Into the Wild

We picked up Jon Krakauer’s Into the WildInto the Wild after seeing it in one of the Alaska bookstores, in the large “local interest” section. I had actually heard of the story before, around the time it happened. As Krakauer noted, it made national news for a little while, and he wrote an Outside magazine article about it, after a few weeks of research (I haven’t read the article). This book is an expansion of what he found for the article, and also a years-later apology/revision/explorartion of that article.

The book is basically about the death by starvation of Christopher McCandless in the Alaskan wilderness in 1992. He had given himself the pseudonym “Alex Supertramp” for his cross-country wanderings after graduating from Emory in 1990 as he sought to escape mainstream society and find some truth about himself in the vast empty places of America. Krakauer attempts to find why he did this, and how McCandless’s quest fits into other stories of lonely, ascetic truthseekers, including Krakauer himself.

From the author’s point of view, McCandless was not unique: there are always young men leaving the confines of society to into the wild by themselves. Krakauer relates the story of medieval monks crossing the North Sea to find solitary islands, perishing in droves. And he tells us of an Everett Ruess, who, sixty years before McCandless, wandered into the Arizona desert and disappeared. Wallace Stegner had compared Ruess to the great naturalist John Muir, noting that they were very similar, differing only in their age. McCandless was not unique, though he was unlike most of the other oddballs and misfits that find their way to Alaska and stay to test theories on human development or embark on ill-prepared tests of manhood. (Krakauer notes that McCandless survived for more than 100 days without human contact in Alaska, so he wasn’t completely incompetent though that does not excuse terrible, fatal errors and blindspots, primarily the lack of a map of the area he decided to make his camp. There were also mistakes in the original Outside article suggesting foolhardy ignorance on the part of McCandless that Krakauer attempts to correct in this longer book.) McCandless attempted to find some sort of truth in the wildernesses of America, something Krakauer identifies with through his own story of his foolhardy, ill-prepared climb of the Devil’s Thumb mountain: a great feat, whether living alone in Alaska for a season or scaling a daunting mountain, would provide the doer with transcedence, perhaps enough to set his world aright. In this, the only thing separating McCandless from Krakauer, the dead from the living, is mere luck.

(A friend of mine from college spent the summer before grad school at a salmon cannery in Cordova, Alaska, perhaps because of a milder form of McCandless’s post-college wanderings. But at least my friend knew he was coming back, and what he was doing once he got back.)

Coincidentally, there’s a recent Slate review of the new Werner Herzog documentary Grizzly Man, about someone else who ventured into the Alaska wilderness to find something in nature and wound up dead. In the case of Grizzly Man, Timothy Treadwell apparently attempted to bond with nature by living in close proximity to grizzly bears. After years of extolling the gentle nature of grizzlies and their harmlessness, a bear ate him and his girlfriend. (Eskimos, who have lived in proximity to these bears for millennia, respect grizzlies by being clear that there is a line separating bears from humans, a line not to be lightly crossed.) This review caught my eye when I was thinking about writing this post because the reviewer talks about Melville’s rebuke of the Transcendentalist movement of Thoreau, Emerson, and the rest (writers McCandless was very fond of):

You might sit astride a mast and feel your oneness with nature, Melville wrote, but fall into the sea and you’re going to get eaten. For all his attention to his bears, for all his boasts that he was “on the precipice of death” and could be attacked at any moment, Treadwell didn’t fully see nature.

From Melville’s point of view, the Wild wasn’t someplace one goes to find the transcedental truth about oneself: it is a wonder, but indifferent and unforgiving and unreasoning: Ahab will not find answers about his lost leg from Moby Dick, as there aren’t any. (I started Moby Dick but never finished it. I have some new incentive to finish it now.)

Whether from misguided antimaterialism, youthful arrogance or finding out that our fathers are flawed human after all, some young people will seek out transcedental truths that they believe to lie outside society’s boundaries. It happens all the time: witness John Walker Lindh of recent memory, who “wanted something pure” and found himself fighting with the Taliban. Arguably, if Lindh had lived in an earlier age, he would have found this purity in Leninism, or, perhaps further back, turn-of-the-century nihilism. Perhaps the 7/7 bombers were the same way, finding the Islamist death cult instead of Marxist materialism because of the vagaries of history. In McCandless case, the quest for purity took the form of solitary sojourns into the wild that proved ultimately fatal.

One Response to “Into the Wild

  1. Dean Blue Says:

    Drawing the comparison between “Into The Wild” and the John Walker Lindh story was a powerful one. I was traveling along a similar path to these two as an extremist convert to Islam until my mother who is a Psychiatrist contributed to shattering my myopic and potentially destructive ideas. I am telling this story in a fiction work entitled “Humbled Head Betrayed”. In the narrative I meet John Lindh while we are both in Pakistan for separate reasons -he studying from Salafi, me studying from Tablighi. We exchanged emails and went on our way. When I return to the U.S. my mention of John Lindh and Sheikh Osama take me on an adventure to attempt to stop the inevitable 9/11.
    You’ve got the inside scoop on a new great work by Dean Blue.
    Cheers for the insightful comparison above.

    Dean Blue