C. Van Dyke: A Personal Narrative of American Life, 1861-1931

Excerpt

We are about to open a long-closed door. Writer, desert traveler, and art connoisseur John C. Van Dyke was the friend of such richly varied figures as Mark Twain, John Muir, Andrew Carnegie, James McNeill Whistler, and others in the galaxy of bright personalities swirling about the century's turn. Yet most immediately, the compelling aspect of Van Dyke's life is not the glitter of a career burnished by adventures on the Western frontier, genuine intellectual depth, and nearly fifty books. Rather, the Van Dyke we first see was created by a public projecting its own yearnings on a popular but unusually private person. In this, one side of Van Dyke cooperated with his enthusiastic readers, for at times he lent his own, similar yearnings to shape his image. This hardly was the familiar case of a writer fashioning a public personality to bolster his publishing career. Van Dyke himself embodied many of the longings of the romantic though troubled late Victorians, and in this regard he reflects the national psyche of the period. Thus, our job is to explore this aspect while not losing sight of the quite different private man that the writer kept hidden from his readers. A good place to begin Van Dyke's story, then, is with an ardent public perception that took on its own reality.

The image of the lone horseman turning his back on civilization and, pistol strapped to his side, riding off into the pristine unknown strikes a deep chord in Americans. It wasn't always favorable. To the first settlers of Plymouth Colony, the surrounding forest struck fear in their hearts. It was an endless "howling wilderness" they faced, an unknown place of wolves, lurking Indians, and, some early pioneers believed, prowling devils. But as the decades passed and the first toeholds of Europeans grew into cities, ideas about the wild lands changed. With James Fenimore Cooper's nineteenth-century frontier hero, Natty Bumppo, serving as early evidence, attitudes slowly shifted into a more benevolent focus. Wilderness was not only a reservoir of untapped wealth in lumber, furs, and minerals, it could fulfill people's spiritual longings. In the ferny depths of the forest, far from the grime of cities, a person could enjoy his God-given freedoms. Better than that, by living "close to nature," living with the rhythms of the earth, he could find peace and self-fulfillment. Or so it was increasingly believed . . .

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