18 May 2018

The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

Elizabeth Gilbert writes the kind of non-fiction that I dream of writing. Her books are always well-researched and full of interviews, but they also draw on her personal experience. She always strikes a perfect balance between being subjective and objective. Her profile of Eustance Conway in The Last American Man is no different, and I'd recommend this book to literally anyone.

I picked this book up a few years ago at a used bookstore and had been meaning to read it forever. It was exactly the sort of topic I love: a semi-troubled person decides to walk off into the woods and never return.

I've decided to break this review up into a few different topics in an attempt at writing something remotely organized... so here we go:

1. Gilbert's Research

I love the concept of this book and it's reflected perfectly in the title. The book is an expansion of Gilbert's GQ article profiling Eustance Conway - an outdoorsman who left home when he was 17 to live in the wild. The article is also titled "The Last American Man", and Gilbert starts the book off by defining this concept.

An "American Man" is someone who is an adventurer, an explorer, a frontiersman, and a hard worker... a man so at home in the wild that nothing, not even love, can come between his relationship with the natural world:

As the writer Leslie Fielder pointed out in his seminal tome Love and Death in the American Novel, we Americans have the only major culture in the known world that never held romantic love to be a scared precept. The rest of the world gets Don Juan; we get Paul Bunyan. There's no love story in Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn doesn't get the girl in the end; John Wayne never dreamed of giving up his horse for the constraints of a wife; and Davy fuckin' Crockett doesn't date."

But the real issue at the heart of this book is the loss of this cultural archetype... People are drawn to Conway because they believe him to be one of the last representations of this character. As the world evolves more and more, and technology gets more and more advanced, we don't feel the same connection with nature, and we certainly don't live the same way our ancestors did. Gilbert describes this loss best:

Nobody was really paying attention until the moment the wilderness was officially tamed, at which point everybody wanted it back. Within the general spasm of nostalgia that ensued there came a very specific cultural panic, rooted in the question 'What will become of our boys?'"

So this book is about the nostalgia for the frontier and how we relentlessly romanticize the wild, which is perfect for me because I LOVE to romanticize the wild even though I hate camping.

In line with nostalgia for a more "natural" world, Gilbert spends a couple of pages talking about the idea of a utopia - a term most of us learned in high-school English class while reading Lord of the Flies.

She gives a brief history of the people who strived for a utopia, and how that desire is often realized through cults or communes. There was some interesting stuff in this section, but nothing was fleshed out in too much detail. She essentially discusses why these communes worked or didn't work, and the overall message is that even though these people are trying to get away from the modern world, or at least their dissatisfaction with it, they often fail.

After reading this section I definitely need to look up more information on a Tennessee commune Gilbert mentioned called The Farm. She lists a few books to read if you want more detail/history about commune life, which I appreciated.

Eustance Conway

2. Conway's Accomplishments 

It's impressive enough that Conway purchased a massive amount of land over his lifetime to build Turtle Island - a camp where he hopes to bring people looking to live a "natural" life and teach them survival skills - but he's also accomplished a hell of a lot more. Conway has set at least two world records, he's hiked the entire Appalachian trail with nothing but a gun, and he's traveled all over the world.

The most detailed accomplishment was when he crossed America on horseback in only ~100 days. Gilbert's interview with Conway maps out how many horses he brought, his thought process, and the physical / emotional toll it took on him and his two travel partners.

She also interviews "the world's foremost expert on equestrian travel" (amazing title) who describes how difficult the accomplishment was, and how lucky they were to even survive. What was interesting about this interview was that this "expert" was obviously pretty familiar with Conway, and he mentioned to Gilbert that he thinks we haven't even seen the surface of what Conway is capable of. It was weirdly foreboding and I need to know what he thinks Conway can manage... But he was also pretty critical of Conway in a way I found interesting:

I think he's reached a plateau in his life. He's pushed himself as far as he can go using his charisma and courage, and now he needs to go on a spiritual journey. He needs to do something that is private. He's postured himself in public for so many years that he doesn't know himself. There are parts of his soul he can't begin to understand, and until he learns these things about himself, he'll never be the nomad he's meant to be."

I liked the inclusion of this because it goes to show that Gilbert doesn't just sing Conway's praises the entire book. She is one of his harshest critics, and always paints a full picture of his character.

The other trip he did was on horse and buggy with his then-girlfriend. It wasn't as interesting as the Atlantic-Pacific trip, but it had some good information about the toll this trip took on his personal life. Conway is so obsessed with completing these "missions" and, though he wouldn't admit it, setting records, that he lets his relationships fall apart. Halfway through the trip he wasn't even speaking with his girlfriend ... they would spend hours driving across the prairies and wouldn't say a single word to each other.

This was one of my favourite ways Gilbert described one of Conway's quests:

The journey itself was heroic, in other words, but the situation was unfortunately reminiscent of Ursula K. LeGuin's sharp observation that 'the backside of heroism is often rather sad; women and servants know that.'"

A few cottages on Turtle Island
3. Fatherhood: Big Eustance vs. Little Eustance

This was definitely the saddest portion of the book. Early on Gilbert describes Conway's childhood in North Carolina... she relies on interviews with Conway himself, his family, and his childhood diary entries. Conway's parents were pretty outdoorsy growing up (his mother lived in a tent in Alaska for at least a year in her early twenties), but Gilbert quickly makes it known that regardless of this mutual love of the outdoors, Conway had a horrible relationship with his father (Esutance Conway Senior, aka Big Eustance).

Conway was never physically abused as a child, but I would definitely say he endured a lot of mental abuse. His dad would call him stupid and openly encourage his other children to mock Conway... His dad was furious that Conway wasn't a math prodigy (like he was) and constantly let him know it. Conway wrote many times in his diary that he wanted to run away, to go to the woods and never come back.

I was shocked at how candid his father was in Gilbert's interviews. He was pretty honest about how he treated his son and his disappointment with him. Gilbert does a really good job of describing this complicated relationship. She also points out that Conway's siblings acknowledge that he was a difficult child and that it wasn't all their father's fault. My favourite part was when she pointed out Big Eustace's desire for his son to be just like him and how he named him after him:

Some interpret the custom as vanity, but I wonder whether it's vanity's opposite: insecurity. To me, it seems a touching and hopeful wish, as if the father - frightened by the importance of having created a new life, a new man, a new rival - utters a small prayer that in the naming of his baby there will be a kind of twinship between himself and the child." 

The saddest part is that Conway (Little Eustance) actually has A LOT in common with his father... He is very unforgiving of people and their inability to perform exactly as he wants them to. Hundreds of apprentices at Turtle Island have left him in a rage because of how they felt he treated them... and Conway has also never married (something he desperately wants) despite his dozen attempts at a relationship.

Elizabeth Gilbert
4. Personal Connection

And finally, my favourite aspect of this book: the personal side of Gilbert's relationship to the subject. I think what makes a great non-fiction writer is the author's connection to the subject matter. I mean my favourite non-fiction book is In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick... a man who literally lives in Nantucket and whose father is an English professor who raised his son on Moby Dick. So I think it's always a good idea to have some sort of relationship with the topic you are writing about.

Gilbert had an in with Conway because when she was in her early twenties she met his younger brother Judson. She stayed in contact with Judson and then eventually met Conway one day while the brothers were visiting New York. Gilbert and Conway have spent a lot of time together. They speak on the phone, writer letters, and even visit in person (Gilbert has visited Turtle Island many times). It's this familiarity with each other that I think allows Conway to be so open with Gilbert... giving her access to his letters and diary entries.

But what I love about her relationship with him is that she celebrates him AND criticizes him. She is constantly acknowledging how difficult it is not to romanticize Conway or project any of our ideals onto him (herself included):

I too had that moment of thinking this was the first truly authentic man I'd ever met, the kind of person I'd traveled to Wyoming as a twenty-two-year old to find (indeed, to become) - a genuine soul uncontaminated by modern rust. What makes Eustance seem, on first encounter, like the last of some noble species is that there is nothing 'virtual' about his reality. This is a guy who lives, quite literally, the life that, for the rest of the country, has largely become a metaphor." 

Where it gets tricky is our deciding what we want Eustance Conway to be, in order to fulfill our notions of him, and then ignoring what doesn't fit into our notions of him, and then ignoring what doesn't fit into our first-impression romantic image." 

It's similar to Joan Didion's essay about John Wayne ("Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream") - these men represent something that is so dear to us that we refuse to let it go, to see them as they really are. Yes, Conway is this extreme environmentalist who cares so passionately about nature and believes it is his personal destiny to save our technology-dependent souls... but he is also a girlfriend's worst nightmare and a cut-throat businessman. 

He's a complicated figure, and Gilbert profiles him to a tee.

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