On August 4, 1913, self-taught artist Joseph Knowles went into the woods of Maine—alone and basically naked—with the intent to survive for two months using only his wits and materials he found in the forest. As a publicity stunt for the Boston Post, he wanted to prove a modern man could “live off the land” as his ancestors had done. He proclaimed it would be a period of total solitude and silence, with no human contact. He sent dispatches back to the world written in charcoal on birch bark, which the Post published in the Sunday paper, detailing his daily activities and illustrated with his own vivid sketches of the animals around him.
He was successful in his two-month endeavor—and the Post was successful in their publicity efforts—so much so that when Knowles emerged on October 4, he was met by 200,000 cheering fans in Boston. But a rival newspaper, the Hearst-owned Boston American, soon accused Knowles of being a fake, claiming there were bullet holes in his bearskin and a comfortable cabin where he’d stayed in the woods. Knowles defended himself vigorously and within months the Hearst papers offered him the chance to do it again—this time on the Oregon-California border for the San Francisco Examiner. Throughout, the newspaper competition was fierce, with editors playing up Knowles’ exploits in the woods with fervor comparable to today’s reality TV shows.
Contact: Jim Motavalli (203) 854-5559, X107
Naked in the Woods: Joseph Knowles and the Legacy of Frontier Fakery by Jim Motavalli is the untold story of Knowles—artist, part-time newspaper illustrator, ex-Navy man, and onetime hunting guide—whose adventures sparked a major newspaper war and exposed the public’s fear of modernization. Motavalli illustrates how the 1910s were a time of anxiety as the frontier closed and people moved from rural areas to cities. Knowles’ trips into the woods were perfectly timed to demonstrate that civilized people could still connect with the primitive. People nowadays are feeling more overworked and alienated from the natural world than ever, and the success of Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book Into the Wild (now a major motion picture) illustrates how that popular message of Knowles’ time still echoes in our society today.
In addition to Knowles’ story, Naked in the Woods also examines the history of frontier fakery—from Davy Crockett to Buffalo Bill—showing that Knowles, who probably faked a least some of his exploits, was part of a long and colorful tradition. More recently, Bear Grylls—of the popular “Man vs. Wild” and “Born Survivor” shows, in which he goes to the world’s worst “hellholes” to survive on his wits alone—has joined the list. The recent accusations against him—that he stays in hotel rooms during filming and his stunts are set up by his production crew—prove that the debate still rages. In Naked in the Woods, Motavalli investigates why, even today, it’s so important to our American psyche to believe that a man can survive in untamed wilderness.
Jim Motavalli is a journalist and editor of E/The Environmental Magazine. His articles have appeared in the New York Times, Salon, Boston Globe, and The Nation. The author of four books, he lives in Connecticut, where he hosts a public affairs and music show on WPKN-FM in Bridgeport and occasionally teaches journalism at Fairfield University.
Advance Praise for Naked in the Woods:
“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…This lively biography/adventure story/cultural history is recommended.”—Library Journal
“An absorbing tale of one man’s retreat into the Maine woods, padded with a healthy history of the back-to-nature movement…Refreshing…The good-natured author…uses Knowles’s stunt to digress on such topics as the establishment of the character-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.”
“[An] entertaining and evenhanded account of the life of the Nature Man…[Motavalli] 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.”—Publishers Weekly
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
never-ending lure of wilderness in the days of urban culture. A great
winter read.” —Lloyd Ferriss, Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram
“Real or not, what Joe Knowles did fascinated early 20th century Americans. Understanding why is Jim Motavalli's mission. He performs it well as both a storyteller/detective and a cultural historian. No one interested in changing American ideas about nature and the human place in it should miss this engaging read.”
—Dr. Roderick Frazier Nash, Professor Emeritus, University of California Santa Barbara, and author of Wilderness and the American Mind
“Joe Knowles had a peculiar practice of disappearing naked into the woods for weeks on end, and a remarkable effect on Americans of his time, who were thrilled by his purported adventures as a reborn primitive. At long last, we can begin to understand both Joe Knowles and the nation he transfixed, thanks to Jim Motavalli’s considerable skills in tracking down the truth about this bizarre and telling series of events.”
—Louis S. Warren, W. Turrentine Jackson Professor of Western History, University of California, Davis, and author of Buffalo Bill’s America: William Cody and the Wild West Show
“Jim Motavalli has the wit to recognize that although Joseph Knowles was a fraud, his lying was the beginning and not the end of his story. What began as a newspaper publicity stunt not only led Knowles to some very odd places but opened a door on American desires and insecurities.”
—Richard White, Margaret Byrne Professor of American History, Stanford University, and author of It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own: A History of the American West