Joseph Wood Krutch (1893-1970)



Biographical Sketch

Joseph Wood Krutch with Bobcat at Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Joseph Wood Krutch was one of America's most distinguished literary naturalists. Irwin Edman once remarked, "Krutch is a sound naturalist in the philosophical rather than the merely botanical and biological sense." He has been equally well known as a teacher, drama critic, biographer, editor, journalist, and public speaker. His 1954 book, The Measure of Man received the National Book Award for non-fiction. Originally pessimistic about the human condition, evidenced by the 1929 publication of The Modern Temper, Krutch eventually regained optimism by discovering Nature and accepting a Pantheist faith, what he called "faith in wildness."

It is a shame Krutch is not more widely read today, for his insightful essays about man and nature remain a delight.

Dr. Krutch's last name rhymes with "pooch," not "crutch." I know this because of a rare television documentary he appeared in back in the 60s.

Joseph Wood Krutch was born in Knoxville, Tennessee. He took his B.A. degree at the University of Tennessee, and his M.A. and Ph.D degrees from Columbia University. He began teaching at Columbia University in 1917. From 1924 until 1950 Dr. Krutch was the drama critic of the Nation. In 1943 he became the Brander Matthews Professor of Dramatic Literature at Columbia. On doctor's orders, in 1950 he had to leave New York and New England for the dry desert air of the Southwest. In the beauty of the Sonoran Desert, he found something worth living for.

In addition to his masterpieces of natural history (described below), notably The Voice of the Desert and The Desert Year,(which won the John Burroughs Medal in 1954), Krutch wrote literary biographies of Henry David Thoreau, Samuel Johnson, and Edgar Allen Poe, and on other literary topics, some twenty-one books in all. His book Voice of the Desert was the topic for a television special and film.

Dr. Krutch lived his retirement years in Tucson, Arizona, and was a co-founder of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum.

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Recommended Books by Joseph Wood Krutch

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Books and Articles About Joseph Wood Krutch

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Favorite Quotes by Joseph Wood Krutch

"It is not a sentimental, but a grimly literal fact that unless we share this terrestrial globe with creatures other than ourselves, we shall not be able to live on it for long."

* * *

"We need some contact with the things we sprang from. We need nature at least as a part of the context of our lives. Without cities we cannot be civilized. Without nature, without wilderness even, we are compelled to renounce an important part of our heritage."

* * *

"We have invented exercise, recreation, pleasure, amusement,and the rest. But recreation, pleasure, amusement, fun and all the rest are poor substitutes for joy; and joy, I am convinced, has its roots in something from which civilization tends to cut us off. Some awareness of the world outside of man must exist if one is to experience the happiness and solace which some of us find in an awareness of nature and in our love for her manifestations."

* * *

"If we do not permit the earth to produce beauty and joy, it will in the end not produce food either."

* * *

"Civilized man has been more ruthlessly wasteful and grasping in his attitude toward the natural world than has served even his most material best interests. Possibly - as some hope - a mere enlightened selfishness will save it in time. Even if we should learn just in the nick of time not to destroy what is necessary for our own preservation, the mere determination to survive is not sufficient to save very much of the variety and beauty of the natural world. They can e preserved only if man feels the necessity of sharing the earth with at least some of his fellow creatures to be a privilege rather han an irritation. And he is not likely to feel that without something more than intellectual curiosity - that something more you may call love, fellow-feeling, or reverence for life. Without reverence or love the increasing awareness of what the science of ecology teaches us can come to be no more than a shrewder exploitation of what it would be better to admire, to enjoy, and to share in."

* * *

"The wisest, the most enlightened, the most remotely long-seeing exploitation of resources is not enough, for the simple reason that the whole concept of exploitation is so false and so limited that in the end it will defeat itself, and the earth will have been plundered, no matter how scientifically and farseeingly the plundering has been done."

* * *

"What is commonly called conservation will not work in the long run because it is not really conservation at all but rather, disguised by its elaborate scheming, only a more knowledgeable variation of the old idea of a world for man's use only. That idea is unrealizable. But how can man be persuaded to cherish any other ideal unless he can learn to take some interest and some delight in the beauty and variety of the world for its own sake, unless he can see a value in a flower blooming or an animal at play, unless he can see some use in things not useful?"

* * *

"If nature herself has exhibited a tendency, if she seems to 'want' anything,it is not merely to survive. She has tended to realize more and more completely the potentialities of protoplasm, and these include much that has no demonstrable 'survival value.' Evolution itself has spread before us the story of a striving toward 'the higher,' not merely toward that which enables an organism to survive."

* * *

"Man needs a context for his life larger than himself; he needs it so desperately that all modern despairs go back to the fact that he has rejected the only context which the loss of his traditional gods has left accessible. If there is any "somehow good," it must reside in nature herself."

* * *

"Beauty and joy are natural things. They are older than man, and they have their source in the natural part of him. Art becomes sterile and the joy of life withers when they become unnatural. If modern urban life is becoming more comfortable, more orderly, more sanitary, and more socially conscious than it ever was before - but if at the same time it is also becoming less beautiful (as it seems to me) and less joyous (as it seems to nearly everyone) - then the deepest reason for that may be its increasing forgetfulness of nature. She is often noneo fht egood things which the city is, but she is almost always, nevertheless, somehow beautiful and somehow joyous.

Joy is the one thing of which indisputably the healthy animal, and even the healthy plant, gives an example. And we need them to remind us that beauty and joy can come of their own accord when we let them. The geranium on the tenement window and the orchid in the florist's shp, the poodle on the leash and the goldfish in the bowl, are better than nothing. In the consciousness of the city-dweller, they ought to play a part no less essential than that of the sleed chrome chair and the reproductions of Braque and Miro."

* * *

"I happen to be one of those, and we are not a few, to whom the acute awareness of a natural phenomenon, especially of a phenomenon of the living world, is the thing most likely to open the door to that joy we cannot analyze. I have experienced it sometimes when a rabbit appeared suddenly from a bush to dash away to the safety which he values so much, or when, at night, a rustle in the leaves reminds me how many busy lives surround my own. It has also become almost as vividly when I suddenly saw a flower opening or a stem pushing out of the ground.

But what is the content of the experience? What is it that at such moments I seem to realize? Of what is my happiness compounded?

First of all, perhaps, there is the vivid assurance that these things, that the universe itself, really do exist, that life is not a dream; second, that the reality is pervasive and it seems, unconquerable. The future of mankind is dubious. Perhaps the future of the whole earth is only somewhat less dubious. But one knows that all does not depend upon man, that possibly, even, it does not depend upon this earth. Should man disappear, rabbits may well still run and flowers may still open. If this globe itself should perish, then it seems not unreasonable to supposes that what inspires the stem and the flower may exist somewhere else. And I, it seems, am at least part of all this.

God looked upon the world and found that it was good. How great is the happiness of being able, even for a moment, to agree with Him."

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