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The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

November 16, 2010

The Last American Man

The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The seemingly romantic, endearing story of a man living in the wilderness, on his own, a true frontiersman, is the same story of a man, who, in response to the feeling that he has disappointed his father, lives by himself in every sense of the phrase “by himself”. First in a tipi, then in a crude cabin, and then in a nicer cabin, killing/scavenging his food, finding his own water, cutting the trees, harvesting a garden. He first does this at twelve, and then leaves home for good, for the wilderness, in his late teens. In his life, to be 100% self-sufficient and true to nature, living without harming the Earth, is the only way to be a responsible citizen. However, it comes to mean that he must wheel and deal in order to keep his land pristine, as well as deal with lesser apprentices to try to keep his ideal alive. He spends so much time teaching classes and organizations, talking to reporters, and giving seminars on the road, that his “camp”, Turtle Island, declines without his directorial precision, creating an even greater sense of failure. He is also disappointed in his inability to find a wife or start a family. His great charisma and charm attract plenty of idealistic, smart, beautiful girlfriends, but his unattainable standards eventually drive them away. These standards also alienate his brother and sister, who distance themselves from his unforgiving standards much in the same way he did from his father’s.

Excerpts: (QUOTED)

p13 It is his belief that we Americans, through our constant striving for convenience, are eradicating the raucous and edifying beauty of our true environment and replacing that beauty with a safe but completely faux “environment.” What Eustace sees is a society steadily undoing itself, it might be argued, by its own over-resourcefulness. Clever, ambitious, and always in search of greater efficiency, we Americans have, in two short centuries, created a world of push-button, round-the-clock comfort for ourselves. The basic needs of humanity – food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, transportation, and even sexual pleasure—no longer need to be personally labored for or ritualized or even understood. All these things are available to us now for mere cash. Or credit. Which means that nobody needs to know how to do anything anymore, except the one narrow skill that will earn enough money to pay for the conveniences and services of modern living.

But in replacing every challenge with a shortcut we seem to have lost something, and Eustace isn’t the only person feeling that loss. We are an increasingly depressed and anxious people—and not for nothing. Arguably, all these modern conveniences have been adopted to save us time. But time for what? Having created a system that tends to our every need without causing us undue exertion or labor, we can now fill the hours with…?

Well, for one thing, telelvision—loads of it, hours of it, days and weeks and months of it in every American’s lifetime. Also, work. Americans spend more and more hours at their jobs every year; in almost every household both parents (if there are two parents) must work full-time outside of the home to pay for all these goods and services. Which means a lot of time commuting. Which means a lot of stress. Less connection to family and community. Fast-food meals eaten in cars on the way to and from work. Poorer health all the time. (America is certainly the fattest and most inactive society in history, and we’re packing on more pounds every year. We same to have the same disregard for our bodies as we do for our other natural resources; if a vital organ breaks down, after all, we always believe we can just buy a new one. Somebody else will take care of it. Same way we believe that somebody else will plant another forest someday if we use this one up. That is, if we even notice that we’re using it up.)

There’s an arrogance to such an attitude, but – more than that—there’s a profound alienation. We have fallen out of rhythm. It’s this simple. If we don’t cultivate our own food supply anymore, do we need to pay attention to the idea of, say, seasons? Is there any difference between sinter and summer if we can eat strawberries every day?…….If we never leave our house except to drive to work, do we need to be even remotely aware of this powerful, humbling, extraordinary, and eternal life force that surges and ebbs around us all the time?

p126 Most Americans probably don’t want to live off the land in any way that would involve real discomfort, but they still catch a thrill from Eustace’s continual assurance that “You can!” Because that’s what most of us want to hear. We don’t want to be out there in a snowstorm on the Oregon Trail, fixing the broken axle of a covered wagon; we want to feel as though we could do it if we had to. And Eustace lives as he does in order to provide us with that comforting prrof.

“You can!” he keeps telling us.

And we keep believeing him, because he does!

He is our mythical inner self, made flesh, which is why it’s comforting to meet him. Like seeing a bald eagle. (As long as there’s one left, we think, maybe things aren’t so bad, after all.) Of course, embodying the mythical hopes of an entire society is a pretty big job for one man, but Eustace has always been up for it. And people also sense that in him; they sense his self-assurance of being large enough to serve as a living metaphor, of being strong enough to carry all our desires on his back. So it’s safe to idolize him, which is an exciting experience in this callow, disillusioned age when it’s not safe to idolize anybody. And people get a little dizzy with that excitement, a little irrational. I know, because I’ve been there.
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