The First Reality Star

by Zoe Pollock

Alone in the Wilderness

In 1913, Joe Knowles decided to return to the wild. He lived to tell the tale:

There were an estimated 200,000 people on hand to greet the world’s most unkempt celebrity, Joe Knowles, who was arriving from Portland on October 9, 1913. …  Joe Knowles emerged from the train, wearing a crude bearskin robe and grimy bearskin trousers. It wasn’t a costume, exactly—Knowles had established himself as the Nature Man. Two months earlier, he had stepped into the woods of Maine wearing nothing but a white cotton jockstrap, to live sans tools and without any human contact. His aim? To answer questions gnawing at a society that was modernizing at a dizzying rate, endowed suddenly with the motor car, the elevator, and the telephone. Could modern man, in all his softness, ever regain the hardihood of his primitive forebears? Could he still rub two sticks together to make fire? Could he spear fish in secluded lakes and kill game with his bare hands? Knowles had just returned from the woods, and his answer to each of these questions was a triumphant yes. In time, he would parlay his Nature Man fame into a five-month run on the vaudeville circuit, where he would earn a reported $1,200 a week billed as a “Master of Woodcraft.” He would publish a memoir, Alone in the Wilderness, that would sell some 30,000 copies. He would even have his moment in Hollywood, playing the lead in a spine-tingling 1914 nature drama also called Alone in the Wilderness.

Too bad it was a hoax:

He wasn’t gutting fish and weaving bark shoes, as the Post’s dispatches suggested. Rather, he was lounging about in a log cabin at the foot of Spencer Lake and also occasionally entertaining a lady friend at a nearby cabin.

(Image: Knowles emerges from the wilderness.)

In Defense Of Expensive Weddings

by Zoe Pollock

Even though he didn’t have one himself, Noah Berlatsky believes there may be some merit to a $27,000 wedding, currently the average cost in America:

In his book Debt: The First 5000 Years, for example, David Graeber notes that “for most people in the world…the most significant life expenses were weddings and funerals.” It’s not like we’re the first civilization on the planet that has ever gotten it into its heads that marriage is a big deal, nor the first people to commemorate it, in one way or another, with a large outlay. Major life events are major life events. What are you saving for, if not for them?

Along those lines, Eugene Genovese points out in Roll, Jordan, Roll, that there is something more than a little indecent in the eagerness with which middle-class folks have, throughout history, chastised the poor for paying too much for funerals. Genovese argues that “respect for the dead signifies respect for the living—respect for the continuity of the human community and recognition of each man’s place within it.” Similarly, it seems like wedding expenses—whether totaling $1,000 or $27,000—aren’t extravagant waste but a way of showing respect for the community, and of the place of love within it.

Ann Friedman proposes other life events that deserve a big bash.

Why Can’t The IRS Do Your Taxes?

by Zoe Pollock

For most Americans, it could:

Imagine filing your income taxes in five minutes — and for free. You’d open up a pre-filled return, see what the government thinks you owe, make any needed changes and be done. The miserable annual IRS shuffle, gone. It’s already a reality in Denmark, Sweden and Spain. The government-prepared return would estimate your taxes using information your employer and bank already sent it. Advocates say tens of millions of taxpayers could use such a system each year, saving them a collective $2 billion and 225 million hours in prep costs and time, according to one estimate.

But the TurboTax lobby is strong: 

[Maker of the tax software] Intuit has spent about $11.5 million on federal lobbying in the past five years — more than Apple or Amazon. Although the lobbying spans a range of issues, Intuit’s disclosures pointedly note that the company “opposes IRS government tax preparation.” … Roughly 25 million Americans used TurboTax last year, and a recent GAO analysis said the software accounted for more than half of individual returns filed electronically. TurboTax products and services made up 35 percent of Intuit’s $4.2 billion in total revenues last year.

Paul Waldman adds:

For many people, this wouldn’t work. Let’s say you have a lot of investment income, which varies from year to year. Or you’re a freelancer, and your income comes from multiple sources and your expenses also vary. But many people just have one source of income (their job) and a stable set of deductions, and this kind of thing would work perfectly well, saving them the $40 or so it would cost for Turbo Tax, or the even greater expense of going to a tax preparer.