Earth Notes: George Wharton James, Evangelist of the Southwest

Nov 2, 2016

“Few countries in the world present so marvelous a variety of scenic features as Arizona,” wrote author George Wharton James almost a century ago. “What a wonderland of wild cactus growth, of solitude, of mystery, (and) of silence it is!” 

George Wharton James at work
Credit "In & Around the Grand Canyon"

James – a prolific writer, editor, photographer, and explorer—was one of the Southwest’s most enthusiastic promoters, especially of its natural beauty. Born in England in 1858, he came here as a young Methodist minister and fell deeply in love with the place.

He soon traded his pulpit for a typewriter, producing nearly forty books about the people and landscapes of Arizona, New Mexico, and southern California. Among them was a classic guidebook, In & Around the Grand Canyon, published in 1900.

James tirelessly traveled the lecture circuit, romanticizing the West’s virtues at expositions and chautauquas.

George Wharton James faced long-running competition for wide-eyed audiences with Charles Lummis, a popular contemporary writer who shared his idealized interpretation of the Southwest’s charms. Like Lummis, James extolled the benefits of the outdoors to anyone who would listen: “What a pitiable thing it is,” he scolded, “that our civilization can do no better for us than to make us slaves to indoor life.”

And he took to the outdoors at every chance, sharing the delights of his adopted home.