For reasons too drab to mention, we recently stumbled across this sordid 1982 tale about a self-described “mountain man” who turned murderous. We were struck not so much by the brutality of Henry Burton Merrill’s crimes, but rather by the media’s insistence on referring to him as a “hermit.” And that got us thinking, naturally, about the American tradition of eremitism, and how it has come to take on very different dimensions than back in the days of Walden Pond.
When we usually think of hermits, we think of bearded men living alone in the wilderness. And for most of America’s lifespan, that stereotype has certainly held true. But with the rise of the city came an attendant rise in a very different sort of hermit—a character more akin to the holy fools of bygone Christianity. These men—and, yes, we’re largely talking blokes here—were able to create mental isolation amidst the bustle of urban landscapes, in large part by making it very clear they refused to abide by society’s strictures.
Our favorite early example of this phenomenon comes from our blessed hometown of Los Angeles, California, where all manner of urban hermits flourished during the 1930s. Perhaps the most celebrated of these chaps was one Harry Hermann, aka “Herman the Hermit,” who is pictured above in his natural habitat: walking semi-nude down Hollywood Boulevard. Like many of his fellow ascetics, Herman came to his oddball habits late in life, to the great chagrin of his poor wife:
Harry Hermann, 79-year-old “Hermit of Hollywood,” was divorced today because he refused to wear pants.
“When we were married in 1920,” Mrs. Pearl Hermann told the court, “he wore pants just like any other men. Now he goes around nude and wants me to do the same.”
Hermann brought almost nude guests to their tin and tarpaper home in the Hollywood hills, Mrs. Hermann said.
So great was Herman’s fame that he was eventually featured in a 1938 Life spread entitled “Cuckooland,” about the weirdos who inhabited Southern California. (We recommend flipping a few pages forward to check out the tale of the massive Estes clan.)
Herman was apparently not a man of letters, so we cannot know whether his hermit-in-the-big-city routine brought him true happiness. But we do hope he appreciated the namecheck he eventually received on Deputy Dawg.