The Legacy of American Transcendentalism in Contemporary Literature: From Thoreau to Krakauer
IN THIS ARTICLE
American Transcendentalism (1836-1860), despite having an amorphous and transient lifespan, holds strong importance in American history: religious, philosophical, and literary. Not only did this movement approach societal and spiritual life with new and radical perceptions concerning a variety of matters, but the tenets it preached still strike a certain chord within all who study them. Leaders of this compelling movement, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller, who are all prominent names in American literary history, called for a “transcendence” from a mediocre existence. Transcendentalism rooted from and sprouted diverse explanations of religion and philosophy including Unitarianism, Puritanism, and Idealism. However, in spite of the pivotal role politics, religion and philosophy played in the formation of American Transcendentalist thought, those are not the themes explored here. The following paper examines how 19th century American Transcendentalist doctrines continue to blossom from contemporary literature, contrary to the idea that American Transcendentalist texts dissipated when their explicitly transcendental authors passed away, and the movement itself subsided. In doing so, I analyze two modern novels (fiction and nonfiction) in light of a quintessential transcendentalist text.
American Transcendentalism is a multifaceted 19th century movement whose byproducts ranged from fuelling creative minds to reshape societal norms, to becoming an indispensable name in any literature, religion, or philosophy class. Transcendentalism and Romanticism were two emphasized literary movements that took place in America during roughly the same years (1830-1860). However, they are dissimilar in various ways. In depicting how the literary transcendentalism of the 1800s yet transpires in modern literature, this paper will take into account three literary works, each of a different genre but thematically parallel, and among which only one is considered a classic transcendentalist work. The contemporary literary texts are Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller (2015), and Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (1996). The commending literary text to which I will compare and contrast these to is Thoreau’s Walden (1854), a book containing a collection of essays written by a prominent Transcendentalist figure after devoting two years of his life animating transcendentalist life values at the Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. There, Thoreau lived as a minimalist hermit in a cabin he himself built, spending his days pondering about the splendor that is nature, limiting his social interactions to focus merely on his cognitive and intuitive powers which surfaced in his times of solitude. To quote Thoreau in chapter six of Walden: “I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society. (218)” Thoreau resorted to two years of such living to provide a living example of a genuine transcendental experience. Despite there being a majority of critics who condemn Thoreau’s stay at Walden pond as not exactly transcendental and scold him for his alleged hypocritical actions which will be discussed in the fifth chapter of this paper, Walden's status as a powerful transcendental text which has stood the test of time is undeniable. Its distinct chapters include the author's perceptions on society, solitude, companionship, religion, politics, economy, and most emphatically, nature.In Walden, Thoreau tells stories about his life in first person, almost in a stream-of-consciousness manner of narration. Therefore, its genre is commonly postulated as an autobiography or a memoir. My choice in selecting Our Endless Numbered Days and Into the Wild as the illustrative pieces of modernized transcendentalism rests on a plethora of factors. The fact that they both belong to diverse genres, for instance, constitutes one important component. Our Endless Numbered Days shares the autobiographical aspect of Walden, but the former is a fictional autobiography. Into the Wild shares the nonfiction aspect of Walden, but its author employs the elements of both new journalism and biography genres in the narration of the life story of his protagonist. Selecting contemporary books from diverse genres depicts how the literary facade of transcendentalism evolved to not only being represented in nonfiction and autobiographical writings that narrate the author’s experiments with a transcendentalist living, but also in a variety of literary manifestations, including those of Fuller and Krakauer. I singled out the latter two modern works because I recalled how reading them gave me a sense of déjà vu. Their plots encompassed events that felt strangely familiar. As my eyes were maneuvering over their words, my mind could not stop associating their semantic and syntactic structure to that of Walden, and in the bigger picture, the transcendentalist doctrines.
The three literary works that will be tackled in the following pages root from diverse backgrounds, and have been choreographed to fulfill multiple purposes. Thoreau wrote Walden 1846 as documentation of the lifestyle he adopted while spending two years living a minimalist life, tête-à-tête with nature. A century and a half later, Krakauer wrote Into the Wild to document his investigation on the tragic demise of a young man who was deeply influenced by the transcendentalist thought. Our Endless Numbered Days is Fuller’s very first novel, and whoever gets tangled up in its pages can detect the immortal influence of the transcendentalist movement on Fuller’s writing.
The analytical chapters of this paper, chapters three through five, are structured in a manner that firstly introduces the reader to the modern texts which might be unfamiliar to them. After chapter three briefly discusses a few themes common to both Our Endless Numbered Days and Into the Wild for the purpose of finding common ground between the two, chapter four gradually brings in the governing classic transcendentalist text, Walden. Through discussing the diverse styles of writing employed in all three works, chapter four compares the semantic and syntactic elements which surface in the various manifestations of transcendentalism in literature, mainly contemporary literature. Unlike the rigid rules which accompanied the Victorian age in literature, for instance, transcendentalism, being a movement which treasures freedom and individuality, did not embody a certain writing etiquette. Chapter four aids in highlighting this aspect of 19th century literary movement. Naturally following this section, chapter five concludes the paper by discussing the mutual themes between all three works under discussion, however in an approach that differs from the thematic discussion in chapter three. Chapter five not only mentions the underlying meaning of the three books, but also lists how they all stress on thematic concepts which coincide with and constitute 19th century transcendentalist doctrines.
This paper will examine two examples of modern literature that embrace the tenets of American transcendentalism in light of a paramount transcendentalist text to refute the common belief that transcendentalism was an effete, short-lived literary movement whose teachings enjoyed an ephemeral life.
American author and political theorist Patrick J Deneen notes in his essay “Transcendentalism, Ancient and Modern: Brownson versus Emerson,” that“transcendentalism seeks at once to emphasize our individual and collective divinity, and to perceive the divine that transcends all particularity. The divine is everywhere, in everyone.” (9) In the pursuit of the perception of the “divine” Deenen mentions, 19th century transcendentalists call upon the therapeutic powers of solitude, nature and non-conformity as catalysts in their quest to self-discovery.
Despite venturing in diverse journeys in quest of a common purpose, Henry David Thoreau, Christopher McCandless, and James Hillcoat share quintessential transcendentalist doctrines. Thoreau, being one of the founding fathers of 19th century American transcendentalism, paved the way for the modernized likes of him, such as Christopher and James, in religiously idolizing and attempting to adopt the transcendentalist manner of living. The correspondence of Christopher’s mindset and condition to that of Thoreau is more critically discerned and analyzed than that of the tacitly transcendentalist character of James Hillcoat, possibly because James’ character was developed in a fiction novel written only four years ago which, unlike the nonfiction Into the Wild, has not been made into an award-winning movie. Nevertheless, even within the minimal number of critiques Our Endless Numbered Days received, the influence of Thoreau’s Walden and his transcendentalist beliefs is implicitly observed in the character of James Hillcoat and the overall plot of the story. Similarly, among the copious amount of academic papers, reviews, critiques, dissertations and blogs which have analytically examined Into the Wild, links have been made between Christopher McCandless and Thoreau himself. Many have even called Christopher a modern transcendentalist, especially since he carried a paperback of transcendentalist books with him during his quest, and had highlighted passages which spoke to his soul. As many experts and critics have discerned, the presence of the transcendental atmosphere and influence is apparent in both Into the Wild and Our Endless Numbered Days, despite in varying degrees.
Into the Wild
Christopher McCandless’ one-way adventure into his own demise is still debated by scholars and investigative journalists. Some condemn his death as being plotted, while others claim it was accidental. The tragic non-fiction tale of the young audacious soul continues to spark the intrigue of all readers who come to know his story. Numerous articles, reviews, and research papers aim to analyze the reasoning, or the lack thereof, behind Christopher McCandless’ venture. Many, however, undoubtedly associate Christopher’s life choices with his love for transcendentalist philosophies. The San Francisco Chronicle described Into the Wild as “compelling, tragic, and hard to put down,” and the Los Angeles Times Book Review said it was “engrossing,” and that “with a telling eye for detail, Krakauer has captured the sad saga of a stubborn, idealistic young man.” The list of people entranced by Christopher’ story and Krakauer’s reviving of it is endless, and the amounts of adjectives thrown at Christopher range from “ignorant narcissist” to “natural hero.”
Scholar and scientist Peter Goggin discusses the similarity of the Christopher McCandless mindset with that of Thoreau in his book Rhetorics, Literacies and Narratives of Sustainability. He states that Christopher’s aspiration of living a sustainable life could not be followed through because “he approached his adventure without sufficient respect for the land. (175)” Goggin mentions how Christopher did not have time for ruminations or contemplations about nature and existence because his time in the wilderness was exhausted with worries about food. Similarly, academic author and research scholar Joseph M Kramp, in a research project entitled “Negative Tendency in the Nature Religions of American Youth,” notes how Christopher McCandless was inspired by transcendentalists in his love for less government and his difficulty with dealing with any kind of authority. In his 1996 article “Adventures of Alexander Supertramp,” New York Times writer Thomas McNamee records his thoughts on how the story behind the Into the Wild plot becomes painfully moving as Jon Krakauer picks through the adventures and despairs of the protagonist. According to this New York Times writer, the reader of Into the Wild never reaches an understanding of Christopher’s spiritual thirst. However, he/she feel familiarized with its very impalpability.
McNamee believes there is only one weakness in Krakauer’s attempt to understand Christopher: an inadequate consideration of mental illness. Hilary Krutt, in her online article titled “A Polarizing, Unforgettable Journey into the Alaskan Wild,” maintains that Christopher had shrewd knowledge about the wild. She familiarizes with the principles of solitude, modesty, and truth which were the flesh and bones of Christopher’s unforgettable voyage. The Observer’s Peter Beaumont, in a 2014 article, proclaims that the closest equivalent to Into the Wild is Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, which is an unsurprising observation since Christopher himself idolized Thoreau, and carried a copy of Walden and Civil Disobedience with him on his journey. One of the many people who reprimand both the protagonist and the author of Into the Wild is Craig Medred, who writes for Anchorage Daily News. In his 2016 article “The Beatification of Chris McCandless: From Thieving Poacher into Saint,” Medred harshly accuses Christopher of being a romanticized, selfish poacher and Krakauer of being a man whose sole interest in life is selling his books. Medred also poses a sarcastic rhetorical question: “Isn't it about time for a painful and objective public consideration of the real Christopher, given that he has now been dead long enough that no one really needs to play nice about his behaviors preceding his death?”
Our Endless Numbered Days
Our Endless Numbered Days is Claire Fuller’s debut novel, and the publicity and positive feedback it received is commendable. The Chicago Tribune describes the book as impossible to put down. Library Journal calls it a “standout debut,” and The Stylist Magazine describes it as "compulsive, charming, sinister...could well become a classic." The number of accolades directed at this novel are too numerous to fit in a literature review.
However, unlike Into the Wild and Walden, Fuller’s debut, having been published four years ago, is yet only critiqued by numerous renowned newspapers and online journals and not researchers and scholars. In fact, this paper may be the first in offering an academic, in-depth analysis of Our Endless Numbered Days and everything it envelops. The Guardian’s Jonathan Gibbs, in his 2015 article “Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller review – a Post-Apocalyptic Debut with a Twist” claims that the book is a bedfellow of Thoreau’s Walden, considering they both advocate a self-sustainable escape to nature. Another online book critic is The Irish Times’ Sarah Gilmartin who, in a 2015 article, reviews the debut. She describes the book, with its dense imagery and post-apocalyptic setting, as helping the reader reconnect with nature. She also praises Fuller for being a talented writer whose style is lyrical and cadenced, and whose eye for eccentric details completes the oddity of her story. Gilmartin compliments the book for being “admirably restrained in its depiction of horror, letting the reader fill in the blanks.” Similarly, the Chicago Tribune’s Amy Gentry, in her 2015 book review of Our Endless Numbered Days, says Fuller “bends language as easily as willow twigs, and weaves a hypnotic intensity of detail into her narrative that gives every lie the feel of truth.” According to Gentry:
Among the limited amount of scholastic criticism Our Endless Numbered Days received, associations made with Walden and Into the Wild are observed.
Thematic Overview of Into the Wild and Our Endless Numbered Days
This section briefly discusses some of the common themes in the two novels, interpreting the way each theme is handled in each book.
The Allure of Wilderness
Into the Wild
The enticing nature of the American wild enraptures both the protagonist and the author of this non-fiction book. For Christopher, the great Alaskan wilderness seems the perfect place to begin his journey of self-discovery away from the philosophies of modern life which he strongly opposed, and from the presence of his father whose principles and mindset are everything he despises. However, his journey into nature does not exactly aid in his self-exploration, for instead of spending his time digging through the corners of his mind, he exhausts his brain cells constantly thinking of and attempting to find food. His journal which is later found in Bus 142 by his body contains mostly lists of names of herbs and animals, as well as systematic observations of his environment. As Christopher steps away from his old life, he adopts the name “Alexander Supertramp” as though he is to become a whole new, off-grid human being, completely off the radar of society and the government. In fact, in a letter Christopher writes to Ron Franz, a man who picks him up when hitchhiking and grows fond of him, Christopher says:
The author of Into the Wild also devotes two chapters to autobiographical anecdotes of his own venturesome youth, namely his near-death experience climbing the Devil’s Thumb Mountain at the age of twenty-three, a year younger than Christopher was when he set foot in the Alaskan bush. Krakauer adds his own story to explain the reason for investigating Christopher McCandless’ death- he finds pieces of his wilderness-seeking, high-risk self in Christopher.
Our Endless Numbered Days
James has been prepping for the end of the world his entire married life. His group of survivalist North London Retreaters have all theorized that the ultimate finality of life-as-they-know-it is imminent, and preparation for it is pivotal. However, James’ kidnapping of his daughter into the German wilderness is not an Armageddon survival tactic, but rather, a means of escape from an unfaithful marriage that is bound to break. Surviving in the wild is all James knows and obsesses about. He transforms the backyard of their London house into a camping site where he and Peggy hunt rodents and rabbits and grill them as a preparation for life in the wild. As a stay-at-home husband whose wife is rarely around, James’ detectable sense of inferiority as the man of the house who does not contribute even minimally to the family’s income is projected in the mania he has for preparing for the end of the world. It is only through that very mania that James feels masculine and tough as he plans how he would rescue his family when the finale approached, since Ute has already taken up all the space as the father figure of the house. After all, in 1985 (the year the plot first takes place), unemployed husbands, unable to provide for and secure their families, were still considered failures.
Therefore, in James’ mind, the mere idea of being able to protect his wife and daughter fuels his fixation on the survivalist life, which, ironically, his wife refuses to be part of. The Die Hutte cabin is the go-to destination for the North London survivalists whenever the need to escape the Armageddon surfaces. Thus, when Ute confronts James with news of her affair with his survivalist friend Oliver, James’ perception of himself as the protector of the Hillcoat family gets shattered, since his wife has betrayed him for his close friend. When James becomes aware of the infidelity, life as he knows it is wrecked. He packs his and Peggy’s bags, and heads off to the great unknown, where he believes he will find all the answers.
Forgiveness and Punishment
Into the Wild
Upon deciding to go on a solitary journey to explore his identity, Christopher gathers the ideas and realities he wants to leave behind including materialism, societal obligations, and abusive parents who hide a significant truth from him. Christopher’s quest to escape from his old life is driven primarily by his inability to forgive his father for having kept a huge secret from him and his sister Carine. When Christopher discovers that he and Carine were born when his father had another family, he packs his bags and disappears to Alaska instead of confronting the issue at stake, as if to punish his parents for their lies. His temporary escape, however, turns out to be a permanent one. The attempt of torturing his parents by completely disappearing from their sights ended in his permanent disappearance from the world.
Our Endless Numbered Days
James cannot adapt to the news of Ute’s affair with Oliver Hannington. He cannot do the usual, “common” drill of kicking her out of the house, since it is her property. As somebody who devotes his lifetime to the study of escape and survival, he avoids his marital problems instead of facing them. James’ inability to forgive his wife for her infidelity leads him to punish her by depriving her of her family: young Peggy and himself. As James himself states in a letter to Ute after leaving London: “I think it’s better for everyone if I go now. I’m taking Peggy with me- you can keep the other one. That’s fair, don’t you think?” (Fuller, 249)
Into the Wild
One of the most prominent themes of this non-fiction is that of self-sustainability. After all, Christopher’s escape into the wilderness is to live a life fully void of societal and familial duties and expectations where the only thing he relies on is his ability to use the natural resources around him. However, Christopher’s ambition of sustaining himself drains him of the energy to perform the most basic of tasks because of his constant search for edible food. The pages of his journal mostly contain entries enlisting names of herbs, plants, and animals he finds and/or ingests. He writes of nothing but food, especially since he tries to live completely off the land before even bothering to master the crucial skills of doing so. According to Krakauer, Christopher is sufficiently prepared to last for about three months, but Christopher overestimates his own strength. When he first enters the bush, the only man-made products that would aid in his sustainability are ten pounds of rice, a book about wild plants, and a used gun. He predicts he will develop a symbiotic relationship with Mother Nature and will not need any other material. He even donates all his trust fund money to an NGO, and burns whatever money he still has before he begins his journey into the wild to free himself of the burden of possessions.
Our Endless Numbered Days
Being a survivalist, James Hillcoat is consumed by his obsession with self-sustainability. He spends years acquiring the necessary skills to survive in the wilderness alone, with no machinery or industrial equipment. Before the escape to Die Hutte, James lures Peggy into skipping school and staying home to kill raccoons and rabbits with him as practice for a survivalist life. He teaches her how to start a fire, how to distinguish edible plants from the inedible ones, and how to live a life dependent only on survivalist knowledge. However, when the two bring those skills to life in Die Hutte and not just their backyard, James’ distraction with building a soundless piano for Peggy instead of growing and storing wood for the winter proves his inadequacy in practicing self-sustainability, since he prioritizes building the piano over gathering needed food for himself and his daughter, almost leading to their starvation.. If James is truly a survivalist who has mastered the knowledge of self-sustainability, he would have prioritized the “staying alive in the wild outdoors” aspect of survivalism. When James and Peggy recently reach Die Hutte, their nourishment comes from a vegetable garden and animals they hunt. As described in Chapter 16: “My father created a vegetable garden in front of the cabin, carrying a bucketful of the rich forest soil and digging it into the earth. As soon as the ground was warm enough, we planted the seeds and the seed potatoes, in neat rows. (163)” James thinks he had a self-sustainable life in the palm of his hands until the hardships of living isolated in nature kick in.
Into the Wild
Christopher is raised in an upper-class environment. However, he rejects his family’s ability to provide him a life of comfort and luxury. He idolizes the Henry David Thoreau and Leo Tolstoy mindset that dismissed materialism. Christopher’s socially conscious nature enables him to blame materialism for economic discrimination and poverty. Christopher does not favor material belongings, he feels possessions practically impede a life-on-the-move and distract him from his journey to spiritual enlightenment. Christopher denounces the evil nature of money and possessions by abandoning all he owns before heading off into the Alaskan bush. He initiates the quest for a raw, transcendent experience with donating the remainder of his college fund, $24k, to a charity, abandoning his Datsun in the Mojave Desert, and burning the 123$ he had carried with him. These gestures explicitly declare his refusal to be enslaved by a capitalistic society. As Krakauer describes in chapter four: “In a gesture that would have done both Thoreau and Tolstoy proud, Christopher arranged all his paper currency in a pile on the sand.” Among the various graffiti inscriptions on the bus, there was one painted by Christopher that said: “TWO YEARS HE WALKS THE EARTH. NO PHONE, NO POOL, NO PETS, NO CIGARETTES. ULTIMATE FREEDOM. AN EXTREMIST. AN AESTHETIC VOYAGER WHOSE HOME IS THE ROAD…” (Krakauer, 179) This statement clearly indicates Christopher’s satisfaction of surviving for two years without the modern materialistic desires.
Our Endless Numbered Days
James, unlike the survivalist Christopher, does not fully give up his material possessions before entering the wilderness. In fact, he and Peggy bring cans of food, toothpaste, and other necessary kits to the cabin. However, as James embraces life in Die Hutte, he begins letting go of all the traditional concepts of society. He adopts a free-spirited outlook on materials, attempting to make a homemade version of everything he and Peggy wish to have, such as a piano, a comb, even Christmas gifts. According to Peggy, James is fond of saying “If you own too many possessions sooner or later they start owning you.” (Fuller, 177). Another one of James’ idiosyncrasies is his aspiration to not even possess a concept of time. He believes that “dates only make us aware of how numbered our days are, how much closer to death we are for each one we cross off.” Therefore, he decides “to live by the sun and the seasons.” (Fuller, 103)
Style of Writing in Both Books in Light of Walden
Thoreau’s Walden, also known as Life in the Woods, is a collection of autobiographical essays he wrote during his biennium stay in a cabin by the Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. He began writing of his adventure as a response to the townsmen who were curious about his manner of living, and then developed the essays to fit under diverse thematic categories (eighteen chapters). The narrator being Thoreau himself, all stories are told from the first person perspective, which gives the reader the impression of being inside Thoreau’s head. However, Walden is not a typical autobiography. Despite it being an autobiographical journal, Walden encompasses not only stories about Thoreau and his everyday life, but also his ruminations on philosophical, societal and political issues, mainly through social satire and philosophical citations from ancient cultures. Thoreau also discusses poetry, and makes eccentric observations about the natural world around him.
From the very first page, Thoreau explains, “In most books, the I or first person is omitted; in this it will be retained.” He reassures his readers of the credibility of his self-reflective theories by saying: “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well. (8)” Thoreau stocks his memoir with dense figurative language, mostly metaphor and personification, using the natural world surrounding him as muse. His use of inquisitive sentences awakens the curiosity of the reader, and documents the mysteries that perplexed him during his solitary stay. Thoreau’s language is raw, smooth, and powerful. His observations and reflections reveal how a transcendental mindset awakens the natural human curiosity and intensifies the connection between man and nature. Thoreau’s writing style, though poetic, swerves into detailed, naturalistic descriptions whenever necessary, such as when he enlists the genus and species of the wild life he encounters at the Walden Pond. Thoreau combines a poetic writing style with precise, scientific descriptions to give his readers a clear understanding of his experience with life in nature.
In contrast to the nonfiction of Walden, Our Endless Numbered Days is a work of bildungsroman (coming-of-age) fiction. Written in the past tense using first-person narration, the story is told in retrospective narrative by the protagonist herself. The plot is divided into two time sequences: one when Peggy has freshly returned to civilization after living nine years off the grid, and another when Peggy is recreating the events she remembers from her life in Die Hutte, when her nickname was Punzel (as in Rapunzel). The twenty-eight chapters of the novel embrace both time sequences separately, and not one chapter includes the fusion of both. The opening chapter, and others that follow, reveal 17-year-old Peggy’s life after her recent return to London in the November of 1985, when she discovers she has a younger stepbrother, Oscar, who was born a few months after her and James’ disappearance. Another set of chapters include vivid descriptions of her memories living isolated in the wild, completely dependent on the guidance of a father who is gradually descending into insanity. The two set of chapters are presented in a detached manner, and Fuller goes back and forth with their application in the novel.
The chapters in which Peggy narrates the challenges she faced after returning to society are introduced with the subheading “London, November 1985” in order to resuscitate the reader’s alertness with the progress of the plot, and not intensify any state of confusion the mindbender events of the story might have already caused. In recounting the tales of life in the wild, Fuller administers a language full of graphic descriptions of the natural environment and an accurate portrayal of the hardships of surviving in the wild, a quality she and Thoreau have in common. However, Fuller’s masterful usage of the adequate words and imagery create an elevating atmosphere which, at the same time, feels claustrophobic. Her language can give the reader a breath of fresh air and then steal it back within one sentence. To exemplify: “The forest smelled earthy; moist, like the cemetery.” (Fuller, 101) In the chapters revolving around life in Die Hutte, Fuller succeeds in providing a sufficient amount of imagery and figurative language which grant her credibility and also yield a detailed mental image of Peggy’s observations within the readers’ minds.
To quote the author: “I pushed my way through the plants until I came to a massive trunk which must have come down years before, its decaying wood spongy and dark. I stepped on to it, and the rotten bark gave way, tipping me off so that I stumbled, only just catching myself before I fell. A shiver ran through the trees as though they were laughing, and I had to fight the urge to turn and bolt.” (Fuller, 101) Fuller’s style of writing allows the reader to feel what the narrator felt when she was a naive eight-year-old who blindly believed her father who he told her the world has ended, and a few years later excused him for raping her because he has lost his mind and is mistaking her for his wife. While describing life lived in the false belief that she and her father were the only two people left in the world, Fuller excelled in her proper presentation of what a self-reliant life lived in solitude, transcendent of the normal societal values, entails. Even when the narration voice switched to the 17-year-old Peggy who had returned to London, the profound effects of her life in the wild were evident in the narrator’s every word. The closing paragraph of the novel reveals how, even after two months of coming back home, the minute memories of the forest life were fiercely imprinted on Peggy’s memory, even after she was told the person she lost her virginity to in the forest was not Reuben, but her very own father. However, extreme isolation had warped Peggy’s mind, and even after figuring out that Reuben was merely a figment of her imagination, she still chose to dream of him:
Into the Wild and Walden, unlike Our Endless Numbered Days, are both works of nonfiction that include factual events. Into the Wild, however, conjoins both autobiography and biography within its pages through implementing the writing techniques of New Journalism (or Literary Journalism). Krakauer, after all, is a prominent award-winning journalist of the American outdoors, and his utilization of both the elements of New Journalism and those of narrative literature proved his brilliant versatility as a writer. Upon the initial publication in 1996, Into the Wild was on the New York Times bestseller list for two years, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and it hitherto stands as one of the focal works of late twentieth century American nonfiction. It is pivotal to note that Into the Wild is an investigative extension of a highly popular article Krakauer originally published in the Outside magazine in 1993 about Christopher after the journalist found out about his death. The article merely investigated Christopher’s life and death.
The novel, however, meditates on the complications of father-son bonds, American male adolescence, and the role of nature and wilderness as a cultivator of the great American yearning of self-reliance. As a novel that adopts the literary technique of New Journalism, which combines the factual elements of journalism and the aesthetic elements of narrative literature in one work, Into the Wild contains meticulous research and information fashioned into a compelling and impactful story. Krakauer has meticulously structured the complex interior of the novel through drawing from various American literary traditions both standard and sophisticated, exemplifying a milestone piece of twentieth century American mixed-genre non-fiction. Krakauer orchestrates the plot in a nonlinear narrative, and supplies the readers with rigorous depictions of the American outdoors, camping, and hitchhiking. He furnishes the biography with immensely emotional material collected from his interviews with the people close to Christopher, examining how his tragic death impacted their lives. This strategy renders the novel an adventure story which reveals the possibly traumatic effects of a risk-taking behavior. In Into the Wild, Krakauer peruses the same books Christopher was known to have read and idolized, including the nonfiction of Thoreau’s Walden, and the fiction of Leo Tolstoy.
This intellectual approach lends the novel a specific scholarly tone, which most mainstream outdoor writings lack. Just as Thoreau inserted allegories and the wisdom of the ancients to give a sense of universality to his personal quest in Walden, Krakauer decorated his text with citations of naturalist authors of Thoreau's ilk, such as Wallace Stegner, and John Muir. In conserving with the investigative biography genre, Krakauer recounts Christopher’s early life and details statements from his family and the caring strangers befriended him during his trip. What also makes Into the Wild an autobiography as well is Krakauer’s depiction of an extreme, almost fatal outdoor adventure he himself experienced in his early twenties in chapters 14 and 15. Krakauer’s style of writing is largely objective. In the Author’s Note section, he foreshadows his attempt to be as detached from the plot as possible:
Mutual Transcendentalist Tenets
Walden, Into the Wild, and Our Endless Numbered Days all share a thematic atmosphere which distinctly manifest themselves in the form of the transcendentalist tenets. It is important to note that the 19th century transcendentalists never developed an explicit set of doctrines. However, all transcendentalist writers of that time emphasized parallel themes which became classified as their tenets.
The Veneration of Self-Reliance
Self-reliance, one of the cherished transcendentalist tenets, may be described as a state of actuality where external influences such as social pressure, society, and media have no effect on one’s thoughts, emotions, and actions. Transcendentalists treasure the ideal of self-reliance is to a heavy extent. In fact, Ralph Waldo Emerson has written an extended essay entitled “Self-Reliance” in which he argues that only through a self-sufficient life can one gain true knowledge and independence. Emerson was Thoreau’s mentor and the nineteenth century American writer and philosopher who led the transcendentalist movement. For transcendentalist visionaries, self-reliance is a set of principles which should not only be abstractly believed in, but also practiced. According to them, a person must always prefer individuality over social conformity, having confidence in their own faculties. By distancing himself from society and living in quasi-solitude, Thoreau makes a commitment to “follow the bent of his genius” (Thoreau, 90) by living off the land independently in a cabin he has built. Whenever he does take a job, he works as a day employer in order to not be committed to an employer and feel free to pursue his own matters. For his critics, however, Thoreau would still be working to pay for his cost of living, even though it was a allegedly a minimal cost, he would not be completely relying on himself and living off the land and only off the land. Throughout Walden, not once does Thoreau mention that the land he inhabited for two years belonged to Emerson. Neither does he mention how the wild life he claimed to embrace during his stay at Walden was not-so-wild, which is a point highly admired by Thoreau’s critics. Over those two years, Thoreau’s mother, Cynthia Dunbar Thoreau, indirectly nursed the self-reliant philosopher who was completely independent by taking care of his laundry arrangements.
To quote American author Donovan Hohn in his 2015 article “Everybody Hates Henry,” “Thoreau played at rugged self-sufficiency while squatting on borrowed land, in a house built with a borrowed axe.” The land on which Thoreau lived was not exactly a rugged frontier in the middle of nowhere. “In reality,” proclaims New Yorker writer Kathryn Schulz in 2015, “Walden Pond in 1845 was scarcely more off the grid, relative to contemporaneous society, than Prospect Park is today. The commuter train to Boston ran along its southwest side; in summer the place swarmed with picnickers and swimmers, while in winter it was frequented by ice cutters and skaters.” Schulz adds that the distance between Thoreau’s cabin and his family house was only 20 minutes, and people confuse him with Robinson Crusoe. The transcendentalist author whose philosophies were received with as much acclaim as disdain wrote that people spend their precious time, money and energy on clothing, running after inconsistent fashion trends religiously.
Self-reliance, he writes, places importance on one’s own self-worth and individuality, and not on being a replica of others, both physically and conceptually. Nutrition-wise, Thoreau’s food intake during his two year stay was from the bulk of food he planted: beans, peas, corn, turnips, and potatoes. He learned from the farming experience that “it cost incredibly little trouble to obtain one’s necessary food” and that “a man may use as simple a diet as the animals and yet retain health and strength.” Reflecting on his first year of cultivating, Thoreau wrote: “All things considered, that is, considering the importance of a man’s soul and of today, I believe that I was doing better than any farmer in Concord.” (Thoreau, 89) Thoreau harvested approximately two and a half acres of beans which he later sold to tend to his occasional various expenses.
McCandless is somewhat a modern Thoreau. Despite living in two different eras, a few of their common values and views draw both of them towards an identical notion of ‘truth’. In Into the Wild, Krakauer’s descriptions of Christopher’s college life reveal the latter’s devotion to transcendentalist tenets such as the dismissal of technology and material possessions, the yearning for solitude and independence and the desire to connect with nature. "During that final year in Atlanta, Chris had lived off campus in a monkish room furnished with little more than a thin mattress on the floor, milk crates, and a table. He kept it as orderly and spotless as a military barracks. And he didn't have a phone, so Walt and Billie (Chris's parents) had no way of calling him." (Krakauer, 22). Christopher comes from a wealthy family, and he could’ve exploited that reality to his own benefit if he was not a transcendentalist at heart. He could have decorated his dorm with the most luxurious of furniture and amenities, he could have accepted the brand-new car his parents wished to gift him on his graduation day, and he could have spent his college fund travelling the world instead of donating it to OXFAM, but he, self-assertedly, does not.
However, Christopher’s life after graduation encompasses a few contradictory events- as Thoreau’s does in Walden. Christopher, after embarking on his quest for the archetypal independent and solitary life, in fact needs the aid of numerous strangers he encounters on the way. The number of interviews recorded in the book testify how many people help Christopher all the while he claims he wants to leave the world behind and be fully self-reliant, just like in the case of Thoreau’s mother doing his laundry. However, nowhere is the delusory nature of Christopher’s self-reliance more evident than when he retires to the Stampede Trail in what becomes the last trip of his life. Unlike Thoreau who actually built his own shelter (with borrowed tools nonetheless), Christopher spends his days in a pre-existing abandoned bus whose structure was kept in good condition. Nutrition-wise, however, he does self-sufficiently gather his own food from the wilderness (despite using a technological tool to hunt down the animals). Nevertheless, Christopher’s yearning to lead a self-reliant life is not backed up by intellectual expertise on how to actually achieve it. The only way he can understand what foods from the wilderness are nutritious and consumable is through a guidebook to edible plants he has carried with him. Christopher does not even carry a map or a compass when he begins his adventure in order to be fully self-reliant. The choices he unwaveringly adopts may be considered rational if Christopher has the perfect knowledge and experience to delve into that sort of perilous behavior. However, Christopher is ill-prepared to employ the self-sufficient life he so religiously aspires. As Krakauer puts it:
Among the journal entries found beside Christopher’s body, there is one that says: “EXTREMELY WEAK. FAULT OF POT. SEED. MUCH TROUBLE JUST TO STAND UP. STARVING. GREAT JEOPARDY.” He is starved, and his scanty diet has shrunk his body down to a “feral scrawn of gristle and bone.” (Krakauer, 191) Christopher dies after inadvertently poisoning himself by eating Hedysarum Alpinum, the botanical name for Wild Potato, whose seeds contain a toxic alkaloid.
Unlike Christopher, James Hillcoat of Our Endless Numbered Days has a prior knowledge about agricultural farming and understands its significance in being self-sufficient. He does not just head on to live in a cabin in the wild without having attained the essential knowledge on how to grow his own food. Back in London, he convinces Peggy into skipping school so he can teach her about survivalism. As Peggy describes in Chapter 3:
James, despite his easily distracted nature, exerts actual effort into teaching Peggy about farming and guiding her into what she can and cannot eat straight from the earth while they are still in London. In Chapter 3, Peggy exclaims: “My back and shoulders burned, blistered, peeled and went brown whilst I learned what was safe to eat from the trees and plants of north London. (Fuller, 23)” She adds that her father taught her how to trap and cook squirrels and rabbits, which mushrooms were poisonous and where to collect the edible ones, and how to make ramson soup. They pull up the stalks of nettles and dry them in the sun. Based on Peggy's’ descriptions, her father, like Thoreau, is quite aware of the importance of understanding natural food resources on the path of living self-reliantly. Both transcendentalist characters James and Christopher are overly sure of their skills in self-reliance. I exclude Thoreau from this statement because he, in his two year stay at Walden, was not as away from food resources as James and Christopher are.
When one of the survivalist friends asks James what he would do if he runs out of supplies in the wilderness, pointing out that he does not even have an air rifle, James responds: “Give me a decent knife and an axe and we’ll be fine. (Fuller, 13)” A similar overconfidence is observed in Christopher when Jim Gallien, the union electrician who drives him to Fairbanks and was the last person to see him alive, offers that he would buy Christopher some decent gear after noticing the exceedingly minimal gear the young hitchhiker is carrying. However, Christopher refused by saying: “No, thanks anyway, I’ll be fine with what I’ve got. (Krakauer, 6)” Both Christopher and James think too highly of their self-reliant abilities, and this attitude is what leads them to their demise. James’ distraction with building the piano causes him to not gather and store food for the winter, a selfish act which nearly kills both him and his daughter because of starvation. James is so keen on relying purely on himself in all aspects of living that he has even planned to die by inflicting death upon himself through eating poisonous mushrooms.
Rejection of Social Norms
The plot development of Our Endless Numbered Days contains a rejection of a plethora of social norms. James disbelieves in the importance of conventional schooling by making Peggy skip school so he can homeschool her on survivalism. As Peggy narrates in Chapter 3: “The next morning my father came into my bedroom before I got up and said I didn’t have to go to school. ‘School, schmool. What’s the point of sitting in a classroom when the sun’s shining and there are plenty of things to teach you at home?’ he said. (Fuller, 20)” James also transcends the social norm of the father and husband of the family taking care of the finances of the household, which is an attitude his wife Ute condemns: “At least I am a professional. What do you do, James? Lie across the garden all day with your dangerous American friend.” (Fuller, 8) James also rejects the traditional steps to be taken after a married couple faces an issue of infidelity. Instead of confronting the problem and taking the necessary steps to either fix his marriage or end it, James kidnaps his young daughter into the German wilderness and deceives her into believing the entire world is dead, including her very own mother. This same attitude is observed in Christopher who, instead of confronting the issues he had with his father, escapes into the wild. As he confesses in a letter to his sister Carine:
The transcendentalist principle of rejection of social norms is also observed in both modern novels in the dismissal of man-made concepts such as dates and governmental authority. As James proclaims in Chapter 11: “We’re not going to live by somebody else’s rules of hours and minutes any more. Dates only make us aware of how numbered our days are, how much closer to death we are for each one we cross off. From now on, we’re going to live by the sun and the seasons. Our days will be endless. (Fuller, 103)” This attitude of “to hell with all man-made concepts,” however, backfires. The same man who utters those very words questions his choices in Chapter 15 during the season his irresponsible character nearly killed him and Peggy: “How can I work out how much food we need if we don’t know what the date is?” (Fuller, 148) James wonders as he throws down the pen and puts his head in his hands. The refusal of governmental authority is another transcendentalist tenet observed in Thoreau and Christopher.
Thoreau, during his stay at Walden Lake, has a personal experience with civil disobedience. In his extended essay On the Duty of Civil Disobedience, he explains how and why he has not paid a poll tax for six years (in protest of slavery and the Mexican war) and how this choice is the cause of his overnight imprisonment once. Thoreau, in the introductory paragraph of the extended essay, states that he heartily accepts the motto “That government is best which governs least.” Similarly, Christopher avoids keeping all his governmental papers intact and up-to-date. During his solitary adventures, prior to isolating himself in the Alaskan bush, he gets stuck in a heavy rainstorm and his Datsun does not function. With the battery drained, any possibility of the engine running is diminished. If Christopher is to get the car back on a paved road, his only option is to notify the nearby authorities. He knows, however, that if he goes to the rangers, they will bombard him with investigatory questions: “Why had he ignored posted regulations and driven down the wash in the first place? Was he aware that the vehicle’s registration had expired two years before and had not been renewed? Did he know that his driver’s license had also expired, and the vehicle was uninsured as well?” (Krakauer, 28)
The honest responses to these questions are likely to shock the rangers. Christopher could have struggled to explain how he “answered to statutes of a higher order — that as a latter-day adherent of Henry David Thoreau, he took as gospel the essay ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience’ and thus considered it his moral responsibility to flout the laws of the state.” (Krakauer, 28) It is impossible, however, to get the deputies of the federal government to sympathize with his extremist opinions, and there will be serious consequences. Therefore, in order to avoid such hassles, he simply abandons the Datsun and resumes his voyage on foot. Another example of Christopher’s dismissal of governmental authority is when he responds to Jim Gallien’s question of whether or not he owns a hunting license with: “Hell, no. How I feed myself is none of the government’s business. Fuck their stupid rules.” (Krakauer, 6)
Glorification of Solitude and/or Isolation
One of the major dogmas of transcendentalism is that of isolation from society, which Thoreau does not associate with loneliness, for he continually states that nature offers a better society than humans do. He has an entire chapter dedicated to solitude in which he explains his own definition of solitude as self-communion and introspection. As he asserts in his Solitude chapter: “I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. (Thoreau, 212)” Thoreau believes solitude is minimally related to the physical proximity to other people, since man can be lonely in a room of people if he does not feel a sense of companionship with them. For Thoreau, solitude signifies a mystical state of mind rather than an actual physical circumstance. Through solitude, Thoreau finds himself spiritually confronting the full range of nature’s bounty without any mediators. Throughout Walden, the reader observes how Thoreau empties his life of unnecessary worries to be able to comprehend the reality of the universe through solitary ruminations.
Thoreau expresses in Solitude: “I am no more lonely than a single mullein or dandelion in a pasture, or a bean leaf, or sorrel, or a horse-fly, or a bumble-bee. (215)” Christopher who allows Thoreau’s transcendentalist philosophies to guide his life gets too mesmerized by them without realizing the dangers that accompany living in isolation in the wilderness. Despite Christopher’s cutting off all contact with his family and friends back home when he enters the Alaskan bush, his late journal entries reveal a young man who has come to terms with the relationships he has with others, and who is ready to step back into society. Sadly, too late does Christopher realize that “happiness is only real when shared,” as he writes on one of the pages of Doctor Zhivago, a few days preceding his death. When Krakauer interviews people who ran into Christopher while he was on his odyssey, many describe him as social and admirable. Ronald Franz had even asked Christopher if he could adopt him. Gaylord Stuckey, one of the many generous folks who offered to give Christopher a ride to his destination, told Krakauer that Christopher was candid with him about his intent of spending his summer completely alone in the wilderness, living off the land. Christopher admitted to Stuckey that this adventure of his was a childhood dream, and that he “didn’t want to see a single soul, nor airplanes, nor any sign of civilization near him.” Christopher wanted to prove to himself that he could survive on his own without anybody else’s help. (Krakauer, 159)” Christopher is so keen on achieving this dream that he even changes his name to Alexander Supertramp in order to be a fully isolated person completely off the government and society’s radar. When he first arrives at the site of the bus, he scrawls an overjoyed declaration of independence on a sheet of wrinkled plywood:
Similarly, James resorts to complete isolation and not a quasi-one like Thoreau. He drags his eight-year-old daughter with him, without realizing the magnitude of the life he is introducing her to, and which almost kills her. What differentiates the isolated life of James and Christopher is the fact that James had Peggy with him, but Christopher is full-on alone. Just as Christopher wants to be unidentifiable to the world, Peggy narrates how her father does the same while they are trekking to reach Die Hutte. She says: “My father had avoided conversations with people who spoke English, hurrying me away from the girl with long hair who said she was from Cornwall and let me have a bite of her lolly.” (Fuller, 52) James is obsessively attempting to reach his desired life of solitude without leaving any traces behind. The gravity of his obsession is so intense that it drives him into lying to his little girl about the death of her mother and the rest of the human population.
As Peggy puts it, “I slipped into it without thought, so that the life we lived – in an isolated cabin on a crust of land, with the rest of world simply wiped away like a damp cloth passed across a chalked board – became my unquestioned normality.”(Fuller, 163) The extreme isolation in which James and Peggy live for eight years evidently warps both their minds. James begins mistaking Peggy for his wife, raping her and eventually impregnating her. Peggy begins imagining an inexistent Reuben whose existence she does not erase from her mind when the police inform her that there were no traces of his fingerprints anywhere in Die Hutte. Similar to Thoreau, Christopher goes into the wild in solitude to be able to discover himself and the world around him. James, however, goes into the wild as an escape from his marital issue, with little concern to the aspect of considering it a “journey to enlightenment” which tends to accompany this type of sojourns. Thoreau survives his stay at Walden because he does not completely cut himself off from society. Similarly, Peggy survives Die Hutte because she finds her way back to society. Peggy’s father and James, however, end their own lives because of their obstinate determination in entirely adopting a perilous lifestyle of complete isolation.
Thoreau, a paragon of Transcendentalism, resorted to living two years in Walden for the utter purpose of bringing transcendentalist doctrines to life and showing the world the beauty of guiding a self-reliant life. Amongst the many tenets of transcendentalism, living in the wild as a non-conformant citizen is the tenet that modern readers of Walden tend to grasp as the moral of the book.
Christopher McCandless is evidently one of those readers. He idolized Thoreau’s solitudinarian life in the woods and when overwhelmed with life issues, decided to escape to the wild without training himself on how to actually survive there. For Christopher, his obsession with transcending the mediocrity of the common American lifestyle, considering the teachings of Thoreau and his contemporaries as a manual to a proper existence, ended in Christopher’s tragic demise. However, the fault does not lie in the Transcendentalist doctrines themselves, but in Christopher’s inaccurate understanding of them.
Similarly, the plot of Fuller’s fictional novel is weaved with a powerful transcendentalist influence. Despite the novel’s fictional aspect, her choice of employing a primary character (James) whose mindset is parallel (in some aspects) to that of the 19th century transcendentalists, reveals how the character and its creator have both been affected by the transcendental doctrines. The difference between James and Christopher is that James had the necessary survival knowledge but the lack of mental stability, and Christopher had a relatively stable mental health but improper survivalist knowledge. Both of these focal points which are imperative to living in the wilderness were defective in both their cases, and consequently led to their deaths. In contrast, Thoreau, who essentially pioneered the idea of living in a cabin in the woods as a requirement to transcendentalist life, was not killed by it: partly because of the experimental nature of the incentive behind his quest, and partly because of his not wandering off into complete isolation.
The life circumstances of the 20th and 21st century hinder a full commitment to transcendentalist life values because of the increasing dependence on technological tools, the growing societal pressures which are resulting in mental health issues, and the destruction of nature for superficial purposes. However, this reality does not mar the beauty of transcendentalist doctrines which, if were accepted by the 19th century generations instead of , could have reversed the tragic realities that have dawned upon the 21st century world including consumerism, environmental disasters, industrialization, and urbanization.
Despite the moral justness of their separate quests into the wild, people and characters like Christopher McCandless, Henry David Thoreau, and James Hillcoat, depict how modern life in all its elements can excruciate the creative, free-spirited human who intuitively understands that the answer to his/her existential crisis is found within nature. This innate knowledge is found in the very human nucleus, but has been silenced by modern distractions. By viewing literary works from diverse eras that describe the lengths people go to in order to allow that innate knowledge guide their lives, we observe the timeless, spell-binding nature of the idea of living freely in the wild, without having to enslave oneself for the benefit of implementing societal norms. Coincidentally, the latter idea has been manifested as one of the tenets of 19th century transcendentalism.
When literary movements of preceding centuries are discussed, they tend to be regarded as obsolete time periods in which certain doctrines and etiquettes were propagandized. The American Transcendentalism of the 19th century is also approached in that manner by the vast majority. However, the meticulously-selected contemporary works under consideration in this paper serve to invalidate that viewpoint by illustrating how the legacy of the allegedly-transient 19th century transcendentalism still subsists. The latter philosophical and literary movement that flourished during the early to middle years of the 1800s, despite its evanescent lifespan, still continues to affect the generations of today with its multifaceted teachings. Therefore, it is nowhere near obsoletion.
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