Take Henry David Thoreau and P.T. Barnum and smash them together and what do you get? Why Joe Knowles, of course. Joe Knowles. Never heard of him? Chances are good that your great grandparents did, that is, if they read newspapers during the years 1913 to 1916. In 1913, Knowles stepped into the Maine woods wearing nothing but a smile, only to emerge a month later in Quebec, clad in a homemade bearskin tunic and bursting with a hundred stories about his wilderness adventures. The stunt, repeated again a few month later in Northern California, was breathlessly reported by national newspaper chains, earned Knowles national fame, a string of lucrative public speaking engagements and silent film appearances, and a more modest later career as a writer and visual artist. The rub (there usually is one) is that some fairly convincing evidence emerged later that Knowles had faked, or at least exaggerated his exploits, spending those supposedly solitary weeks in a comfortable cabin drinking beer and hanging out with the Boston reporter who’d help him cook up the whole adventure.
Jim Motivalli’s Naked in the Woods: Joseph Knowles and the Legacy of Frontier Fakery is more than just what is likely to remain the definitive book on its now-obscure topic. Knowles is like a lightning rod for wide ranging discourse about countless facets of American culture during that pivotal moment when those big ideas (Frontier, Freedom, Self-Reliance) came unpegged from the palpable realities which had been taken for granted for nearly three centuries, and became mere iconography, the stuff of vaudeville, newspaper ink and Hollywood. Appropriately, Motivalli makes Knowles his touchstone to speak about those broader issues. After all, why have we never heard of Knowles? In the early chapters it occurred to me that his accomplishments (real or imagined) strike the modern sensibility as somewhat lame. Nowadays, there are tens of thousands of Americans who routinely pull off similar feats. 21st century America boasts no end of social clubs composed of people who do things like run triathlons through Death Valley, or climb Mount Everest. (A blind guy climbed Mount Everest for God’s sake!) But things were different in Knowles’ day. Within living memory, cities like Denver and Santa Fe had been wild west towns. But by 1913, America was in the process of softening. Teenagers were no longer chopping firewood, they were hanging out at the soda fountain. The idea of survivalism, of living like the Native Americans who had only recently been domesticated, was for the first time a novelty, a truly crazy thing to even think about doing. But it was also a fantasy. The American wilds in the nineteen-teens were already well trafficked by sportsmen and game wardens, the risks to life and limb substantially reduced. Like Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, Knowles’s exploits helped extend the illusion that the America of old even existed anymore. That Knowles himself (though reportedly a capable backwoodsman) may have faked the whole thing merely adds to the eloquence of the episode. What counts is the idea.
A naturalist (if not a naturist) himself (he edits edits E/ The Environmental Magazine), Motivalli brings to this book not only a thorough understanding of America’s complex interaction with the wilderness, but a genuine literary bent, and a scholarly knowledge of American academic and popular culture. The book is at its best during those early chapters when Knowles is at the height of his notoriety. Less interesting are the chapters devoted to the three decades or so he lived in obscurity in the Pacific Northwest, although Motivalli gamely investigates Knowles’ accomplishments during these years as well, chiefly, his paintings, including a number of public art projects. But there is significance even here. While mostly self-taught, Knowles was not without skill as a painter. His works have more in common with great Americana artists like Audubon or Gilbert Stuart, than with the naïve or folk art you might expect. The final sections, which traces Knowles’ cultural legacy. Knowles casts a long shadow today, even if the image of the man himself has long since been shrouded in fog. Motivalli’s book is like a torch brought to Knowles’ obscure part of the forest, to reveal him in all his nakedness.