The Maine Woods and Moral Values in Lew Dietz’ Jeff White Books
David K. Vaughan
Lew Dietz’ Jeff White books describe adventures in the outdoors with accuracy and realistic detail. They also happen to be uniquely about life in Maine, in their characters’ attitudes as well as in their outdoor activities. The five volumes of the Jeff White books, published from 1949 through 1954, capture the essence of the Maine outdoors experience through such activities as hunting, trapping, lumbering, and fighting forest fires. The adult characters involved in the series reveal habits of thought and speech distinctly similar to more colorful Maine natives: set ways of thinking, distrust of people “from away,” and a specialized code of behavior linked to their relationship with the outdoors. This last characteristic, the special “code” of Dietz’ people, gives the Jeff White books a distinctive quality.
This is not to say that there are not other reasons for the popularity of the Jeff White books; they are exceptionally well‑written, certainly in comparison with comparable juvenile series books and even with quality adult adventure stories. This characteristic is the direct result of Dietz’ long career as a professional writer, as well as many hours spent traversing the Maine woods. Dietz’ dialogues are true to the Maine experience and his well‑crafted plots result from years of experience as a writer of mystery and adventure stories. As a matter of fact, Dietz abandoned the corporate publishing life of New York in favor of a full‑time existence in Maine, primarily because he preferred the opportunities to spend some time in the outdoors.
Lew Dietz was born in Pittsburgh on May 22, 1907. He attended school in Westfield, New Jersey, and majored in journalism at New York University. Even though he was raised near New York, he learned to trap in the countryside west of Westfield, at that time an unpopulated area. After graduation, he worked in the advertising department of Crowell Publishing; he also managed to live in Paris for a year and spent some time in the West Indies. He first visited the Boothbay area of Maine in 1931 and moved to Maine permanently in 1932. During World War II he worked in a shipyard in Camden, Maine, where he established his residence.
Like most professional writers, he read widely when he was young. Dietz told me that he read the Tom Swift books and was an avid reader of American Boy magazine in the 1920s. He was also drawn to the stories of James Fenimore Cooper and Joseph Altsheler. Altsheler especially was a lasting influence. Later in life, he was pleased to discover that another author of stories he had read in his youth, Gilbert Patten, was a neighbor in Camden.
Dietz began his writing career as a writer of short stories, publishing in the Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, and American. He eventually specialized in mystery stories. The short story market collapsed rapidly in the late forties, just as he was in the midst of a mystery novel for American magazine. To occupy his creative energies, he helped to found Down East magazine, and wrote a history of the Camden area. He eventually became a regular columnist for Field & Stream magazine. In addition, he began work on the first of his Jeff White books.
Dietz credits the origin of the Jeff White series to the suggestions made by Angus Cameron, an editor for Little, Brown in Boston, the firm that published the Jeff White books. Cameron had apparently seen a publishing opportunity in the area of juvenile books and thought that Dietz’ special combination of literary experience and outdoor know‑how would provide the key to commercial success. Certainly the appearance of the first volume, Jeff White, Young Woodsman, merited the approval of the New York Times reviewer, who judged it to be “a good story, unusually well told” (NYT, 12 Nov 49). Later, after Cameron moved to Random House, Dietz’ editor was Helen Jones. The five volumes in the series and their dates of publication are:
Jeff White, Young Woodsman (1949)
Jeff White, Young Trapper (1951)
Jeff White, Young Guide (1951)
Jeff White, Young Lumberjack (1952)
Jeff White, Forest Fire Fighter (1954)
Dietz has indicated that his motivation for writing the series was to foster an appreciation for the conservation of natural resources; in a 1967 interview, he said that
“I started the series partly to ease my conscience. It was an excellent excuse for me to be in the woods,‑‑where I was spending much of my time anyway. Then again, I thought it might do a little good toward getting boys started right in the woods. It seems to me that the schools have failed in teaching conservation to that age‑level at which it can be taught. As I look back on my own boyhood, I know that this is the kind of book I would have enjoyed. The basic theme is conservation of our natural resources. ” (Margaret A. Whalen, “Lew Dietz: A Profile,” North County Libraries, July‑August, 1967, p. 119)
But if conservation is the pedagogic theme of the Jeff White books, the literary theme is the definition and the demonstration of the code of the Maine woodsman. In a code system similar to the Hemingway code hero, Jeff White displays the characteristics of the woods‑wise individual, whose woods wisdom comes partly through inherited personal characteristics and partly through the development of appropriate responses to the physically and mentally challenging experiences in the outdoors environment.
In Dietz’ perspective, life in the Maine woods is a kind of purifying experience, in which the purifying operations result from personal intuitive understanding of nature and the physical challenge of surviving in the outdoor environment. And although the test of the woodsman could probably occur in any decently isolated area, the Maine woods seem to be essential to Dietz’ formula because they offer the special combination of geographical diversity, remoteness, weather extremes, and variety of outdoor occupations. Dietz’ sense of the positive moral influence of the woods is akin to Thoreau’s‑‑that one should live in the woods to live economically, to discover the essentials of life.
The Deer River Country, the scene of much of the action in the Jeff White books, is immediately identified, in the foreword to the first volume, as both a version of the Maine mountains and an area invested with special moral qualities:
“So let us say then that the Deer River Country does exist. And it will continue to survive so long as its people remember its past and cherish its future. . . . The love for his state runs deep and strong in the Maine man and, meeting him here, I know you will feel, as I do, that the future of this Happy Hunting Ground is secure in his hands.” (vii)
Dietz confirmed what seems clear in a reading of the books, that the locale of most of the activity is the Rangeley Lakes area, and that the town called Boulder is modeled on the town of Rangeley, Maine.
Jeff White, Young Woodsman
At the opening of the first book of the series, Jeff White, seventeen years old, is living in an unnamed big city with his Aunt Milly, actually a distant cousin of his father. Jeff’s father, Luke White, had been a game warden in the Maine woods until he mysteriously disappeared when Jeff was very young. Even though he has been living in the city, Jeff possesses some innate woods sense, partly the result of his Indian blood; Jeff is one‑quarter Indian. When Jeff reads an article in an outdoors magazine which features pictures of his deceased father’s friend, Will Hibbs, also a Maine game warden, Jeff decides to return to his home country.
After riding the bus and hitchhiking, he reaches the home of Will Hibbs and the other members of the Hibbs household: Mrs. Hibbs (“Ma”); “Gramp,” Mrs. Hibbs’ aging father, and “Pappy” Newlin, the easy‑going hired hand, who is always involved in an argument with “Gramps.” These characters are present in all of the books in the series, as is Jeff’s zany but loyal friend, Skipper Doggett, a ubiquitous assistant of indeterminate origins. When Jeff White eventually arrives at the Hibbs household around dinnertime, he reveals his straightforward nature and his genuine Maine origins in his first words: “I‑I’m Jeff White. I’m Luke White’s boy. I like beans fine” (40).
In the course of the book Jeff learns how to stalk game in the woods and is taught how to hunt deer by Gramps. Jeff also encounters “Red” Taggard, an unscrupulous hunter who flagrantly disregards the game laws, and who, Jeff eventually learns, was responsible for his father’s death. Although Jeff is briefly imprisoned by Taggard, Jeff receives revenge upon his father’s killer when Red Taggard is killed by a bear he had mistreated when it was a cub.
The story moves rapidly, and all events in the plot are linked integrally. But Dietz is only partially interested in telling a suspenseful story; he is equally concerned to offer his concept of the ethic of the woods. It is no accident that Jeff is involved with the game warden service, for in addition to providing a logical means of action for interesting adventures, Dietz’ choice of the game wardens as the central agency in the book also reinforces his emphasis upon conservation. Early in the book, even before Jeff reaches the Hibbs household, Dietz establishes the thematic significance of the activities of the game wardens:
“It was almost too late before man realized that the wilderness was no longer an enemy but a friend, something to preserve rather than combat. It was almost the eleventh hour before man realized it was time to stop fighting nature and, instead, to co‑operate with her, in order to save what still remained.”
It was soon clear that if the fish and wildlife were to be saved for other generations, there must be rules. So rules were made; rules of the game that were made laws, with the hope of deterring those few who cared nothing for rules. It was to guard this wilderness heritage, to aid and advise the sportsman, and then to see that the conservation laws were obeyed, that the Inland Fish and Game Wardens came upon the scene. (14)
People who disregard the laws of the woods are portrayed as profoundly unethical; these people suffer from what Jeff’s father termed “pioneer hangover”: “They still had the feeling that, having won the wilderness from the Indians, no one had the right to tell them what they could do with it” (43).
Dietz fills his Jeff White stories with a wealth of woods lore detail; in this case, he includes discussions of the bad effects of uncontrolled dogs running deer (42‑3), of the typical game warden’s routine (50‑3), and the preferred procedures for tracking deer (159‑62). But beyond establishing the fundamental importance and necessity of the fish and game laws, Dietz describes the characteristics of the truly woods‑conscious individual, who adapts to and learns from the woods environment. The development of Jeff White in the story illustrates these characteristics at work.
Gramps notices Jeff’s natural qualities immediately: “Look at that walk! He walks from the hips, puttin’ his feet down all to once, heel ‘n toe” (47). Later, Jeff studies the woods around him:
“He learned quickly, about the woods, without realizing he was learning. The forest, that had at first been strange and forbidding, soon became understandable and friendly. Sounds that had made his heart beat faster‑‑the drumming of a partridge, a deer blowing, a loon crying on the lake at dusk‑‑were now familiar to his ears. He felt at home.” (67)
Jeff White soon is dubbed with the nickname “Tracker” (63), and he demonstrates his woods wisdom in the course of his efforts to track down Red Taggard. The rightness of events in the woods is illustrated in the conclusion of the story, when the renegade bear attacks Red Taggard just at the moment when he is about to bring about the “accidental” death of Jeff White. Jeff, who senses the presence of the bear, escapes its initial charge and is able to destroy it when it turns on him after killing Taggard. Thus the two outlaws in the forest, the renegade bear and Red Taggard, wear out their violence on each other, while Jeff, alert to the lessons of the woods, survives.
The point of the story is made clear in Dietz’ concluding chapter:
“The Deer River Country is a country of hunters. Born to the rifle as the cowhand is to the saddle, the Deer River ridge runner carries his passion through the years of his life to the very brink of the grave. Hunting is his life and his code is a hunter’s code. Not always does his code square in every respect with the legal code, but more often than not it does. A code it is, nonetheless, and the transgressor is an outcast and shunned like the plague.” (205)
Because Red Taggard hunted illegally, to make money, and not to provide food or sustenance, he was an outcast. Jeff White, on the other hand, killed his game only for food or out of necessity.
Jeff White, Young Trapper
In this book, the second of the series, Jeff White learns to trap game and helps to solve the mystery of the murder of Willy Whiskers, a strange but harmless woodsman. Again, Dietz provides a wealth of information about woods lore, including canoeing procedures (45‑50), tumplines (51‑2), traps (67‑8), and the habits of beavers (113) and fishers (131). But the morality of life in the woods is evident, also; when Jeff White encounters Willy Whiskers and his dog Hunter early in the book, Willy voices his premonition that some unhealthy element has tainted the quality of life in the woods:
“Nothing goes unnoticed here: the death of a sparrow, the fall of a leaf; nothing goes unmarked, my young friend. I have come to tell you that evil is here. Evil has come to this innocent wilderness. . . . I have seen the shadow of evil. I have seen the track of an unwelcome stranger. Something is lurking in the shadows. I know. Hunter knows. Hunter smells evil. Evil must not enter into God’s wilderness. Be on guard.” (61‑2)
The evil element that disturbs Willy Whiskers is actually his brother, Blackie Barron, who eventually murders Willy as part of his scheme to take his brother’s place and escape with money he had stolen from a lumbering company. But Jeff White unravels the mystery, using, appropriately, the tracking skills he has developed as a result of his interest in trapping. Blackie Barron is similar to Red Taggard of the first volume in that he also has mistreated animals.
Jeff White, Young Guide
In the third volume of the series, Jeff White, Young Guide, the focus is on Jeff’s activities as a guide for the hunting camp he and the Hibbs family have established with the reward money he received from the capture of Blackie Barron in the previous book. In this episode, Jeff White becomes a hunting guide and helps to solve the mystery associated with an attempt to smuggle aliens across the Canadian border into the United States. The villain of the plot, Hartung, is foiled by the mechanics of his own under‑handed operation, just as villains in the previous stories have been.
Again, Dietz provides a substantial amount of woods lore in the story, most of which has to do with orientation and survival in the woods, including such topics as: necessary camping items (54‑5), direction finding (56), tracking deer (57‑8), and dressing a deer (144). The episodes illustrating the code of the woods include the importance of learning woods lore at an early age (93), and the crucial requirement to help a friend in need; as Jeff decides to help a friend wrongfully suspected of committing a murder, Jeff considers that “He had no wish to take sides against [his family], against the sheriff, against the law. But there was a higher law that compelled him” (91). Hartung, the smuggling mastermind, is out of tune with nature, and he becomes disoriented in the wilderness, and a legendary white deer, Old Bill, provides the means by which Jeff locates Hartung’s rifle, the murder weapon.
Jeff White, Young Lumberjack
In the fourth book in the series, Jeff White participates in one of the last river drives of the Maine lumbering industry. The scene of the action is the Allagash River area, north of the Rangeley Lakes area, and is based on Dietz’ travels through that area prior to the termination of river drives as a means of moving lumber from the forests to the coastal areas. Jeff White and Skipper Doggett sign on with August Baltimann’s lumber company, which is short of help because a number of men associated with the firm have been found dead with links of lumber chain in their pockets. Jeff White discovers that Baltimann himself has been killing the men in his attempt to obtain revenge on the men who testified against him during a World War I trial when he was falsely accused of being a German sympathizer.
Again, Dietz provides much factual information about the lumber industry (50‑3), and again, there is evidence of Dietz’ establishment of the moral value of the woods in opposition to the occasionally unethical behavior of humans. In this episode, however, Dietz’ scope broadens to include other levels of society. Although Baltimann is apparently justified because he was unfairly prosecuted, he is portrayed as a man out of sympathy with the woods, for he is in effect harvesting trees for personal profit. Baltimann’s death occurs in connection with the machinery of the lumbering process before he can murder his final victim, Pierce Weatherby, a young game warden, and Jeff White’s friend. Dietz quietly suggests that lumbering may not be a morally acceptable woods‑related activity, and the legendary figure he introduces in the story, Big Mose, is a Paul Bunyan‑like character who is reported as having plucked the feathers from a bird, turned bald, and became mean‑spirited. The link to World War I establishes a balance between international strife and the ongoing struggle between use and abuse of the natural environment.
Jeff White, Forest Fire Fighter
In the last of the books in the series, Jeff White and his friend Skipper Doggett are caught up in a search for a lost hiker, the discovery of a cache of hidden gold, and an effort to fight a forest fire. Some unscrupulous guides and hunters have found out that an old prospector has died and left a cryptic message to his granddaughter which seems to provide directions to the location of his gold. In the meantime, one of the men is found murdered, and a search is begun for his companion, who is presumed to have become lost in the wilds. The missing man, however, has intentionally disappeared because he is about to discover the secret of the missing gold. In the meantime, a raging forest fire has sprung up, accidentally started by Michaud (“the Spider”), another strange resident of the woods. In the process of searching for the supposed missing man, fighting the forest fire, and helping the young granddaughter of the prospector solve the mystery, Jeff White demonstrates more of the characteristics of the ideal code of ethics of the woods, as he selflessly places his own life in danger to save the life of the girl.
The greatest danger to the woods environment is the forest fire itself; it is portrayed in the book as a destroyer of forests, animals, and humans, and its outbreak is directly linked to the two lawbreakers in the book. Again, Dietz provides a wealth of information about the outdoors life, including the make‑up of the Maine Forest Districts (140‑1), fire fighting procedures (110, 143‑5), and forest service seaplane operating techniques (24‑5, 50‑2).
The series in perspective
The forests and woodlands in the Jeff White series are identified as an idyllic, paradisical setting. Repeatedly they are described as “innocent” and beautiful. Dietz refers to them as “Happy Hunting Grounds,” a term that refers to their literal potential, their Indian past, and Nature’s heaven. When the woods are invaded by criminals and law‑breakers, the events are described as “evil,” and only through some kind of purgative event (the deaths of the agents involved, storms, floods, fires) are the woods cleansed of the evil effects. The woods also provide the appropriate environment for the moral and physical education of youths who desire to learn the lessons the woods have to offer; a number of characters who appear in the books illustrate this process at work: Skipper Doggett (Young Trapper), Tom Blunt (Young Guide), Pierce Weatherby (Young Lumberjack), Sid Lauck (Young Forest Fire Fighter), and of course Jeff White himself. All of these youths demonstrate physical and moral courage and individual growth.
In addition to the woods environment, Dietz includes other aspects of life in the woods that add to the building of moral character. The events of all five books, for instance, occur during the colder seasons of the year; three of the stories take place in the autumn (Woodsman, Guide, and Fire Fighter), one in the winter (Trapper), and one in the spring (Lumberjack). Interestingly, no part of any of the stories occurs in the summer, which is the time of the year that most people think of as the nicest part of the year; the closest the action ever approaches to summer is late August. Dietz seems to be suggesting that the woods are in their purest, most essential condition in the winter weather. Certainly Jeff White clearly prefers the colder seasons, and Dietz portrays outdoor activities in the colder seasons accurately and sympathetically.
Although throughout the series Jeff White constantly indicates his desire to become a game warden, the series ends before he has a chance to fulfill his wish. We know that he will become as good a game warden as his legendary father, Luke White, but he was not destined to achieve that goal in the Jeff White series. However, Dietz did not let Jeff White’s wish go unfulfilled. In a later book, Wilderness River, not one of the Jeff White series, Jeff White reappears as an important figure in the story. White is by this time (the book appeared in 1961) a full‑fledged game warden, and he provides sage counsel to a young man who is the central figure in the story. There was, in fact, a real‑life model for Jeff White; his general appearance and behavior were based on a real individual, Alexis Knight, a young acquaintance of Dietz. Knight attended the University of Maine specializing in wildlife biology. Dietz’ debt to Knight is acknowledged in the dedication to Wilderness River: “For Alexis Knight, who was‑‑and still is‑‑the true‑life Jeff White.”
Dietz’ affection for the Maine outdoors was made clear to his more adult readers in his best‑selling non‑fiction book, The Allegash, in which the unique qualities of the Maine woods and of the people who live in them are vividly described. The Allegash is the only one of his books still in print, having been reprinted frequently by Thorndike Press, current holder of reprint rights. The Jeff White books had also been reprinted by Thorndike Press, but are no longer available, Thorndyke Press having decided in 1979 to cease republication of the series. Copies of the original Little Brown issues are difficult but not impossible to find. Fortunately, the quality of the original publications is high, so that these books are generally in good shape. But there is no question that connoisseurs of high‑quality juvenile adventure series books will be searching for Lew Dietz’ books for many years to come.