“By the time Eustace Conway was seven years old, he could throw a knife accurately enough to nail a chipmunk to a tree. By the time he was ten, he could hit a running squirrel at fifty feet with a bow and arrow. When he turned twelve, he went out into the woods, alone and empty-handed, built himself a shelter, and survived off the land for a week. When he turned seventeen, he moved out of his family’s home altogether and headed into the mountains, where he lived in a teepee of his own design, made fire by rubbing two sticks together, bathed in icy streams, and dressed in the skins of the animals he had hunted and eaten. This move occurred in 1977, by the way. Which was the same year the film Star Wars was released.”
I was already wowed by how well-crafted Elisabeth Gilbert characterized the last american pioneer. But it took me 150+ pages in to realize that it was a true story. I became more emotionally invested in Eustace Conway and the philosophy he lives in. At times, I sense the tragedy and losing battles he has fought so hard to accomplish.
The Last American Man follows a modern day Davy Crockett survivalist, pioneer named Eustace Conway who lived the ways of Native American Indians to start his own life in the Appalachian Mountains. He is deeply attached to the environment, survival tactics and the original way of doing things. He believes that his true calling is to reintroduce Americans to the concept of revelatory communion with the frontier, seeing himself as the “Man of Destiny”.
“I am the teacher of all people,” he says and presents himself as an “epic masculine hero” His actions aims to reverse and undo the inherent corruption and greed and malaise of modern America. Our “constant striving for convenience, [is] eradicating the raucous and edifying beauty of our true environment and replacing that beauty…” Towards the end, Eustace failed to have a sensibility about the roles people play in the world and took things too seriously. He became too closed off in his own world of his mighty dogma. In moments of grief, he always searches for logic and for answers. He may have accomplished multiple transcontinental journeys and accomplishments but failed to cultivate genuine relationships.
Apart from the characterization of Eustace, it is also a commentary on the fragile state of male identity and America. America is one of the few places in the world that celebrates old tales of the self-sufficient single male pioneers like Daniel Boone and Lewis and Clark, conquering lands and disregarding females. It serves as a reminder of the things we have forgotten and fought for that lead us to where we are now. The author poignantly ends in the epilogue:
“The history of Eustace Conway is the history of man’s progress on the North American continent. First, he slept on the ground and wore furs. He made fire with sticks and ate what he could hunt and gather. When he was hungry, he threw stones at birds and blew darts at rabbits and dug up roots from the ground, and so he survived. He wove baskets from the trees in his domain. he was a nomad; he moved on foot. Then he moved into a teepee and became a more sophisticated trapper of animals. He made fire with flint and steel. When he mastered that, he used matches. He began to wear wool. He moved out of the teepee and into a simple wooden structure. He became a farmer, clearing the land and cultivating a garden. He acquired livestock. He cut paths into the woods, which became trails and then roads. He improved the roads with bridges. He wore denim.
He was first an Indian, then an explorer, than a pioneer. He built himself a cabin and became a true settler. As a man of utopian vision, he now sustains himself with the hope that like-minded people will buy property around Turtle Island and raise their families as he will someday raise his … He evolves before our eyes. He improves and expands and improves and expands because he is so clever and so resourceful that he cannot help himself. He is not compelled to rest in the enjoyment of what he already knows how to do; he must keep moving on. He is unstoppable. And we are also unstoppable. We on this continent have always been unstoppable. We all progress, as de Tocqueville observed, ‘like a deluge of men, rising unabatedly, and driven daily onward by the hand of God.’ We exhaust ourselves and everyone else. And we exhaust our resources — both natural and interior — and Eustace is only the clearest representation of our urgency.”
We seem to have stopped paying attention.
It seems that we have fallen out of step with our natural cycles of the seasons that, for millennials prior, have defined our existence. “Having lost that vital connection with nature, the nation is in danger of losing its humanity.”
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 winter and summer if we can eat strawberries everyday?
How can a man operate in a society when there is no longer a clear path for him?
“What happens to young people in a society that has lost all trace of ritual? Because adolescence is a transitional period, it is an inherently perilous journey.But culture and ritual are supposed to protect us through the transitions of life, holding us in safety during danger and answering confusing questions about identity and change, in order to keep us from getting separated from the community during our hardest personal journeys.” “How is a modern American boy supposed to know when he has reached manhood? When he gets his driver’s license ? When he smokes pot for the first time? When he experiences unprotected sex with a young girl who herself has no idea she’s a woman or not?”
Problem solving because that’s the only thing we can do.
It’s a rare skill that we have to accomplish, being able to “improvise in the face of disaster”. Playing video games, for instance, Oregon Trail and being detached from the danger through a virtual screen allows us to take a step back once we fail and reach “game over”. We stand up from our desks, grab a beer and move out to our next task. On the contrary, Conway does endure all manners of hardship and does figure out how to rig something up when the axle snaps. He chooses to live in discomfort and he does, because he has to. People say “I want to do what you’re doing” in fact they probably don’t. We pride ourselves in the ease and convenience of our modern lives and when given the opportunity, we are not ready to walk away from it all. We could do it if we had to… but we won’t.