An Unconventional Genre: Evaluating John Krakauer as a Biographer

Within the contents of a variety of different biographies, there are multiple similarities between the conventions that are typically used. However, there are also multiple differences between them in their features that set these works apart from one another as well. The author’s effectiveness while using these conventions correlate with the reader’s enjoyment of the book in this challengingly interesting genre too, all of which is handled exceedingly well in the biography Into the Wild, written by Jon Krakauer. While told through a somewhat disjointed yet captivating timeline, Krakauer recounts the life of Chris McCandless during his liberating journey throughout North America, spanning from Chris’ childhood to the day he is found dead in the Alaskan wilderness. Throughout the pages of his book, Krakauer conforms to typical conventions of a biography by using original sources and deviates from these conventions by including a unique structure in his chapters as well as an explanation of his own life experiences to further enhance the reader’s own experience of reading Chris’ story.

First and foremost, the book conforms to typical biographical conventions by retracing Chris’ steps with original sources. For example, after interviewing Jim Gallien for information about Chris, Krakauer is able to recapitulate Gallien initially meeting “the hitchhiker [Chris McCandless] standing…thumb raised high, shivering in the gray Alaska dawn” before he drove him further into the Alaskan wilderness, never to be seen alive again (Krakauer 3). For the purpose of building more credibility as the biographer, Krakauer is practically required to interview Chris’ family and the people he met on his journey to be more holistic and well-rounded in his research and writing. Furthermore, Krakauer consults the writings of Chris McCandless himself, incorporating his letters and journal entries throughout the entirety of the book. For instance, Krakauer includes the letter to Wayne Westerberg in which Chris writes about finally arriving in the Yukon Territory, proclaiming “I now walk into the wild” (3). Being the titular quote, Krakauer places it in the beginning of the first chapter, emulating Chris’ audacious tone and establishing an ominous, foreboding mood for the readers throughout the rest of the chapter and also the rest of the book. Obviously, Krakauer’s typical usage of primary sources and materials in order to gather information for this biography enriches the reader’s enjoyment as well as his own credibility as a writer.

Contrary to the similarities to other biographies, Krakauer’s book deviates from typical conventions by also creating a unique structure within its pages. Most noticeably, relatively simple maps appear before various chapters begin, such as the one that is placed before chapter nine, which depicts the surrounding area of Davis Gulch around the border between Arizona and Utah (86). By including this map, readers can effortlessly visualize the content of the chapter as they are given a basic understanding of Chris’ path due to Krakauer’s unique structural convention that is not seen in most other biographies. In addition to the map on the page before, epigraphs from Chris’ letters and other writers’ works also serve as equally unique syntax in order to begin each chapter, complementing any image Krakauer aligns with it on the page before. One particular epigraph that emphasizes this is from Everett Ruess, in which he writes “as to when I shall visit civilization, it will not be soon…I have not tired of the wilderness; rather I enjoy its beauty and the vagrant life I lead” in a letter to his brother (87). This refreshing variance from the usual paragraphs seen outlining Chris’ story as well as in other books augments the reader’s piqued intrigue of the book, as it also serves to juxtapose the philosophies and endeavors of both Chris and Everett Ruess, both of which emphasized various transcendentalist beliefs approximately sixty years apart from one another. Krakauer’s intent for including this comparison is to therefore not only highlight the subject matter and message of the chapter, but to also allow readers to draw their own conclusions about Chris’ uniqueness as well as with the similarities between the different adventurers. As a result, this book’s slight dissimilarity in the genre and structure itself, being almost like a written documentary about Chris, heightens the perpetual interest and captivation of audiences sustained throughout the text.

Likewise, another deviation from usual biographical conventions is Krakauer’s apparent authorial bias as he even dedicates a couple of chapters in the book to purely discuss his own experiences. Blatantly confessing “I won’t claim to be an impartial biographer” in the Author’s Note, Krakauer continues to explain how he related to Chris’ story personally, and therefore it made “a dispassionate rendering of the tragedy impossible”. By being upfront about his own bias and admiration towards the young explorer, he establishes a foundation of honesty and trust with his readers as they are made aware of his personal connection to the tale they are about to delve into. Later in the book, two chapters are chiefly devoted to Krakauer relating himself to Chris, especially when he describes how in 1977 he aspired “to climb a mountain called The Devil’s Thumb” just as Chris also had a certain inclination to travel through wilderness in solitude (134). Accordingly, this unusual convention gives readers Krakauer’s authorial perception of Chris’ story, specifically projecting and almost analogizing his personal connection with Chris to their different experiences and expeditions in their respective wildernesses. Consequently, this second distinction further supplements the reader’s own perception of Chris, the book, and now even Krakauer himself; despite its unorthodox nature, it still bolsters the value of the biography explaining the author’s own perspective on Chris McCandless as well.

There are numerous conventions that are used in various biographies and other books with similar genres, each with conceptually overlapping techniques as well as their own exclusively unique features. This being said, Jon Krakauer’s method of using biographical conventions in Into the Wild is no exception as it details Chris’ journey throughout all of North America. Essentially, Jon Krakauer exponentially enhances his intriguing biography of Chris by using conventions such as utilizing primary sources to gather information, formulating a unique structure within each chapter, and including his own personal experiences as he relates to Chris McCandless himself.

Feeding by Starvation

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer is an interpretation of one devoted man’s unwavering hunger for meaning in the world. In 1990, 24-year-old Emory graduate Christopher McCandless leaves society to venture into the wilderness with a goal of reaching Alaska and living on only his surroundings and sparse material resources. Hitchhiking and wandering his way there, he encounters a plethora of unique characters, some fueling but others attempting to dissuade his radical intentions. Once he reaches Alaska, McCandless finds intense struggles and obstacles in the environment in which he yearned to prosper, and he eventually perishes from starvation, ending his lengthy, two-year journey. The author Jon Krakauer restates and emphasizes the words “hunger” and “hungry” as a central motif in his interpretation. Krakauer contrasts physical and emotional hunger to display actions fueled by a belief in Romanticism as a mentally misguided quest for self actualization.

Christopher McCandless’ hunger for meaning pushes him to reject all facets of modern society. Before his adventure, McCandless was simply a wealthy young man living in a world led by and concentrated with wealthy people. As his college friends began to get involved in stereotypical youth activities such as fraternities and parties, McCandless’ interests were focused in the exploration of social truth and justice. “More and more of the classes he took addressed such pressing social issues as racism and world hunger and inequities in the distribution of wealth” (Krakauer 123). McCandless’ eyes were opened to new ideas and principles, seemingly causing him to re-evaluate his direction in life. This awakening is seen as the earliest spark of the fire that was Christopher McCandless’ great adventure. “’Chris didn’t understand how people could possibly be allowed to go hungry, especially in this country,’ says Billie. ‘He would rave about that kind of thing for hours’” (113). In his classes, it is revealed to Christopher that the civilizations that surrounds him is corrupted. As his knowledge of the nature of society develops, Christopher responds negatively, angered by injustices of the world. In his mind, he no longer sees himself as a part of this society where so many people have to endure maltreatment and inequity.

After removing himself mentally from the society which he finds so corrupted, the conclusion McCandless arrives at is that he needs to also physically remove himself from civilization. “He was hungry to learn about things. Unlike most of us, he was the sort of person who insisted on living out his beliefs”(76). This quote can be very easily misinterpreted as a heroic, selfless belief system being utilized by the protagonist, but the his true belief system is one exemplifying self-involvement. Christopher chooses to abandon the civilization that he so strongly believes to be wrong instead of using his ideas and talents to make the world the kind of place he believes is morally justifiable. Krakauer includes a passage highlighted by McCandless in Walden, or Life in the Woods on page 117. “’Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. I sat at a table where were rich food and wine were in abundance, an obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from in hospitable board.’” Readers can easily assume that the reason McCandless related to this quote is because it was his true environment before his adventure. While he was still part of society, he yearned for a deeper meaning to life, something or somewhere that showed him his role in the world past the son in a wealthy family, polite and upstanding. Christopher strives to find this role on his journey outside of society instead of making his role within society one of worldly improvement. More than all else, emotional hunger for self-definition and self-validation were strong forces in McCandless’ life, encouraging his quest. His strong beliefs in the power of natural living as a healing process for those questioning their existence drove him to dedicate himself fully to his journey. “We [Jan Burres, Christopher McCandless] got to talking. He was a nice kid…. And he was big-time hungry. Hungry, hungry, hungry. But real happy…. Said he was tramping around the country, having a big old adventure” (Krakauer 30). Use and repetition of the keyword “hungry” draws the reader’s attention to the metaphorical sense of the word in the text. McCandless’ “big old adventure” made him happy; it fueled him. It fed his desire for a simple way of life, without distractions but also without motivation for communal compassion with no one around to help or interact with. In a way, the adventurer romanticized Romanticism, even though it was redundant to do so. When people he meets speak to him, McCandless constantly mentions his yearning for the wide open west in Alaska and how he will live off the land without being dependent on anything or anyone. Once this imagined scenario becomes a reality, he realizes that the problems he had with society were replaced with the very physical, harsh problems found in the wilderness including lack of shelter and lack of nutrition.

The struggles Christopher McCandless encounters in the wilderness can be explained by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a highly believed system of ranking human necessities. The foundation of human needs is physical, including oxygen, food, and water. McCandless ventured into the wild without securing his access to these elements. “’I figured he’d be OK, […] I thought he’d probably get hungry pretty quick and just walk out to the highway. That’s what any normal person would do” (Krakauer 7). Self-actualization is the very top of the hierarchy of needs, and it is believed that if a human must fill all basic needs from the foundation upwards. In each category under self-actualization, McCandless

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ignored large parts. Internally, every human knows the role of every need in relation to their actions and can choose how to pursue their most extreme wants. McCandless’ venture towards this goal of solving his questions of morality caused him to overlook his real needs including not only bodily necessities but also the security of employment, love, and friendship, contributing to the fatal end to his journey.

As Krakauer begins his slow demise, his thoughts become unclouded by his judgement of society and instead mentally clear. “Some people who have been brought back from the far edge of starvation, though, report that near the end the hunger vanishes, the terrible pain dissolves, and the suffering is replaced by a sense of sublime euphoria, a sense of calm accompanied by transcendent mental clarity” (Krakauer 198). McCandless’ death is a real-life example of literary irony. It isn’t until he is literally, physically starving to death that his metaphorical hunger for worldly meaning subsides. Some readers can see his death as a disappointment or a failure, but the real notion it brings is that death is one form of success for a person with the ideas Christopher has. Although he doesn’t die purposefully, his journey is concluded when it’s clear that the journey was not just physical but also emotional, mental, and metaphorical. Through physical starvation Christopher McCandless’ hunger for personal truth and discovery is fed.

Christopher McCandless’ adventure is a display of the human idea of finding the meaning of life. His personal discovery of truth is found not in the environment he placed himself in but in his own mind, exhibiting the uselessness of a physical quest when a mental journey satisfies self-discovery. Krakauer’s use of “hunger” as physical, emotional and metaphorical in a person’s life highlights the contrast between human needs and wants.

The Many Mistakes of Chris McCandless

You can hear the waves crash against the shore less than fifty feet from you. Your prized car, the one that you’ve loved for years now, is stuck in the sand, unable to move. All of the money you didn’t donate to charity, preventing malnutrition in the United States, is burning in front of you, smoke billowing out. You’re ready to embark on your adventure into the wild, into the depths of the Alaskan forests in hopes of finding yourself. Your name is Chris McCandless.

When Chris McCandless left his hometown of Annandale, Virginia, he was extremely unprepared for what he was going to face in the next 112 brutal days in Alaska. In his backpack, he had “little more than a .22 caliber rifle and a 10-pound bag of rice” (Power, 1). He was hoping to discover himself and test to make sure he could live in the Alaskan wilderness with little to nothing, but instead only found himself dead. He died of starvation, which was almost inevitable when he had only 10 pounds of rice for his entire trip, although it cannot be denied that he had planned to leave much earlier, 33 days earlier, in fact, and could not because he was unprepared for the tricky condition of his new environment. Without a map, boots, a compass, more than one set of extra clothes, or many other things that are necessary for proper survival, Chris simply wasn’t ready to live in the wild.

When he walked into the wilderness, Chris found that the Teklanika River wasn’t too much of a struggle to get though. When he tried to leave 79 days later, he had all of his stuff packed up on his back and was “prepared to head out of the wilderness, only to be blocked by the now raging [Teklanika] River”. (Mason, 2) Chris hadn’t taken into account the way that the river worked, with it appearing calm when he entered, but as he tried to exit, he found it unable to be passed. The thing is, if he had been better prepared with a map, he would have walked down towards the braided channels and found an alternative way across. Instead, Chris said that he would wait for the river to go back down, crawled back into his sleeping bag, and eventually died.

Chris didn’t grow up in Alaska, so he had no idea what to properly expect when he got there. He loved to read big adventure books by authors that glamorized places like Alaska, when in reality, the wilderness isn’t always as inviting as it seems. He came with what the books had told him he needed and did no additional research to see if perhaps he should learn a few techniques on how to properly store moose meat and on what to bring on an adventure to The Last Frontier. “[He] came there because there was something about the story, and about Alaska, that drew [him] there.” (Power, 3)

It has since been proven that Chris McCandless died due to consuming some poisonous potato seeds, which he recorded in his journal entry. He had picked up a book along his way to Alaska called Tanaina Plantlore by Priscilla Russel Kari, a book that told him all of the plants in Alaska that were to be found and whether or not they were poisonous. He used that book almost constantly while trying to battle starvation, and he ate only plants and berries to survive. The book did in fact tell him that the potato plant he was eating was not poisonous, but the seeds, in some cases (unspecified) would cause the body to become so weak that it could no longer move, causing the person to starve to death. Although McCandless’s death was not due to the fact that he couldn’t find food, there are still many ways in which he could have saved himself.

The thing is, if McCandless had brought a map or more than 10 pounds of rice, there is a large chance he would still be alive today or at least would have made it out of the wild. The map would have lead him to the braided channels further down in the river, which would have let him cross 33 days earlier and make his way to the side of the road. If he had brought another 5 pounds of rice, he would have had food for approximately another 40 days, and would have probably made it across alive. Being severely unprepared was the downfall of Chris McCandless; if he had only brought one or two more items, there’s a large chance he would be walking with the rest of us on this Earth.

Your name is Chris McCandless. Your body is weak, so weak you can barely move into your sleeping bag. You feel the springs from the mattress dig into your now overly pronounced spine. Your entire body aches and you can’t help but wonder what on earth made you want to come to Alaska.

Jim Casy and Chris McCandless: Transcendentalism Gone Wrong

The philosophy of transcendentalism has played a major role in shaping American literature for the last 150 years. At its core, transcendentalism is a set of principles designed to guide a person to happiness through their relationships with God, nature, others, and his or herself. The transcendentalist movement that spread around the country in the late 1800s preached ideas of the importance of nature, the sanctity of life and the ability of humans to be moral beings, and the value of individualism. Transcendentalism appealed to many Americans because they stated that tradition and societal values were not as valuable as the ability to learn and individual morals. In particular, these ideas had a great pull on many American authors. In fact, transcendentalism and its tenets heavily influenced one of America’s most successful and iconic authors, John Steinbeck. His novel The Grapes of Wrath, widely regarded as an American classic, draws heavily from the ideas of the transcendentalism. The story, which is set in 1930s America, has elements of transcendentalism embedded in throughout. Steinbeck mainly uses the character of Jim Casy, a retired minister, as a tool to spread transcendent ideas to other characters. As a result, the main characters of the book also become subscribers to transcendentalism. Many years after the Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, a young man named Chris McCandless would take up the ideas of transcendentalism in his quest for personal freedom. The transcendentalist movement heavily influenced his story, recounted in Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. His desire to live free of societal influences as well as his fiercely independent nature would push him to risk life and limb in the pursuit of independence. He was an admirer of the author Henry David Thoreau and subscribed to the belief that the only way to truly live is to live in nature, seeing the world without prejudice and the opinions of others obscuring the world. Although theses two works may seem to have very little in common, they are, in fact, similar on the most fundamental level. The transcendent values that Jim Casy represents also play a key role in the life and death of Chris McCandless.

Throughout the two works, both protagonists the tenets of transcendentalism guide the two men. Specifically, the tenets of self reliance and the importance of nature drove these two men to dedicate their lives to a cause in which they firmly believe. In subscribing to the beliefs of transcendentalism, specifically the importance of nature and self reliance, Jim Casy and Chris McCandless force themselves to take risks and in doing so, sowed the seeds of their demise. Perhaps the most most obvious connection between Chris McCandless and Jim Casy is their shared passion for nature and the clarity it can bring to life. Clinging to their ideals, consequently, forces them to accept the fact that they will have to take many risks. Both men experienced life changing moments in the wilderness that would affect their personal values and their relations with others. For Casy, this event occurred shortly before Tom Joad met him on his way to the Joad’s farm. Later in the novel, after Grandpa dies, Casy provides insight as to the value he places on nature and the land. “You fellas can make some kinda new life, but Grandpa, his life was over an’ he knowed it. An’ Grandpa didn’ die tonight. He died the minute you took him off the place…He was that place, an’ he knowed it” (Steinbeck 146). Casy understands how important the land and nature were to Grandpa because he had experienced the same kind of connection himself. Steinbeck uses metaphor to state that Grandpa and the land were one and the same. By doing this, Steinbeck exposes the extent to which Casy understands Grandpa’s situation. This reveals Casy’s true wisdom and intuition in addition to reinforcing one of the most important tenets of transcendentalism. “Thus, the individual’s soul mirrors the world’s soul, and we can arrive at these truths with the beauty and goodness of nature” (Quinn 1). The idea that nature and the human soul are permanently connected resounds throughout The Grapes of Wrath as well as Into the Wild. Chris McCandless shared many of the same sentiments as Casy. Like Casy, he realizes that the connection between man and nature is fundamental to a meaningful life. “You are wrong if you think joy emanates only or principally from human relationships. God has placed it all around us. It is in everything and anything we might experience” (Krakauer 57). By tying together human experiences and God and connecting the two to happiness, Chris reveals his views on the importance of nature, which he later uses to justify risking his life over and over again. For example, when Chris comes home from his summer trip out West, he informs his parents that he almost died on several occasions. In this belief, Chris believes that God intended for nature to be man’s principal source of joy, and consequently, he views nature as part of his identity. In this belief, Chris and Casy are identical.

Both men understand that the appreciation of nature must be a basic part of human existence. However, not everyone feels the same way and as a result, these two men make many risky decisions to stick to their beliefs. In order to find this clarity through nature, these men have to take on great risks to satisfy their own desires and wishes. However, since both men are very firm in their convictions, they accept these risks willingly because they are confident that they are making the right decisions. For Jim Casy, these risks mainly comes as a consequence of the revelations he has while in the wilderness. Shortly after Tom meets up with Casy, Casy reveals that he has changed from his days as a preacher. “‘I’ll be everywhere- wherever you look…Wherever they’s a fight so that hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beating up a guy, I’ll be there. An’ when our people eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build- why, I’ll be there’” (Steinbeck 419). The time Casy spends in nature puts him on a path that leads him to unify the Okies and fight for their rights. Casy knows that this was the right thing to do because it would would help hundreds of families, but he also knows that it puts him in extreme danger. “His selfless struggle eventually leads him to become a strike organizer and leader. He is killed for this activism… Casy’s new personal identity is an expression of a larger self…although such self-realization earns society’s disapproval and is responsible for his murder.” (Stanley 1). Casy knows, even before he organizes the strike, that it is a risky proposition for everyone involved, especially him. However, the transcendent values he adopted in the wilderness force him to look beyond his own life and take the risk. Chris McCandless also takes on innumerable risks to experience nature the way he wants. These risks are often more obvious and perilous than the ones Casy experiences. “The desert sharpened the sweet ache of his longing, amplified it, gave shape to it in sere geology and clean slant of light” (Krakauer 32). Chris is enthralled by the desert and the discomfort it brings. Since this is one of his early adventures, he feels more connected to nature than he ever had. Being alone in the desert serves to amplify his desire to connect with nature even more. For Chris, this is the beginning of his passion for, bordering addiction to, nature. Additionally, Chris justifies his new found passion by explaining that the solitude and brutal conditions of the desert made him experience life more acutely and hold on to every little detail. The willingness to take risks, therefore, is another connection between Casy and Chris. The value these two men place in nature pushes them to risk their lives and the lives of others in their pursuit of fulfillment.

Eventually, the value these two men place in nature turns against them and they began to suffer horribly for their actions. While they escape safely from some of their endeavors, sooner or later, reality catches up to them. In the case of Chris McCandless, nature begins to turn on him and show him that there are consequences to living in the woods. “For two days I couldn’t tell whether I was dead or alive. I writhed and twisted, with swarms of ants and flies crawling over me, while the poizon oozed and crusted on my face and arms and back” (Krakauer 71). In spite of the tortuous case of poison ivy he contracts every year, he continues to galavant through the woods. This is only one example of the consequences Chris suffers for being so attached to nature. Chris later dies of starvation in the Alaskan wilderness, his life taken by the perilous conditions he chose to embrace. Similarly, Casy also suffers the consequences of his relationship with nature. “Says one day in he went out into the wilderness to find his own soul, an’ he found that he didn’t have no soul that was his’n. Says he foun’ he jus’ got a little piece of a great big soul” (Steinbeck 418). Casy’s decision to become the leader of the Okies’ strike was made back in Oklahoma when he went out alone into the woods. The tenets of transcendentalism that he adopted during his time in the wilderness left him no other choice- he was almost obligated to lead the strike. Nature clearly had a great influence on these two men. Both went to extreme lengths to hang onto their connections with nature. The transcendent ideal of nature being a crucial element of everyone’s life is clearly evident in their actions. The second aspect of transcendentalism that would eventually result in the deaths of these two men is the importance they place on self-reliance. Jim Casy spent years as a preacher, proclaiming rules and morals that he himself did not truly believe in. Eventually, he decides that the only way to determine right from wrong is through self reflection. “There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue…And some of the things folks do is nice, and some ain’t nice, but that’s as far as any man got a right to say” (Steinbeck 23). Contrary to the ideas of the Christian faith, Casy believes that everyone should determine what they believe to be right and wrong, based on their own experiences and beliefs. He rejects the idea of a universal moral code that everyone must believe in, despite the fact the he preached such a code for years. This form of self reliance is fundamental to transcendentalism and Casy fully embraces it.

Chris McCandless is also consistent with this belief, although he took a more animalistic approach to it. “Chris was very much of the school that you should own nothing except what you can carry on your back at a dead run” (Krakauer 32). Chris is an example of self reliance to the nth degree. He believes that almost everything a person owns, save for a few bare necessities, is simply cluttering up their life with unnecessary complexity. McCandless believes that by letting go of one’s attachment material possessions, one can also let go of emotional and spiritual attachments that would otherwise restrain the human spirit. “Let men, true to their natures, cultivate the moral affections, lead manly and independent lives; let them make riches the means and not the end of existence, and we shall hear no more of the commercial spirit” (Olson 37).

Evidenced by their refusal to accept the social norms of their times, both men are clearly supporters of the idea of self reliance. Beyond that, both men are willing to put themselves in danger to maintain their independence. The self confidence and dedication that these two believe in wholeheartedly causes these men to take risks that someone who placed more value in conformity may not have taken. At one point in the novel, Casy puts himself in a dangerous position by volunteering to go to jail in Tom’s place in order to save the family. “‘Somebody got to take the blame. I got no kids. They’ll jus’ put me in jail, an’ I ain’t doing nothin’ but set aroun’” (Steinbeck 265). Casy sacrifices his safety and freedom to save Tom because he knows that he will be able to get by in jail. Volunteering to take Tom’s place in jail is one of the most risky situations Casy could have put himself in- he could have been beat, killed, or permanently separated from the family. However, he is used to taking his life into his own hands and willingly takes the risk. Chris’s belief in the importance of self reliance forces him to take risks as well. Most notably, Chris often wanders off into the woods extremely under equipped for the conditions he will face. “Alex admitted the only food in his pack was a ten pound bag of rice…he had no ax, no bug dope, no snowshoes, no compass. The only navigational aid he possessed was a tattered state road map…” (Krakauer 4). Chris takes extreme risks like this regularly during his time out West, this is only one case. For example, Chris crosses the US-Mexico border twice, while he is carrying a gun. Chris does not view self reliance as a noble idea or a vague concept that he finds interesting, to him, it is a way of life. Since both Jim Casy and Chris McCandless are willing to take these risks to maintain their sense of independence, it is only a matter of time before something drastic happens. They more often they take these risks, the greater the chance that, eventually, they will not escape unharmed. While their confidence in themselves is admirable, in the end, they overestimate their abilities, and it costs them their lives. In the case of Jim Casy, his demise comes at the hands of a mob of vigilantes attempting to break up the strike Casy organized. “Them cops been sayin’ how they’re gonna beat the hell outa us an’ run us outa the country. They figure I’m a leader ‘cause I talk so much” (Steinbeck 385). By leading the strike, Casy distinguishes himself as a target. The reason he feels the need to lead the strike, instead of letting someone else do it, is because he believes firmly in the concept of self reliance. Pushing someone else to do the right thing instead of doing the right thing himself goes against one of his fundamental values. He relies only on himself to lead the strike because he knows that it has to be done, and relying on anyone besides himself to get it done would be wrong. “From this idea it follows that every individual will trust those instincts which he shares with all men… It will rather seek social freedom or mass democracy… If this mass democracy leads to the abandonment of genteel taboos and to the modification of some traditional ideas of morality, that is inevitable” (Carpenter 1). Casy abandoned religion long ago and replaced it with a new sense of self reliance and independence. Now, he pays the price for going against the ideas society wants him to accept. Although Chris’s approach to self reliance resulted in a different set of circumstances, they were nonetheless fatal as well. “S.O.S. I NEED YOUR HELP. I AM INJURED, NEAR DEATH…I AM ALL ALONE…IN THE NAME OF GOD, PLEASE REMAIN TO SAVE ME’” (Krakauer 197). Chris’s determination to survive in the woods without the help of anyone culminates in his death. He refuses to take anything aside from the absolute bare minimum, and it costs him his life. Anything else he could have brought would only have made it easier to survive- taking away the reason he was conducting the trip in the first place. Casy and Chris are both fiercely independent, self reliant people. The priority these two men place in being self reliant leads to the death of both men. Despite their best efforts, they both sacrifice their lives to adhere to what they believed in.

Throughout their lives, the transcendent tenets of self reliance and the importance of nature guide Jim Casy and Chris McCandless into making decisions that eventually result in their deaths. For Casy, nature was a teacher that revealed to him the beliefs and morals that would lead him to organize the migrant workers in California. For Chris, nature was the thing that gave his life purpose. The only time he felt truly happy was when he was alone in the wilderness, experiencing all life had to offer. However, nature soon turned against them and tested their dedication by forcing them into risky scenarios. The lessons Casy learned from nature would eventually push him to lead a strike in California, placing himself it severe danger. Chris faced serious physical damage, such as a full body case of poison ivy, as a result of his time in nature. Finally, their dependence on nature would eventually contribute to their deaths. Casty is killed for leading the strike and Chris dies of starvation in the Alaskan wilderness. The second transcendent principle that guided these two men through their lives was self reliance-the idea that you should not depend on anyone except yourself too heavily and that finding your own way in life is one of the keys to happiness. To Casy, self reliance filled the hole that religion had left when he stopped preaching. He came up with his own set of morals to replace the ones he no longer believed in. To Chris, self reliance was a lifestyle that required absolute dedication and huge sacrifices. However, to him, no price was too large because it allowed him to find purpose in his life. Consequently, both place themselves risky situations because of their desire to remain independent. Casy willingly went to jail and led a strike against a peach orchard, putting himself in severe danger on both occasions. Chris went into the wilderness totally under equipped constantly, risking his life every time. Ultimately, the importance they placed in self reliance, combined with their passion for nature, culminated in their deaths. Their dedication to the tenets of transcendentalism and their unwillingness to give up their morals was their undoing. In subscribing to the beliefs of transcendentalism, specifically the importance of nature and self reliance, Jim Casy and Chris McCandless force themselves to take risks and in doing so, sowed the seeds of their demise.

Exploration of Manifest Destiny In John Krakauer’s Into the Wild

Even from the humble beginnings of modern Western society, the wilderness has gripped the collective imagination of Americans. Through Manifest Destiny and, more recently, expansion into the American Northwest, modern minds have been captured by the allure of the wilderness. Jon Krakauer is no different. After learning of the death of Christopher McCandless, Krakauer writes a quick article on the unfortunate demise. His work soon becomes his passion as Krakauer composes a nonfiction narrative on the adventure that ultimately lead to the downfall of McCandless. In his narrative, Krakauer drifts from traditional transcendentalist writing through the utilization of concrete rather than the abstract diction often found in transcendentalist literature. Although initial perceptions of Krakauer’s objective revolve around the description of McCandless’s mortality, a truer purpose lies in the exploration of why American minds are so captivated by the wilderness.

Often, Krakauer crafts dramatic shifts in tone to represent the affect nature has on one’s mind. When writing of his excursion onto Devil’s Thumb, Krakauer begins his ascent with a distant tone generated by the dry diction of “catwalk,” “rock prow,” and “thereby execute” (141). The use of such technical diction emphasizes the initial sentiment felt by Krakauer that the climb was merely a means for later boasting and held no emotional connection. In contrast, after the “climb goes on (142)” Krakauer becomes closer with nature, and the tone of the writing becomes more personal with the inclusion of “stirs in your chest,” “I felt,” and “chutzpah” (143). This shift from distant to personal tone indicates nature’s ability to transform the perspective of the mind and reflects one reason why nature captivates Americans.

Moreover, Krakauer argues that such effect can only be captured through nature. For example, while on the summit of Devil’s Thumb, Krakauer forms a satisfied tone as he describes how his “cracked lips stretch[ed] into a painful grin” (153). This joyful tone is lost as Krakauer attempts to reintegrate into civilization at Wrangle Narrows. As a result, the tone of his writing becomes depressed with somber diction including “mumbled,” “lurched,” and “gutted” (155). This use of grim tone is a stark antithesis with the elated and satisfied diction utilized to describe the time spent on the summit and signifies that nature is the sole place for contentment and transformation.

Krakauer also employs concrete and specific diction to demonstrate the tangibility and exactness that the wilderness holds. For instance, while describing his arrival at the site where McCandless began his Alaskan journey, Krakauer represents the scene through concrete diction including “river,” “snowpack,” “water,” and “rocks” (173). The adoption of concrete diction indicates Krakauer’s view that the wilderness is a physical entity and not the abstract idea that propagates in the imagination of Americans as a distant being only available to those without ties to civilization. In conjunction with concrete, Krakauer focuses on specific diction to depict nature through the use of “Alaska Range,” Dan Solie,” “California,” and “Stampede Trail” (173). The specific nature of the diction used represents the definite quality of the wilderness and exhibits Krakauer’s notion that nature and the wilderness are precise concepts that are unique to one place. This idea articulates the premise that, to achieve the benefits that nature offers, one must venture into its unfounded beauty.

Found in each chapter, scene descriptions take a prominent place in the overall structure and indicate a return to transcendentalist ideology. Most noticeably, at the beginning of chapters, Krakauer utilizes extended depictions of the surroundings. At the opening of chapter two, Krakauer describes the Alaska Range as containing “a boggy amalgam of muskeg, alder thickets, and veins of scrawny spruce” (10). This description continues for three paragraphs more and speaks to importance of nature as well as signals the return to a transcendentalist thought previously lost through concrete diction. Krakauer’s emphasis on the physical aspects of the wilderness further reflect on the high view Krakauer holds of it. This view is explored more deeply with the inclusion of an excerpt by wilderness writer Roderick Nash which posits that “wilderness created a perfect setting for melancholy or exultation” (157). The addition of this excerpt by Krakauer displays the preeminence of nature’s ability to transform thought through its physical setting.

Many times, Krakauer opts for figurative language to detail the allure of the wilderness. When describing the Detrital Wash, Krakauer writes that the air raised from the earth “like bubbles from the bottom of a boiling kettle” (27). This use of simile relates the almost incomprehensible awe of the untamed wild to the lay public, only knowing the pedestrian nature of a boiling kettle. Such a simplification of the complex beauty that resides in nature demonstrates the disconnect between the people that inhabit civilization and the true wonder that is found in the wilderness. In addition, Krakauer employs personification of the wilderness in his portrayal of the Strait of Georgia where the “slopes rose precipitously … bearded in a gloom of hemlock and cedar” (136). With this humanization of the wild, Krakauer validates nature’s ability to draw himself, and other Americans, into it with its siren call. Furthermore, Krakauer establishes the attraction of the wilderness through the imagery utilized when he and McCandless’s parents are departing the wild. Krakauer paints the image of nature’s quiet being “shattered by the percussive racket of the helicopter” (203). This formation of imagery exemplifies the ultimate solace and tranquility held in the wilderness that civilization cannot produce and posits that civilization is, instead, merely a percussive racket that shatters the offerings of the wilderness.

Throughout his narrative, Krakauer explores the grip that wilderness has on the American imagination without relying on the abstract diction used by orthodox transcendentalist literature, but rather through concrete alternatives. Nevertheless, Krakauer determines that the human-like draw of the wilderness fills the disconnect between nature and civilization with ultimate solace and tranquility. Moreover, Krakauer establishes that the power of the wilderness exists in its physical attributes, and by doing so, identifies nature’s unique ability to transform the minds of those who venture into the wild.

Two-Faced Transcendentalists

The transparent eyeball is a philosophical metaphor introduced by Transcendentalist, Ralph Waldo Emerson. The transparent eyeball represents an eye that serves only to be observant rather than reflective. Therefore it teaches us to take in all that nature has to offer. Christopher McCandles proves this very notion wrong. In the beginning stages of his life, he was very observant. He would keep to himself about the ideologies he strongly believed in. At times, when witnessing his parents fight, Christopher along with his sister would sit there witnessing their parents argue, with feelings of hatred. Chris absorbed the negativity from his parents and the corruptness of society. Chris McCandles acted as a transparent eyeball, according to Emerson, one would benefit from by being a silent onlooker since they would have a chance to find oneself. However, Chris did not benefit from being an onlooker, but rather it was the ability he had to voice his thoughts. This freedom was what powered Chris to find himself in the wildness. Without first standing up to his parents, he would never acquire enough will power to find himself in the Alaskan wilderness. Emerson and Chris McCandles, both incorporate transcendentalism in their lives, although, both seem to act hypercritical when carrying out their ideologies. Emerson preaches about living and going to the wilderness and finding himself, but he never did so, unlike Chris McCandles. However Chris gives us, readers an overwhelming amount of proof that he is a transcendentalist, but he performs a major task that contradicts his initial philosophies. Chris was seeking to go to Alaska to create his own experiences that diverge from society, although, found himself in a run down and used bus. This bus has clearly been used, and deteriorates his notion of creating one’s own experiences.

Christopher McCandles major turning point was when he broke out of the shell of the transparent eyeball is immediately after he graduated; his parents wanted to gift him with a new car. Almost instinctively, Christopher denied this gift, at that very point he was no longer an observant onlooker. He spoke out, and he voiced what he thought to be the way of life. As it is stated, “It was the first present she had received from her son in more than two years, since he had announced to his parents that, on principle, he would no longer give or accept gifts…’I can’t believe they’d try and buy me a car’…bought my respect” (p. 20-21) By Him affirming, he no longer wanted to accept of giving gifts, in other words, he didn’t want to owe anything to anyone. He was clearly an opinionated individual, once society capped him, he exploded, and unfortunately, his family felt the immediate repercussions, as he disappeared to Alaska for a long period of time.

The fact that Chris wasn’t raised and practiced expressing his philosophies, triggered him to ratify his life, also known as escaping to Alaska. Christopher had to eventually voice his revolutionary ideas, such as depending on himself, and not to feel in debt and owe anything to anyone, even his parents. This represents the first turning point of Chris McCandless of no longer being voiceless or absorbent, he is no longer a transparent eyeball. It was time for him to speak out and stand up for what he believed in, no matter the negative onlookers that he will face throughout his journey. The fact that Chris kept all his notions and thoughts bottled up until his graduation caused him to commit rash decisions such as burning his money or escaped into the wilderness of Alaska where he did not communicate with his family. His family was a major cause of his rash decisions and society’s corrupt filter on your true self. Because his emotions were bottled up for so long he acted out in what seemed illogical to us. If he would’ve voiced out his opinions from the start he would never feel compelled to abandoned his family and society.

Chris McCandless and the major transcendentalism, Emerson and Thoreau, both were hypocritical when carrying out their philosophical ways. Emerson is generally hypercritical since he preaches one needs to go out to the woods and find your true self, although he has never physically escaped to the wilderness, unlike Chris McCandless. One of Thoreau’s main idea was to make your own path and not to follow others footsteps, although Chris McCandless does not direct his journey in this way. As stated in his essay, Walden, or Life in the Woods, “It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived… he would meet with a success but it will be a success unexpected in common hour. “ (p. 933) Once he discovers the run down bus where lies in a used bed and puts old utensils into use. If Chris would have purely believed in his transcendentalist ideas he would not live where other experiences were created in that very space.

Emerson believes that when you are a child, you attain special connections to daily activities because you have not yet been corrupted by society’s filter. He states this in his essay, Nautre, “To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminated only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of a child…” (p. 487) Chris as a child was not able to have these personal connections because he was observant and acting as a transparent eyeball. Instead of acting as an extrovert and voicing his opinions, he was raised and trained his mind to stay silent. This caused his extreme urges of breaking out the reflective shell in order to have these connections that were in a lack of in his childhood. His expedition to Alaska made up for all of his lost connections as a kid. By being observant of society’s brainwashing powers, he became unable of speaking out, until a milestone in his life, graduation. This is when he was able to become independent and voice his philosophies, which allowed him to have the experiences he yearned for.

Emerson and Thoreau were major transcendentalists who were not only hypocritical but also teach, young journey seekers, such as Chris McCandless about personal experiences and daily life adventures. However, many of their philosophies are contradicted by their own actions. In addition, Chris McCandless proved some of their notions wrong. All of his childhood he had been what Emerson refers to the transparent eyeball, reflective and observant. This caused him to bottle his emotions and result in an extreme need to escape society. Emerson believes that being observant will lead to one finding oneself. But, in Chris’s case, he found himself in the complete opposite case. He spoke out and stated his philosophies, which shocked and disappointed his family, but for once he stood up for himself. Although some of Chris actions were contradictory to his initial conquest, for example, cheating his own experiences, and feeding off others “traveled paths.” He doesn’t take to the grave his philosophies in life, and but rather prays to god after claiming he was an atheist. Chris’s revered idols proved to be two faced in the end. Even though Chis proved some of Emerson’s notions to be incorrect, they still are similar, in the sense that they are both hypocritical.

Krakauer’s Successful Tribute to McCandless: Balancing Fiction and Non-Fiction in Literary Journalism

Journalists, and authors of investigative literature, often struggle to keep their writing 100 percent truthful when researching cases with few leads and vague details. Writers tend to teetertotter on the edge of the truth in order to leave readers satisfied with as few questions possible at the end of their work. Although Jon Krakauer’s uses this style of story telling in his narrative account Into the Wild, while using pieces of both, he almost perfectly combines fact and fiction to create an intriguing yet honest tale. Using standard definitions of such complex concepts as non-fiction and “new” journalism, this paper aims to compare Krakauer’s use of fiction and non-fiction in relation to new journalism/literary journalism.

Into the Wild’s fictional elements do not outweigh the true facts stated by Jon Krakauer but are balanced nicely allowing the novel to be classified as a work of new journalism. Fiction is defined as “something invented by the imagination or feigned”, where as non-fiction is “writing or cinema that is about facts or real events” (Webster). These two types of writing are connected in a recently new way of non-fiction writing known as New Journalism or Literary Journalism. New Journalism is “Journalism that features the authors subjective responses to people and events and that often includes fictional techniques meant to illuminate and dramatize those responses” (Webster). As mentioned in the Krakauer’s author’s note at the beginning of his book, he does his best to remain impartial and unbiased, but with a story with so many holes and uncertainties, he had to make many assumptions about real life Chris McCandless’s character, and about the thought process and events that took place. Krakauer gathers his facts by following McCandless’s tracks, meeting and interviewing anyone who new or had seen Chris during his adventure. Through these interviews, Krakauer gained lots of information, but with that developed more questions, forcing Krakauer to improvise and make logical conjectures even as he worked with McCandless’s known traits.

In these respects, Into the Wild combines all the useful, factual information Jon Krakauer gathered and combined it with the ideas and assumptions he created in his head to pour out an engrossing piece of Literary Journalism. This is demonstrated when Krakauer writes “[Chris] probably understood that if he was patient and waited, the river would eventually drop…” (171). This line was created with deductive reasoning in relation to the evidence. As untrue as it could potentially be, including it does not affect or change the events to follow that are true. This use of fiction is entirely acceptable for the genre. On numerous occasions throughout the book, Jon Krakauer reaches to relate McCandless’s life to his own in attempt to understand what he could be thinking. Early in the reading, the author explains the pressure and stress Chris was under by the overbearing control his father had over him. He uses this fact to back up his personal belief that part of Chris’s reason for abandoning society was to escape and experience an extreme form of ‘no pressure’. On page 155 Krakauer explains how he thinks himself and Chris were “similarly affected by the skewed relationships [they] had with [their] fathers”, this quote was said, too, as away of defending his idea that his, and more importantly Chris’s, adventurous spirit was fuelled by their families. This reasoning is only speculation of course, as Krakauer never fails to remind readers that he can’t be certain of what McCandless was thinking, the inclusion of these ideas only keeps readers entertained, and for some, inspired. However, the goal of this novel is not to cause its readers to wonder further about what Chris was thinking and why, it is to answer those already developed questions. Krakauer makes the decision to connect himself to McCandless as a way of giving his readers possible if not definite answers to the gaps in information. He doesn’t want to leave the reader unsatisfied or needing more.

Krakauer’s assumptions don’t only stem from his personal experience. Chris McCandless documented his daily experiences in his journal, the 113 days spent alone in the wilderness. His entries were not long extensive hour by hour descriptions, but often one to ten word shorts. Alongside these, he also wrote his thoughts and ideals in notes inside the books he brought with him. After a long investigation into these entries, Krakauer seems to be trying to find any possible meaning behind even McCandless’s simplest words. In one, “‘HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED’” (189), is written, a quick thought Krakauer gives plenty of attention to. In a way that almost seems to be grasping at straws, due to all the back tracking, Krakauer offers his analysis of this quote. The just of it is that he believes this quote explains Chris came to the realization that societal isolation was not the key to happiness, but other people is what makes something great. He explains that with this Chris would have been wanting to return to the real world and be a little more vulnerable and open. This is an extreme assumption to make with little to no context from McCandless, but like before, Jon is sure to reiterate that this is only his opinion and can not be proven correct or incorrect. These types of not entirely accurate pieces of information are also completely justified. Including ideas like this, especially at such crucial moments of Chris’s journey, shows readers that McCandless may have come to a positive realization. With his death coming so soon after writing this quote, it offers readers comfort in that he did not pass without accomplishing at least one of his goals, finding happiness.

In a way, Krakauer throws readers a bone by giving them a sort of ‘happy out’, despite not being certain of the truth behind McCandless’s journal entries. Chris McCandless’s journals were not only nonspecific regarding its content, but they also neglected to note the date. His entries kept track of time only by numbering them one through one hundred thirteen, presumed to be the amount of time he spent in the woods (Read, Pictures). This may be due to Chris losing track of time, forgetting the day, or perhaps not wanting to know, but none the less Krakauer takes it upon himself to add that bit in. Through the novel, Krakauer makes references to specific days, he says on May 22nd Chris lost the crown from one of his molars (164), and on July 28th McCandless finished the book he was reading (189), and so much more. These days are impossible to be certain on unless McCandless mentioned them specifically. Krakauer speculates the date he claims are facts based on the interviews with people who met Chris during his travels, post cards that went out prior to the beginning of Chris’s true disappearance, and the date commonly assumed to be the last he was seen, April 28th, 1992 (7). If someone interviewed got a day wrong, or Chris was out of it enough to miss a day in his notes, or so many other possibilities, Jon Krakauer’s entire timeline could be giving false information and he leaves no comment of potential inaccuracy. It’s understandable that he made this writing decision to help readers, and possibly himself, keep track of the events order of occurrence.

Into the Wild is written in the order that Krakauer found his information; therefore, it is very easy to be lost along the way. However, an explanation of the meaning of the numbered passages would have sufficed and this entire uncertainty could be avoided. Krakauer never straight up lies to his readers about events that occurs or their order, but he fluffs large amounts of every chapter with speculations, judgements, and guesses. Almost always reminding the audience that what he writes shouldn’t be totally taken as fact, he manages to keep readers interest with just the right amount of dramatization and types of false advertising for Into the Wild to still be classified as a non-fiction story. The eerie telling of McCandless’s adventure could not have been handled better. From offering all facts available, meshed with every possibility Jon Krakauer could imagine, this use of literary journalism created a memorable tribute to a journey most people could never imagine.

Nice Try: Lost Nuance in Sean Penn’s Adaptation of ‘Into the Wild’

Timothy Treadwell, best known as the subject for Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, shunned society and left it behind, subsequently falling victim to his own convictions out in the wilderness. Treadwell, an American bear enthusiast, was mauled after 13 years of wildlife integration, in Alaska by a bear. This tragic story is reiterated throughout Krakauer’s novel, however takes the form in the story of Chris McCandless. This escape from societal norms is parasitic to Chris, and is shown throughout both media forms. Krakauer’s book is an examination of McCandless’ life and death, illustrated in such manner to evoke a feeling of caution and danger; while Penn’s film captures a jovial and emotionally shallow style, diluting Krakauer’s initial inflection of the story.

Initially, one is able to see throughout the film, the constant convivial attempt in Chris’ journey, not previously demonstrated in the novel. For instance when Chris is talking to Jan Burres about her estranged son, Chris puts up an emotional barrier in order to create a separation between his purpose and the purpose for others. However the impact Chris makes on Rainey and his wife is far to strong in the movie and none of what Krakauer had appropriated was exhibited in this scene. For example, “He’d successfully kept Jan Burres and Wayne Westerberg at arms length” (Krakauer 55). The passage illuminates McCandless’ deep problems with intimacy, which, however are essential in his ultimately fatal two year quest for peace and meaning. Penn destroys this idea by allowing Chris to become connected with Jan in a very sentimental manner, so much so that Chris almost becomes the son that Burres never had. Penn’s attempts at character development is diminished through this scene due to a lack of validity with Krakauer’s work.

Moreover, another aspect that is indispensable to the story is Krakauer’s ability to connect with Chris on a level met only by the shared desire to explore well beyond societal boundaries. Krakauer does not believe that McCandless is as naive or arrogant as he is understood to be. One could argue that Penn’s adaptation of the film, especially during Chris’ travels, is too childish or jovial. This however is countered by Krakauer’s deep relation to McCandless, and the youth they both once shared. Krakauer, “like Chris McCandless, [I] was a raw youth who mistook passion for insight and acted according to an obscure, gap-ridden logic” (Krakauer 155). The implication of this passage is that, had Chris survived, he likely would have matured; learning to gain intimacy, and to forgive flaws in those he loved. Penn, however, suggests throughout the film that Chris travels to escape his past through shadows covering only half of McCandless’ face, such as the scene when Chris reads, perched on top of a mountain overlooking the ocean. Without Krakauer’s fundamental role through personal experience, the film loses its validity.

Furthermore, one argument that can be made about Chris’ journey, is the over complication of the purpose of the escapade. Krakauer implies that Chris may have gone into the wilderness to die; an extreme method of revitalization only countered through Krakauer’s matured experience, through with Penn decides to cut. McCandless writes, “An extremist. An aesthetic voyager…Escaped from Atlanta. Thou shall not return” (Krakauer 163). The implication of this quote is to prove Chris’ complete deterrence from society, ultimately resulting in his predetermined death. Penn’s decision to purify the meaning of the escape, only to note that it is over when Chris finishes his revolution, is preposterous. McCandless will never finish his journey because it is an ongoing search for purpose and peace, counteracted by the savageness of nature.

Ultimately, Penn’s adaptation of the tragic love story between Chris McCandless and nature is ebbed throughout the film, losing Krakauer’s subtle, but important, timbre the audience deserves. Krakauer’s ability to associate with Chris while maintaining an unbiased perception allows the audience to appreciate and understand the volatility of his message. This cautionary tale is coherent with many memoirs of non-fiction events, however the sustained proficiency within Krakauer’s directive proves to be constructive to the story, while Penn loses this accessibility through a benevolent viewpoint. Chris’ adventure proves to be an insightful approach to the escape from everyday life and will continue to be, so long as nature stands in the way of man. “No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild” (Alexander Supertramp 163).