“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Henry David Thoreau
My sister gave me a copy of Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild for Christmas so many years ago now that I can’t remember, and I’m a little embarrassed that it has taken me so long to finally read it. I think what finally convinced me to read it at last was the recent publication of Carine McCandless’s own memoir, The Wild Truth. I had previously read Jon Krakauer’s article, “How Chris McCandless Died” in The New Yorker.
I am a funny reader. I don’t highlight or underline much in paper books, unless they are professional reading or books I’m teaching in my English classes. I didn’t make any marks in my paper copy of Into the Wild until I was more than a third, perhaps even close to halfway through the book, and I realized I needed to mark it up. I went back and found passages I liked in the parts I read before I had picked up my pencil.
For those (like me) who may not have read the book yet, it is the story of Christopher McCandless, who graduated from Emory University and disappeared on a quest to find himself in the wild. A devotee of Jack London, John Muir, and Henry David Thoreau, McCandless was drawn eventually to Alaska, where, it was supposed, he died of starvation. Jon Krakauer was asked to write about the tragedy for Outside magazine. However, Krakauer appears to have been unable to leave the story alone after the article, and this book is the result. In fact, as evidenced by the fact that Krakauer wrote the foreword to Carine McCandless’s book and is still contributing to discussion of Chris McCandless’s death, it seems plausible that he is still unable to let the story go. Once I started reading it, I also had a hard time putting the story down.
I was speaking with colleagues about the importance of narrative non-fiction. One important thing I have come to believe this year is that all of us, each and every one of us, has a story. In fact, many important stories. McCandless didn’t live to tell his story, in a sense, but in another sense, he actually did live to tell his story. Or perhaps, more accurately, he lived his story and Krakauer told it. Who was Chris McCandless, really? Just an arrogant, woefully unprepared, thoughtless slacker, as some people believe? The second coming of Thoreau? On the one hand, I understand those who are frustrated by the veneration of someone they see as foolhardy, and McCandless devotees have caused some real problems when they’ve tried to retrace his steps and find for themselves the old Fairbanks City Transit bus where he died. On the other hand, what I love about this book is that Krakauer elevated McCandless, a man who might otherwise have been forgotten by all but his family and friends, simply by telling his story, and by telling it so well.
I was particularly moved by McCandless’s friendship with and impact on a man Krakauer calls Ron Franz. I almost hesitate to share a quote here because part of me wants anyone reading this review to discover the book as I did, without having read a single line from it anywhere. On the other hand, anyone reading this review is likely not too worried about exposure, or they wouldn’t read a review (I know I avoid reviews of books I haven’t read unless I don’t mind some spoilers). So all that being said, this is the first part of the book that moved me:
“When Alex [McCandless’s pseudonym] left for Alaska,” Franz remembers, “I prayed. I asked God to keep his finger on the shoulder of that one; I told him that boy was special. But he let Alex die. So on December 26, when I learned what happened, I renounced the Lord. I withdrew my church membership and became an atheist. I decided I couldn’t believe in a God who would let something that terrible happen to a boy like Alex.” (60)
Some criticism I’ve read of the book faults Krakauer for inserting himself a bit too much into the narrative, but I actually liked it that he became close to the story. I think sometimes in telling a story about someone else, you need to identify how it’s also about you, and it is clear that Krakauer saw himself in McCandless and even indicates all that really separates the two of them is luck.
Even Ralph Waldo Emerson, in many ways the father of Transcendentalism in America, criticized his friend Thoreau, whom he felt frittered away his life: “I cannot help counting it a fault in him that he had no ambition… Instead of engineering for all America, he was the captain of a huckleberry party.”
Of course Thoreau was more than the captain of a huckleberry party. In fact, I’d argue he actually did engineer for all America. Emerson just didn’t realize it because so much of the change in thinking that Thoreau put in motion didn’t bear fruit until a century and more after Thoreau’s death.
I can easily see how one might criticize McCandless for making the mistakes he did, but as Krakauer points out,
McCandless wasn’t some feckless slacker, adrift and confused, racked by existential despair. To the contrary: His life hummed with meaning and purpose. But the meaning he wrested from existence lay beyond the comfortable path: McCandless distrusted the value of things that came easily. He demanded much of himself—more, in the end, than he could deliver. (184)
Am I arguing that Chris McCandless may one day have the impact that Thoreau has had? Maybe. I don’t know. But I do know his story is not only gripping and beautiful, in its way, but it is also important because he was one of us, and that alone makes it worthy to be told.
No man ever followed his genius till it misled him. Though the result were bodily weakness, yet perhaps no one can say that the consequences were to be regretted, for these were a life in conformity to higher principles. If the day and night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers and sweet-scented herbs, it is more elastic, more starry, more immortal—that is your success. All nature is your congratulation, and you have cause momentarily to bless yourself. The greatest gains and values are farthest from being appreciated. We easily come to doubt if they exist. We soon forget them. They are the highest reality… The true harvest of my daily life is somewhat as in intangible and indescribable as the tints of morning or evening. It is a little star-dust caught, a segment of the rainbow which I have clutched.
Henry David Thoreau