Naked in the Woods: Joseph Knowles and the Legacy of Frontier Fakery

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Joseph Knowles was a forty-five-year-old part-time painter, ex-Navy man, friend of the Sioux, and onetime hunting guide who stepped-nearly naked-into the woods to live off the land and his own devices. From 1913 to 1916, Knowles’s dispatches to the world-alternating accounts of bear clubbing and quiet contemplation, written in charcoal on pieces of birch bark-set off major newspaper wars, exploiting readers’ fears of modernization. Did Knowles really survive for months at a time in the untamed wilderness without...
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Overview


Joseph Knowles was a forty-five-year-old part-time painter, ex-Navy man, friend of the Sioux, and onetime hunting guide who stepped-nearly naked-into the woods to live off the land and his own devices. From 1913 to 1916, Knowles’s dispatches to the world-alternating accounts of bear clubbing and quiet contemplation, written in charcoal on pieces of birch bark-set off major newspaper wars, exploiting readers’ fears of modernization. Did Knowles really survive for months at a time in the untamed wilderness without any aid, and why is the answer still so vital to the American psyche? Part adventure story, part cultural investigation, Naked in the Woods reveals a whole new dimension of our natural history.
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Editorial Reviews

New York Post
You might call it the precursor to reality TV.
Associated Press
[A] thorough and readable study of Knowles.Motavalli takes us through a history of the back to nature movement, with its phonies and firm believers that extend to today's "reality" television.
Washington Post
Lengthy, luxurious discussions of Ishi, Frederick Jackson Turner, Buffalo Bill, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett and the extended family of Oscar Hammerstein.
Connecticut Post
The book shows how current media celebrities like Paris Hilton-who are famous for being famous-have nothing on Joseph Knowles, who caused a sensation in 1913 with a publicity stunt for The Boston Post.
Maine Sunday Telegram
A fascinating story of survival, showmanship. Thoroughly researched.If you like survival stories and tales of bigger-than-life people, you will enjoy Naked in the Woods. More than a fascinating story of a Maine character, it deals with the neverending lure of wilderness in the days of urban culture. A great winter read.
Publishers Weekly

From August to October 1913, 43-year-old Joseph Knowles went alone, naked and without supplies, into the Maine woods, vowing to live for two months by his own devices. The stunt, sponsored by the Boston Post, generated publicity for Knowles and increased readership for the newspaper, but later proved to be a hoax, one of several examples of nature fakery in the early 20th century that Motavalli (Forward Drive) discusses in this entertaining and evenhanded account of the life of the Nature Man. Knowles got another chance to prove himself when William Randolph Hearst backed a second naked wilderness foray, this time in California and with sanctioned observers to watch over Knowles. A third expedition would have put Knowles in the Adirondacks with a naked woman, but this fizzled when "Dawn Woman," as she was called, quit after realizing she would have to endure cold weather and kill wild animals. Motavalli sees the humor in these exploits, but also describes Knowles as a skilled woodsman with a sincere love of the outdoors that reflected the back-to-nature movement of his time. He paints a sympathetic picture of a man with a tragic flaw, showing how Knowles succumbed to media hype and tried to maintain his Nature Man image long after public interest in his wilderness experiment had subsided. Illus. (Feb.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

To place an individual in the time and place in which he or she lived so that a reader can understand both the person and the period is a smooth talent. Motavalli, editor of E/The Environmental Magazine, demonstrates this skill in describing the peripatetic life of Joseph Knowles (ca. 1869-1942) and the last 30 years of his life. Knowles is best remembered, if remembered at all, for his stunt on the eve of World War I, and repeated twice more, of disappearing into the woods for several weeks, naked, without any implements to survive. During the sojourn, he would send out pictures (he was a talented painter) and notes on birch bark. It is hard to imagine how Americans were taken with this stunt. But as Motavalli makes clear, the opening decades of the 20th century were a time when Americans were puzzled by how to remain both physically strong and survive in the natural world while at the same time coexisting with the inventions (e.g., light bulbs, electricity, cars) that were making their lives easier. Adding to this puzzlement was the loss of the Wild West as a spiritual location against which to physically test oneself. This lively biography/adventure story/cultural history is recommended for all collections and, particularly, for public libraries.
—Michael D. Cramer

Kirkus Reviews
An absorbing tale of one man's retreat into the Maine woods, padded with a healthy history of the back-to-nature movement. E, the Environmental Magazine editor Motavalli (Breaking Gridlock: Moving Toward Transportation That Works, 2001, etc.) spotlights Joseph Knowles, who in August 1913 at age 43 removed his clothing to the fanfare of well-wishers and journalists from the sponsoring Boston Post and stepped into the Maine Dead River wilderness for a solitary two-month sojourn. An artist, former hunting guide, Navy man and Maine native, Knowles left dispatches along the way, written in charcoal on birchbark parchment, detailing his experiences subsisting on native fruits and vegetables, killing deer and even a bear in a deadfall trap for meat and clothing. Emerging on Oct. 4 across the Canadian border (he had failed to secure the proper hunting permits and was being tracked by American officials), he was an instant celebrity. He published a book about his sensational adventure (Alone in the Wilderness) and toured for a few weeks in vaudeville. As Motavalli explains in this refreshing if rather meandering work, Knowles's stunt dovetailed nicely with America's growing interest in nature, as people moved from farms to factories and began to long nostalgically for the wilderness. It was also the era of yellow journalism, and in November 1913 the Boston Sunday American published an expose charging that "Nature Man" had in fact been luxuriating in a log cabin for two months with a "manager," later identified in a 1938 New Yorker piece as journalist Michael McKeogh. It hardly mattered, opines the good-natured author, who uses Knowles's stunt to digress on such topics as the establishment of thecharacter-building Boy Scouts; consciousness-raising by naturalists John Muir, Ernest Thompson Seton and John Burroughs; and the sensational life of Ishi, "the last wild Indian," whose emergence from the California woods made headlines two years before Knowles did. Tasty, light nourishment for nature buffs. Sabine Hrechdakian/Susan Golomb Agency
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786720088
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/2008
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author


Jim Motavalli, who has written four books, is the editor of E/The Environmental Magazine. He lives in Connecticut, where he teaches journalism at Fairfield University.
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