Loneliness – Limitation – Liberation
Edited By Ina Bergmann and Stefan Hippler
This collection of essays comprises cultural analyses of practices of eremitism and reclusiveness in the USA, which are inseparably linked to the American ideals of individualism and freedom. Covering a time frame from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century, the essays study cultural products such as novels, poems, plays, songs, paintings, television shows, films, and social media, which represent the costs and benefits of deliberate withdrawal and involuntary isolation from society. Thus, this book offers valuable contributions to contemporary cultural discourses on privacy, surveillance, new technology, pathology, anti-consumerism, simplification, and environmentalism. Solitaries can be read as trailblazers for an alternative future or as symptoms of a pathological society.
The Enigmatic and the Ecological: American Late Enlightenment Hermits and the Pursuit of, in Addition to Happiness, Permanence (Kevin L. Cope)
Abstract: The ‘happiness’ following ‘the pursuit of’ included hermits. This essay examines the mix of stereotypes and values comprising the ideal of the recluse. The linking of secluded life with happy old age is viewed through the window of treatises on life extension. A coda addresses the persistence of the healthy geriatric hermit into the present.
1. High Ages and Low Populations: Assembling the Idea of the Hermit
Age and isolation are about numbers. For those aspiring after longevity, adequate aging involves amalgamating numerous years of life. For hermits and other isolated persons, numbers are small. Unless one counts the occasional visiting squirrel, the population in an anchorage seldom exceeds one. “Numbers,” an infrequently quoted biblical book, looks at the contrast of high and low numbers – at the convergence of age, durability, individuality, and loneliness – in the person of the long-living Moses. Asked to restrain rampant growth in the population of scriptural commentators, Moses exclaims, “would God that all the LORD’S people were prophets” (“Numbers” 11:29), calling, in exasperation, for everyone to become a lone voice in what promises to become a busy wilderness. Prophet, leader, sage, elder statesman, orphan, food service expert, hydrodynamics engineer, and short-term hermit (in virtue of his stay atop Mount Sinai with only occasional visits from Yahweh), Moses epitomizes the cliché linkage between robust old age, singularity, talent, exiled living conditions, and status as a sage, prophet, or saint. The connection among these attributes would seem to fall somewhat short of what Immanuel Kant would deem an analytic proposition. There is nothing inherent in age that confers wisdom, nothing inherent in wisdom that guarantees longevity, and nothing inherent in any of these that requires residing in remote grottos. The coalescing of interlocking stereotypes about wise, old, vigorous, isolated persons required many centuries and involved many metamorphoses. Some of the most interesting of which occur in the American ‘long eighteenth century.’ As American exceptionalism took root in the post-revolutionary mind, old notions about wise, old, vital solitaries enjoyed a new lease on life. The extreme yet ← 61 | 62 → admirable lifestyle of backwoods prophets suggested that something novel and unprecedented, whether an odd character in the woods or the entire American nation, might become eternal (per novus ordo seclorum) – that a small number of colonists might create a nation vastly larger than the mother country. If so remote a phenomenon as eremitic life could have a background, that background would surely include some of the grander ideals of the American Enlightenment, including the mandate, inspired by John Locke (II.xxi.51), for the pursuit of happiness, a pursuit that took a very literal form as displaced or distressed or simply disoriented persons pursued permanent if modest felicity in far-away hovels. The great public culture of the Enlightenment, after all, did not include specific quantitative goals or achievement metrics. Perhaps calm pleasure and orderly life for one loner in the outback would prove more congruent with Enlightenment goals than would the partial satisfaction of ten thousand citizens on the streets of Paris.
America’s early hermits embodied the hope for permanence and sustainability: for perpetual, harmless, and small-impact productivity. This aspiration lingers with us in the contemporary environmentalist movement and in the practices of recent recluses. This essay will look at the first days of the coordinated stereotyping of hermits: at the associating of extreme old age with remote dwellings, exclusion from human conversation, commitment to ecological stewardship, and status as visionary. The essay will also review an assortment of eighteenth-century literary discourses about health and longevity that underwrite the early American interest in hermits. It will conclude with a look at the persistence and transformation of old, eccentric, vigorous, and wise hermits in twentieth- and twenty-first-century American popular culture.
2. Inadvertent Antiquity: The Artful Ecology of Accidental Anchorites
Not every long-living person in the eighteenth century elicited admiration. Richard Graves, an English poet who prematurely billed himself as a nonagenarian and who set himself up as an advisor on life extension, mentions a certain “Father Macaire” who, “aged 108, in good health, walked upright, smoaked tobacco, drank a glass of brandy every morning, in the latter part of his life” (140). A character such as Father Macaire does many naughty but simple deeds. Hermits, by contrast, evidence complex virtue or novelty while also minimizing merit. Despite their multidirectional resourcefulness, hermits get by on very little, doing a few things very well. That very obscurity, that ability to lay down a big footprint with few resources, positions the hermit on the line of discovery for an expansionist nation preoccupied with efficiently exploring frontiers. ← 62 | 63 →
The premier hermit discovery of the revolutionary period occurred in late 1785, when Captain James Buckland and Mr. John Fielding set out from Virginia on a pedestrian journey of exploration into the uncharted western outskirts of America. In the published account of their journey, A Wonderful Discovery of a Hermit, who Lived Upwards of Two Hundred Years (1786), the narrator affirms that hermits are made for discoverers, that, like the laws of nature or the economies of an ecosystem, hermits lie in wait for finders. An undiscovered hermit, after all, does little good, either for those who would learn from his or her example or for those who would profit from publishing travel narratives. Most of the Buckland-Fielding account centers on preparation and equipment for the adventure – on the set-up for the surprise discovery. Planning to “explore the regions which belong to these United States, which are yet unknown to us” (4), Buckland and Fielding probe regions that are newly incorporated American territory and yet also mysterious vacancies. Into this mixture of the planned and the preternatural, the forensic and the foreign, they enter heavily laden, bringing along two “hearty slaves, armed with muskets,” an understanding of “Trigonometry,” and a compass (4). Buckland and Fielding wander in a purposive, guided fashion, as if making a beeline to the precise point where a discovery will occur. Their habit of partial preparation for the fully unknown extends even to provisioning, which centers less on food than on procedures – on seasonings suitable for cooking whatever might come along. Their journey mixes the natural and practical with the fantastic and visionary. En route, Buckland and Fielding “made several important discoveries of Gold and Silver mines, an account of which will be published soon” (4). Neither mineralogy nor dreams of wealth, neither material greed nor forward-looking imagination nor any other distractions, can slow their compass-guided walk of “73 days without the least appearance, or even tract of any human being” (4) into a supra-temporal world beyond both cartography and normal human endurance. The narrator repeatedly stresses the ecological abundance of a scene festooned with “trees of all kinds and sizes” and “amazing thickets of small pine, hemlocks, and ivies” populated by “wild animals of almost every kind” as if to demonstrate, epochs before the invention of the political and scientific meanings of the term, “diversity” (4–5). Working their way through this somewhat overgrown version of the garden of Eden, the two explorers reach “the summit of an high mountain … it was the most beautiful prospect imaginable: On every side as far as they could possibly see, they beheld the green groves waving by the gentle gales of wind” (5). Buckland and Fielding cross this elevated boundary between the familiar and the unexpected, descend through verdant fields for no less than two and one-half miles, and come across a narrow path leading to a cavernous dwelling and a soon-to-be-famous hermit. ← 63 | 64 →
Whether or not they attempted to find subject matter for a thirty-year bestseller, the Buckland-Fielding narrative reveals that this hermit is stage-set and ready for performance, in large measure owing to his divergence from set patterns for classic, saintly recluses. The anchorites of Catholic legend prayed, hoped, and lived on alms or miracles. The secular, American hermit that Buckland and Fielding discover has devised a survival system that combines the picturesque with the practical and the aesthetic with the ecological. The lead-up to the discovery, in which Buckland and Fielding slip over a high ridge into the visionary world of expanding America, is only one hint that their hermit is a lead player in revolutionary environmentalist theater. Either by plan or default, the hermit frames his work so as to direct attention to the systematic, ecologically correct character of his procedures while also displaying the aesthetic merits of his picturesque lifestyle. The title-page woodcut illustrates not the hermit’s life as expounded in the text, but, rather, his initial shipwreck (fig. 1). This rough illumination positions an iconic representation of normal social life, the (now wrecked) ship, in the distance. In the foreground stands a Robinson Crusoe-like figure who has salvaged survival equipment (guns, swords, knives) and who seems to be looking out of the frame toward a future destination and a new (non-)social order.1 The path to the hermit’s lair nestles, as if framed, “between two high ridges of rocks”; aligned “high trees” amplify this framing effect; painterly light arising from “the sun being in the western hemisphere” ensures dramatic illumination; the hermit’s “Cave,” an “arch which gave a small light,” suggests planned, gothic architecture rather than telluric upheaval; and the “ornamented” “outside” of the dwelling emerges from a ciaroscuro shading (Buckland and Fielding 5–8). As I have argued elsewhere, both the theory and practice of environmentalism operate within a museum mentality: through the careful selection and studied highlighting of aesthetically appealing subsets of natural systems that, in their wondrous complexity, remain beyond the powers of human science (312–15). So with the hermit’s tale, the immensity of the landscape counterpoints an artful rendering of an attractive but small, local, and solitary survival system.
From this artful systematicity arises the secular, enlightenment character of the ‘wonderful hermit.’ Old-fashioned, religious anchorites such as Julian of Norwich or Robert of Knaresborough depended on alms and the grace of god for life support. Their narrative and aesthetic interest abides in their spiritual endeavors. The modern wonderful hermit regards survival itself as a good and as a goal, derives wisdom from sheer durability, and extracts beauty from environmental stewardship. A traditional saint achieves immortality by ignoring the flesh and spurning the system that supports it; a modern hermit lives a long time and draws applause by enshrining environmental management. Living “alone in contemplation of the ← 64 | 65 → works of nature” (Buckland and Fielding 10) like some misplaced Royal Society virtuoso, the hermit situates himself in a naturally occurring, self-organizing orchard (8). Necessity and the quasi-providential direction of nature together impose an innovative diet rich in fiber: “bark, roots, acorns, and several kinds of fruit unknown to them” (8). To this diet, the hermit attributes his “long life” which otherwise he “cannot account for,” crediting the nutritional plan to “the blessing of Heaven” but also noting that his own veterinary diplomacy allows for a detente with the animal kingdom, which never “offers violence to him” (10). This tacit appropriation of supernatural providence through subtly systematic action is a mainstay of modern ecological thinking, which rejoices in the godlike immensity of nature while calling for modest, helping interventions – for human-directed sustainability programs that allegedly assist the bewilderingly sophisticated operations of nature on a local level.2 The hermit, after all, seldom takes nature at face value. Although surrounded by prey, “he chose not to eat any flesh” (9, emphasis added). Through his pluck, the hermit always ends up on the winning side of providence and always finds his way into life-support systems that improve on the normal capacities of nature. Although not a sailor and although completely at nature’s mercy when his ship founders, he and his mates somehow make the right decision to let the shift drift; going the currents one better, ‘Heaven brought me [the hermit] to the place where you found me” (10). The hermit, it turns out, is a respectable member of the middle class whose social ambitions led him into an ennobling affection for a “Nobleman’s daughter” (9). The hermit, in sum, has a record of beating the odds and of going providence one (but only one) better: of converting what appears to be circumstance into rudimentary systems for advancement of one kind of another. The modest if wonderful hermit, who has not even bequeathed his name to history, marks a turning point in the history of both culture and science. He dwells at a strange moment of both confidence and modesty when those living in an increasingly secular society begin to recognize the unexpected complexity of nature while continuing to imagine that they could ramp up its productivity – that they could create, if not personal immortality, at least an environment that would run efficiently and nearly on its own forever.
3. Physicians for Freaks: The Medical Basis of Hermit Longevity
‘Forever,’ unfortunately, was not fully operational in the wonderful hermit’s medical or social vocabulary. Shortly after the Buckland-Fielding expedition, another erudite wanderer, Dr. Samuel Brake of Boston, set out in search of the 228-year-old hermit. Dr. Brake induced a quick conclusion to the hermit’s long story by offering ← 65 | 66 → the healthy codger a swig of rum, which mortally inflamed the constitution of a loner accustomed only to simple fare. Dr. Brake’s ill-fated visit was not without its spin-off benefits. As if to illustrate the long-range improvements wrought by the hermit’s inadvertent management of nature and providence, Dr. Brake “discovered a certain Root never before known nor heard of before, which proves a remedy for all diseases” (An Account). Dr. Brake adds certain details concerning the hermit’s lifestyle, including the hermit’s habit of walking with a special gait, “in a slow and grave manner” and the increasing familiarity of the hermit with visitors (An Account). From Dr. Brake, we learn that the hermit is not quite so simple as seems, that he plays up the convergence of nature and art by writing his compositions on natural media such as “barks of trees” and “skins made into a kind of Parchment” (An Account). This para-literary activity has been aided by a small collection of books rescued from his ship. A sequel probably intended to reap extra profits from the market for the Buckland-Fielding account or perhaps to promote medicaments decocted from the newly discovered “Root,” Dr. Brake’s story amplifies the incipient ideological elements in the original discovery narrative. It focuses on the ways in which the hermit, in a naive or unconscious fashion, pushes the system of nature to higher levels of scientific import, economic productivity, and aesthetic power. Dr. Brake’s continuation of the Buckland-Fielding tale introduces a climactic component to the story and tightens the frame around this odd picture. The pre-modern notion of a divine order of nature subsides into a nature-ordering, philosophically secular individual: a hermit who, by industry and accident, has milked nature for all that it is worth.
The wonderful hermit would surely have been surprised to find his long tale coopted into a climactic advertisement for science and medicine. The hermit’s strange elegy was not, however, all that far off key in a period that regularly intoned verse lays about not only the power of science or the wonders of medicine, but about the regimens by which ordinary persons could maximize the gifts of nature by way of promoting longevity. Treatises on health with an emphasis on longevity abounded in the American book trade. A review of popular books on health published in America in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth century reveals a striking similarity between the hermit lifestyle and physicians recommendations. British medical literature abounds in quacks and mountebanks promoting assorted remedies or pushing panaceas – one thinks, for example, of Dr. Solomon and his tablets against sexually transmitted diseases or of Bishop Berkeley and his enthusiasm for tar water – but American audiences favor volumes that endorse spare, clean, uncluttered, outdoors living as a means of extending life. ← 66 | 67 →
Popular American medical treatises fall into two categories: encyclopedic volumes reviewing the history and success rate of assorted medical regimens, and verse expositions of the medical and life improvement potential of sundry lifestyles. The most comprehensive of these volumes expatiated on practices that formed the core of American hermit life. The American edition of Swiss physician Samuel Tissot’s Advice to People in General, with Regard to their Health (Avis au peuple sur sa santé, 1761), with notes and commentaries by Dr. Kirkpatrick, focused on the nervous disorders that emerged from overly cultured life; George Wallis’s The Art of Preventing Diseases, and Restoring Health, Founded on Rational Principles, and Adapted to Every Capacity (1794) lauded self-discipline and suggested that every man or woman could live according to health-inducing philosophical principles; Concise Observations on the Nature of our Common Food, so Far as it Tends to Promote or Injure Health (1787), published under the pseudonym Gentleman of the Faculty, promoted and damned the various simple or over-refined foods that today elicit similarly favorable or adverse medical judgments. Some of these tomes include details that, in their original, British context might have been but one passing recommendation but that, in the context of the nascent American enthusiasm for the simple life, come to the center of attention. For medical advisor and melancholy maven George Cheyne, the spotlight falls on wardrobe reduction and temperature hardiness. Cheyne’s An Essay on Health and Long Life (1813) advises that “[t]he fewer cloathes one uses, the hardier he will be. Flannel and great loads of cloaths by day or night, relax the fibres, and promote only sweating, instead of natural and beneficial perspiration” (188). A.F.M. Willich’s Lectures on Diet and Regimen (1800) delves into the deep history of life extension with special emphasis on lifestyle adjustment and healthful comestibles. Willich offers a taxonomy of treatments and regimens proposed by theorists and practitioners from Plutarch and Paracelsus to Böhme and Boerhaave. He provides an array of exemplary tales such as that of Cornaro the Venetian, who flourished on twelve ounce of food per day until his friends insisted on supplementary rations. In contrast to the wonderful hermit, Cornaro recovered from the overload, returned to his austere diet, and lived into his hundreds (xxii–xxiii, 94–98). In Benjamin Grosvenor’s Health: An Essay on its Nature, Value, Uncertainty, Preservation, and Best Improvement (1761), we find a similar cache of didactical anecdotes, including an account of King Louis XIV’s obsession with life extension, an anecdote which shows the centrality of longevity to eighteenth-century high culture (24–25). Far and away the most spectacular effort in this genre is Sir John Hill’s The Old Man’s Guide to Health and Longer Life (1775), a book-length account of multitudinous measures that geriatrics may take to prolong their lives. The loquacious Hill, whose six-decade lifespan seems on the ← 67 | 68 → short side for an advisor on longevity, recommends a regimen of fresh air, exercise, nourishment from the bottom end of the food chain, and remaining, after retirement, in familiar circumstances. The highly urban Hill, who spent his life writing primarily for the London market but who developed European and transatlantic followings, joins with the publishers of the wonderful hermit accounts in portraying a ridiculously detailed simple life – Hill’s cascading recommendations address everything from the choice between pineapple and cucumbers to the best hour of the day for horseback riding – that is best seen and understood from afar, in the same way that readers in Boston admired the clean lifestyle of a frontier hermit positioned at the end of a grueling seventy-three day march.
The easy confluence of medical advice, lifestyle suggestions, low-key philosophy, and wonder narrative that occurs in the hermit stories results from the expectation, among eighteenth-century audiences, that all of these are as much matters of aesthetic as of scientific or moral admiration. Looking at a hermit from far away or gazing in awe at healthy centenarians or marveling at the design of nature requires a degree of aesthetic detachment and even hypocrisy. Audiences for both hermit stories and medical treatises take an intense interest in lifestyles or regimens or treatments that they never intend to practice. A second sub-genre of longevity literature features verse appreciations of healthy long lives as seen in the long view. In these compositions, healthy life becomes ornamental in the same way that the wonderful hermit’s beard becomes a museum display (An Account). Anti-masturbation crusader John Armstrong’s The Art of Preserving Health (1745) converts medical recommendations into evocative pictures of far-away paradisial environments. Recommending “the choice of water” over corrupting beverages, Armstrong quickly moves from the specific health benefits of this most elemental fluid to a veritable landscape painting of a revitalizing (and distant) mountain stream:
The lucid stream,
O’er rocks rebounding, or for many a mile
Hurl’d down the pebbly channel, wholsome yields
And mellow draughts; except when winter thaws,
And half the mountains melt into the tide. (II: 406–19)
Another Britisher with a long-term American following, Edward Baynard, extends his own poem “Health” (1719) with a cosmological perspective on water, which he also regards as the beverage of choice:
Cease then, vain Search! Let that alone,
Hid, with all Essences unknown;
But be content that the Creator,
It works itself (as being thin)
Int’ all the Pores and parts within;
Helps all the Secrations [sic] in their Uses,
And sweetens sharp and sowre Juices. (signature C3)
The remarkably flexible Baynard moves rapidly up and down the scales of abstraction and distance, rendering water as everything from the primeval outpouring of the great creator to the solution for pH-unbalanced secretions. This rapid change of scale, a transformation so instantaneous that it at once astonishes and seems to pass unnoticed, is exactly the same technique employed in hermit narratives, in which grand topics such as longevity, panaceas, morality, and the comparative value of social and solitary life weave in and out of crazy yarns about quirky recluses with bald heads, creaky physiques, and bizarre lodgings. Formally and procedurally, there is little difference between a long-living lunatic in the woods who fancies that he has decrypted the universe and a modest, low-lying liquid that can account for everything from the early days of creation to the immediate disposal of bodily wastes.
4. Democracy and Easy Access to the Extreme: Nearby Hermits and Growing Audiences
The relation between eighteenth-century hermits and eighteenth-century health-and-longevity theorists is reciprocal. The time-absorbing regimens prescribed by medical theorists lead to unusual lifestyles that tend to isolate their increasingly fanatical, eventually unbearable practitioners. Like Daniel Defoe’s fictional castaway Robinson Crusoe, those living in isolation must do more and more in order to meet their needs and to function as full-service societies of one. Those committed to unique life-extension programs get pushed beyond the margins of society; conversely, solitaries on the margins of society find ways to make their quirky lifestyles function like the complex life-support system of civilization.
Residing at a great physical distance from populated areas is thus less crucial to the attainment of hermit status than is the somewhat paradoxical aspiration to what might be called ‘simulated totality’: to creating the impression, illusion, or possibly reality not only of self-sufficiency, but of a high degree of complexity in economic, agricultural, and cultural organization, all while lauding isolation. Civilization is an icon of immortality – for the survival of cultural legacies beyond individual lives. The simulated totality of hermits’ domestic and cultural economies expresses in condensed form the full range of amenities, whether durability or safety or variety or productivity or medical proficiency, that civilization provides in less concentrated forms. ← 69 | 70 →
Two of the most famous hermits of the post-revolutionary period, Robert Voorhis and Amos Wilson, lived in close proximity to populous communities, indeed occasionally moved their rough lodgings owing to growing crowds of visitors, advisees, and curiosity-seekers. Voorhis lived on the estate of a philanthropic planter and enjoyed tenant farming privileges on his own plot of land, all of which gives a mixed impression of both self-sufficiency and tenuous membership in society. Yet the bizarre agricultural regimen that Voorhis followed, which involved careful planting followed by premature “plucking” of produce from the earth and then frenetically flinging baby vegetables to casually calling cattle, baffles bypassers and marks Voorhis as an outsider (7–8). As is the case with the wonderful hermit, interior design, especially passively managed lighting, insinuates that the hermit’s commitment to long-term self-sufficiency is partly intended to instruct an audience:
In winter he seldom emerges from his solitary mansion, but silently and patiently waits for time to introduce the vernal Spring, and to bring about that joyful season, when once more he can move around the adjacent woodlands and meads. The rays of the sun never enter the portals of his domicil [sic], and at mid-day it assumes all the darkness of midnight. Content with his situation, and at peace with all, he quietly looks forward to the arrival of that day, when he shall “bid the waking world good night,” and find in countries unexplored, that happiness which life has denied him. (8)
Living in a setting that recalls an illustration from an emblem book or an environment from a gothic novel, Voorhis presents himself as a living lesson for an implied set of students. Born of one African and one “pure white Englishman,” Voorhis incorporates the mixture of dark and light while also savoring of the supernatural. “About 60 years old,” certainly a respectable age for a freed slave with a hard life behind him, the apparently timeless Robert’s “features” are “perfectly regular,” although his complexion has darkened over the years owing to the smoke in his cell, where light and shadow, star-measured time and unknown eternity, routinely reconcile. Voorhis manages to do precise if offbeat needlework, patching together clothes that, despite their irregular origins, parodically resemble the uniforms of his majesty’s military (27–28). Burlesque exaggeration to the point of successful imitation is Voorhis’s fundamental pedagogical strategy. His wacky farming and ranching practices underline his unexpected success at getting his living; his appearance suggests that his dangerously healthy lifestyle – his commingling of intense if bewildering farming and dietary practices with a low-stress lifestyle that verges on the dark silences of eternity – is something to which everyone might aspire.
Wilson, “the “Pennsylvania Hermit,” goes even farther than Voorhis when it comes to solitary simulation of a society from which he has excluded himself and when it comes to attainment of provisional immortality and hypothetical audience through interlocking eccentric regimens. Wilson, who withdrew from the ← 70 | 71 → world following a tragic story in which he delivered a pardon for his condemned sister only a few seconds too late, finds his way to the exact boundary between civilization and frontier: to a cave dwelling circa twelve miles from Harrisburg, neither so close to populations as Voorhis’s cell nor so miraculously remote as the wonderful hermit’s distant lodging. Wilson takes advantage of his rocky resources to set up a miniature manufacturing industry, “making millstones which were disposed of by the writer [his biographer], and the proceeds expended for such necessities as his situation required,” although “much of his time was, however, devoted to reading and writing,” especially of “the bible and other religious works” (20–21). All by his solitary self, Wilson holds together an array of contradictions, engaging through an intermediary in the industrial economy while focusing on eternity and while running a factory out in a dent in a distant rock wall. Wilson’s demise continues the theme of immortality through hard work within time but away from other people: “His exit must have been very sudden: as he was left, the evening before in tolerable health, by the writer. In a corner of his cave was found a bunch of manuscripts, among which was that of which the contents of the following pages is an exact copy” (23). Although Wilson seems to have vanished in a flash, his mixed material and spiritual production systems have continued posthumously. The means of literary production remain engaged; “the writer,” who is also Wilson’s millstone wholesaler, continues the post mortem editing and distribution of Wilson’s compositions. Wilson’s final jottings became a late-release book, The Sweets of Solitude! (1822), in which Wilson enthuses over the joys of a solitary life but takes a pragmatic approach to the extension of his lifestyle to humanity in general: “In my solitary abode, secluded from the society of mankind, what pleasures have I enjoyed in contemplating the goodness of the Almighty; and should my life be prolonged to double the number of years which I have already passed, I would prefer a secluded life to that of mingling with the inhabitants of a world producing so many temptations” (22–23). Yet “[t]o talk of abstracting ourselves from matters, laying aside body, and being resolved, as it were, into pure intellect is proud, metaphysical, unmeaning jargon; but to abstract ourselves from the prejudices and habits and pleasures and business of the world is no more than many are, though all are not capable of doing” (24). Always seeking the middle ground even from his improbable situation in a cave on the edge of the wildwood, Wilson domesticates the metaphysical dimension of anchoritic life while identifying a small subset of the general population that could benefit from “the sweets of solitude.” Wilson claims a moderate immortality through a quasi-saintly, assumption-like disappearance and through the release of long-living advice to a part of the population. Secular and yet mysterious, economic and yet isolated, healthy and yet deceased, present and yet absent, Wilson summarizes the American isolation experience ← 71 | 72 → while setting the stage for the not-so-isolated pop hermits who both delight and dismay the subcultures of our time.
5. Coda: The Modern Media-Savvy Solitary
By the twentieth century, some aspects of the anchoritic life had grown familiar, having been invisibly integrated into the continuing evolution of American expansionism and exceptionalism. A typical case of the fusion of extreme oddity with cultural centrality is Gypsy Boots, a pseudonym for Robert Bootzin (fig. 2). Beginning in the 1930s, Boots began an irregular career of highly publicized outdoor residences in haystacks, canyons, and public parks around California, especially in the media-saturated Los Angeles area. For a time, he dwelled in Tahquitz Canyon, south of Palm Springs, living off the land, preaching a natural diet, and attracting several followers or “tribesmen” (“California’s”). Like the gregarious hermits of earlier times, Boots advocated for a generically natural diet by way of extending life. He published two books, Bare Feet and Good Things to Eat (1965) and The Gypsy in Me (1993), the cumulative renown of which established him as a regular figure on the television talk show circuit and procured him occasional minor roles in Hollywood films. Taking as his slogan ‘don’t panic, think organic,’ Boots conducted regular back-to-nature tours of quasi-natural urban recreational sites such as Griffith Park and the Hollywood Hills, thereby realizing a new and somewhat unexpected version of American egalitarianism in which everyone could live an eremitic lifestyle for a short and convenient time, with easy access to automobile parking near the would-be anchorage. Boots stands out among the many Naturmenschen who populated west coast metroplexes during the mid-century (Barragan) owing to his remarkable ability to pass as a solitary despite being a media phenomenon – Boots even served as the topic of a hit pop song, “Nature Boy” (1948) by superstar singer Nat King Cole – and owing to his aggressive yet buoyant reaffirmation of the old American hope for clear correlations between diet, longevity, isolation, and rural, even forest life.
The success of Boots as a professional, celebrity hermit – as a lone figure who demolished the notion that solitary life necessarily means living alone or far away and as a cult leader who vended the image of healthy solo lifestyles without much of the substance or inconvenience attending them – arose from his skill in assimilating elements of difficult ideological positions and acting out those simplified ideas in a simultaneously comical and fanatical way that large audiences found novel, amusing, and partly convincing. Boots thus updates the slightly awkward mix of lunatic theology and pop psychology that animates the writings by and about early American hermits such as Voorhis and Wilson. ← 72 | 73 →
Updating never ends. For the last half century, the tropes composing the hermit idiom have been re-amalgamated in assorted ways, many of which stress even more fervently than Boots and his contemporaries’ low-demand American values such as ease, convenience, simplicity, and accessibility. Among the most popular of contemporary recluses is Eustace Conway, who, while a teenager, retreated into the Appalachian mountains. Unable or unwilling to hide his concealment, Conway became the topic of a slick biographical reflection by Elizabeth Gilbert, the best-selling author of Eat, Pray, Love (2006), picked up a reputation as “the last American man,” and appears as a cast member in the History Channel series Mountain Men (2012-present). Conway runs a website where hermit lovers may schedule the superstar recluse for public speaking engagements or may arrange horse-and-buggy rides through his isolated dominion. Robert Harrill, the Fort Fisher Hermit, who philosophized from a bunker on the North Carolina coast, fell short of Conway’s level of publicity owing only to living before the internet age. Harrill earned emoluments posing for pictures and ended up as the subject of the celebrated documentary film The Fort Fisher Hermit: The Life and Death of Robert E. Harrill (2004). Harrill, who began his eremitic life in his sixties, played on longevity and vitality themes at the same time that he reversed the usual process of seclusion, having descended from his former mountain habitat to take up residence in a more accessible beachside hovel. Specialist solitaries have also colonized niches of the hermit market. Leonard Knight retreated into the remote corners of the southern California desert to construct a polychromatic mountain celebrating the synonymy of god with love. Although Knight died at an old age in 2011, Salvation Mountain has persisted, has earned the patronage of a charitable foundation, attracts tourists, and supports a website. At Salvation Mountain, longevity and remoteness dramatically converge in a gargantuan monument to immortality that points up the absence of the loner who built it. Dominique LeFort retreated from a career as a clown in French circuses to settle in a small hut in remote Key West, from which he and a tribe of trained cats bicycle each day to island market squares to perform for tourists. Key to LeFort’s appeal is his apparitional quality: his appearance, seemingly from nowhere, aboard a comical cat conveyance followed by his equally precipitous disappearance. LeFort markets souvenirs that emphasize his bizarre and yet readily observable lifestyle.
The case of specialist, often comical solitaries such as LeFort reminds us that suppressed comedy always attends the hermit idiom. Secretly, if impolitely, recluses, in their eccentric attire or amidst their unconventional daily rounds, strike viewers as slightly, if sadly, funny. That humorous strain has not gone undetected in mass media appropriations of the hermit idiom. The long-running situation comedy The Beverly Hillbillies (1962–71) centers not only on one oddball, but on an entire isolated family: an ensemble of four mountain people or ‘hillbillies’ who, ← 73 | 74 → having struck it rich, move to the west coast glamor community of Beverly Hills, where they attempt, farcically, to adapt their backwoods ways to modern conditions. Socially disintegrated, asexual, and far from the ideal American nuclear family, the Clampetts – an uncle, a grandmother (‘granny’), and two indefinitely related young people (‘cousins’) – live together in a somewhat jumbled family unit. Longevity and diet are central concerns: aging Uncle Jed is charged with “shootin’ for some food” (Flatt and Scruggs) while elderly Granny follows old-time, traditional cooking traditions and dispenses herbal medicines. Accessibility of the hermit family is also key insofar as the wealthy Clampett family not only lives at the center of fashionable culture but also drives the economy of Beverly Hills. A more sober but nonetheless tacitly comical updating of the isolated, long-living, mountain family appears in the recent Discovery Channel series, Alaskan Bush People (2014-present), in which the colorful Brown family struggles to maintain its lifestyle against natural challenges and encroaching modernization. Although the series is played very seriously, as a reality-show documentary about the rigors of the cold bush, the camera work emphasizes the picturesque character of the experience, inundating viewers with image after image of the patron, a relentlessly healthy bearded old hermit, performing feats of heavy labor or ingenuity that would daunt an ordinary person of half his age. Similar observations could be made about contemporary reality shows concerned with survival, whether Survivorman (2004-present) or Dual Survival (2010-present) or Naked and Afraid (2013-present) or Fat Guys in the Woods (2014–2015) or Survivorman and Son (a recurring subseries within Survivorman) or Man vs. Wild (2006–2011). In all these series, either one or a very small number of socially disconnected persons (for example, a pair who have never met one another), many of whom have exotic or extravagant backgrounds (for example, as special operations commandos), give those audiences a sense of participation in stories of solitary or near-solitary survival. In a remarkable example of the suspension of disbelief, these series induce an optical amnesia in which the viewer forgets that the protagonists are surrounded by cameras, producers, and helpers who tag along with the surviving parties in the same way that audiences tagged along with early American hermits. Like the scribbling Wilson or Voorhis, these series invoke a pedagogical sanction, suggesting that anyone who watches can learn skills that can transform that viewer into a solo survivor. Nevertheless, the theme of the freakish and the comical persists, whether in the oddity of the participants or in the voyeuristic amusement with ordinary people stripped naked in the wilderness or in the sense of detached superiority to that poor slob who is stuck, under-dressed, in a cold stream in Slovakia (or worse). The comical diminution of otherwise heroical characters facing immense challenges reinforces the democratic dimension of the hermit phenomenon: the ← 74 | 75 → notion that even an inadequately talented normal person can become one of these laughably durable solitaries. And so it is that, two-hundred and thirty years after Buckland and Fielding’s discovery of the wonderful hermit, access to the full range of hermit experience, including the modern recasting of longevity in the form of perpetual re-running of installments in the hermit’s life, requires only a connection to a television cable and a receptivity to the kind of long-distance, remote engagement with singular, extreme experience that every candidate anchorite, in our somewhat democratic and globalized world, should understand.
1. Coby Dowdell has explored the adaptation of the Robinson Crusoe myth to early American culture (132).
2. Contemporary sustainability studies finds itself in a dilemma: describing and protecting as well as showing the human relevance of a colossal, complex, dynamic natural order in comparison to which the human component seems small, isolated, and even invasive. Gillen D’Arcy Wood has authored an article lamenting the failure of sustainability studies to embrace the voluminousness of nature and escape the incipient human presence implied by literature and the revealingly named humanities. The contemporary sustainability movement can thus be seen as an extension of the eremitic drive to minimize human presence while also achieving global or even cosmological awareness within the invincibly individual human mind.
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Fig. 1. Title-page illustration for A Wonderful Discovery of a Hermit (1786). Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.
Fig. 2. Leonard Ashmore, “Mr. [Gypsy] Boots Warms Up for his [59th] Birthday” (1970). Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.