Few incidents in nineteenth-century Adirondack history have been more often recounted than the famous Philosophers’ Camp at Follensby Pond. The story of how Ralph Waldo Emerson and an assortment of VIPs from the Concord-Cambridge axis camped for several weeks in 1858 on the shores of a virtually untouched lake deep in the wilderness has become a familiar chestnut in the Adirondack canon.
Curiously, it has been largely ignored by scholars. Emerson is the subject of more academic studies than you can count. His first book, Nature (1836), is among the most analyzed, anthologized, and cited works in American literature and contains one of the most quoted sentences of all his monumental corpus: “In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages.” Yet a scholarly discussion of the one time in his long life that he came face to face with genuinely raw, uncultivated wilderness barely appears in the thousands of books and articles generated by his many biographers and critics.
Robert Richardson’s highly praised Emerson: The Mind on Fire (1995) does not mention Emerson’s camping trip in the Adirondacks, nor does Lawrence Buell’s equally well-received Emerson (2003). Other scholars have paid glancing notice at this event but have confused its details or missed its importance. The most thorough scholarly account remains Paul Jamieson’s “Emerson in the Adirondacks,” published in New York History over a half-century ago and largely overlooked ever since.
Until now. With A Not Too Greatly Changed Eden: The Story of the Philosophers’ Camp in the Adirondacks by James Schlett and The Last Amateur: The Life of William James Stillman by Stephen Dyson, we now can read up on just about everything there is to learn about both the Follensby Pond camping trip and the expedition’s organizer and chief chronicler, the artist and journalist William James Stillman.
In 2008, James Schlett was working the business desk for the Daily Gazette in Schenectady. He noticed that it was the 150th anniversary of the historic camping trip on Follensby Pond and proposed an article to his editor. This was soon published in the Gazette, but Schlett was inspired to dig further and discovered that the few scholars (including me) who had paid any attention to this episode had largely missed major collections of primary sources. Foremost among these was the extensive correspondence between Stillman and Charles Eliot Norton housed at Harvard University’s Houghton Library. Norton was the scion of an old Boston family, a Harvard grad and professor, and one of the premier art critics of his day. He and Stillman were close friends and corresponded throughout their lives. Schlett began prodigious research into the Norton papers and other archives and has produced a thorough, fascinating, and absolutely invaluable book on one of the key events in Adirondack history.
Focusing primarily on the Follensby Pond expedition, Schlett uses it to develop a series of linked themes. The response of Stillman, Emerson, and others to the untouched wilderness of the central Adirondacks invites an assessment of how American culture was coping with the dramatic and often traumatic move away from its rural past and into an urban, industrial future. This is both an American and an Adirondack story (neither urban nor industrial, the Adirondacks is nonetheless what it is today because the rest of New York was becoming both), and Schlett employs it well. Just how the Follensby story evolved along with the larger Adirondack narrative, concluding with the latest chapter wherein the Follensby property has been bought by the Nature Conservancy and awaits its eventual purchase by the state and inclusion in the Forest Preserve, constitutes another significant theme.
In both of these books, we learn a lot about William James Stillman, a fascinating figure from the nineteenth century. There is, inevitably, considerable overlap between them. Both are thorough and engaging, although Dyson’s biography of Stillman has been poorly edited. In just the first few pages, for example, one finds dropped commas, faulty predication and parallelism, and vague antecedents for pronouns. This is an unnecessary distraction from an otherwise stellar accomplishment, well researched and crisply presented.
Born in Schenectady in 1828 to an old New England family, Stillman experienced a difficult childhood. His father was unsuccessful in business and authoritarian at home. Throughout his life, Stillman never overcame a sense of insecurity when he considered the difference between his own impoverished roots and the relative wealth and comfort of the artists and intellectuals into whose circles he so desired to be welcomed. His many talents and accomplishments did in fact earn him a place among the elite, but he was always aware that he had scraped his way up from near the bottom.
Against the wishes of his father, who wanted his son to learn a trade, Stillman matriculated at Union College, from which he graduated in 1848. He knew that he wanted to establish himself as an artist, and he also knew that he would have to get training from an established and recognized master. He moved to New York City, which was then challenging the cultural hegemony of Philadelphia and Boston, and worked his way into the circle around Thomas Cole, at that time one of the dominant figures in American art. Cole died soon thereafter, and Stillman took up with one of Cole’s most promising followers, Frederic Church, who himself would tower over most of his contemporaries for the next few decades. Thus began what was an important (but not the only) part of Stillman’s professional life: painter and aesthetic theorist.
Among Stillman’s diverse and many accomplishments was founding The Crayon, in 1855. From then until the onset of the Civil War, The Crayon published essays by America’s leading critics and artists. With Stillman as editor and a primary contributor, it promoted the avant-garde and arbitrated lengthy discussions on aesthetics and the role of the arts in American culture.
It was during the 1850s, partly because his duties with The Crayon were stressful, that Stillman first visited the Adirondacks, encouraged to seek subjects for his paintings there by Sanford Gifford (whose A Twilight in the Adirondacks, 1864, is one of the finest canvases owned by the Adirondack Museum). In 1854, he explored around Upper Saranac Lake, and the following year he returned for a lengthy trek that included forays as far west as Tupper Lake and Long Lake. He was deeply moved by the spiritual potential of long stays in the wilderness and reflected on these in sensitive essays in The Crayon. He also took up the then-nascent techniques of photography and recorded what may be the first photographic images ever produced in the Adirondacks.
All this led to the Philosophers’ Camp. In 1858, Stillman assembled Emerson, the noted Swiss scientist Louis Agassiz, and others of his artist and writer acquaintances and took them, along with a handful of Saranac Lake guides, deep into the Adirondacks. In Schlett’s book, this is the pivotal event: everything that leads up to or flows from the 1858 camping trip is discussed—thoroughly and appreciatively. In Dyson’s, understandably, the Follensby expedition is given due attention, but it is but one of many incidents in the interesting and varied life of William Stillman.
Although Stillman and the others hoped to return to the Adirondacks every summer and although they even purchased land around Ampersand Lake to be the headquarters of what they hoped would be an annual meeting of their Adirondack club, the Civil War intervened, and this gathering was never repeated. Stillman himself returned to Follensby in 1884 and was horrified by how the site had been abused by loggers and irresponsible campers and scarred by fire. In the meantime, he had vastly expanded his professional life. He continued his work as a journalist and photographer and traveled extensively around the Mediterranean, where he was United States consul in Rome, among another things. A genuine polymath, Stillman also participated in and wrote about some of the earliest archaeological digs in Greece.
In 1914, the core of the Follensby tract, having been owned by a succession of logging companies, was acquired by John Barbour, of New Jersey, who build a resort there. By midcentury his family had a parcel around Follensby of some fourteen thousand acres, supporting a large lodge and numerous outbuildings. In 1952, the whole estate was purchased by John S. McCormick of Vermont for use as a family retreat; it was also selectively logged.
For decades, Adirondack environmentalists had their eyes on Follensby, and in 2008, after years of uncertainty over what would happen to this iconic Adirondack tract, it was purchased by the Adirondack chapter of the Nature Conservancy. The state of New York has declared that it wishes to acquire Follensby for addition to the Forest Preserve.
When Ralph Waldo Emerson composed a long blank-verse poem about his 1858 visit to Follensby (his only published account of what that trip meant to him), he noted, as had Stillman and many others before him, the special power of the Adirondack wilderness to inspire our spiritual core:
To each apart, lifting her lovely shows
To spiritual lessons pointed home.
With these two fine books, we now have a complete account of what happened at Follensby and what it all meant to sensitive minds like those of Stillman and Emerson. What remains is for this truly significant site to be added to the Forest Preserve.
Illustration above: William James Stillman painted The Philosophers’ Camp in the Adirondacks in 1858. Courtesy of Concord Free Public Library.
This story originally appeared in the Adirondack Explorer, a nonprofit newsmagazine devoted to the protection and enjoyment of the Adirondack Park. Get a full print or digital subscription here.