The Conventions of Ghosts: The Influences of Nineteenth-Century Nature Writers in a Modern World

(This piece was part of my graduate research in environmental rhetoric and counter-culture… looking at how literature and media has shaped our modern view of the environment leading into the National Parks movement.)

The nineteenth-century in America was, undeniably, a time of growth. Between the years of 1820 and 1870 the industrial revolution birthed an economy that was threatened by the British.[1]  Railroads expanded across the country and cities began to attract agriculturally-based communities with the promise of fruitful employment.  During this substantial industrial shift, America’s arts culture ultimately shifted as well, introducing the Transcendentalist movement into its literary era. [2]  In short, the Transcendentalist movement was one based around the idea of existentialism and the philosophical concept that humanity is inherently good, but has been corrupted by society.  The cleansing of this corruption, thus, is to venture away from society in order to find the “self”; to look at itself on the inside rather than focus externally on materialism.  Prolific writers such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and John Muir fathered this rather historically Romanticized movement.  Thoreau and Muir became designated as nature-writers. Their writings mused of the aesthetics of nature, the importance of its preservation in order to sustain mankind’s true-self, and the divinity of a land sculptured by God himself.   My aim in this project, through eco-criticism[3], is to show that by introducing aspects of the sublime and divine in what these authors deemed to be wilderness, these nature-writers actually changed the conventions of the entire term wilderness, establishing a radicalism that is both necessary and harmful to conservation movements.  The influence of these writers is reflected in both modern wilderness enthusiasts and eco-terrorists alike, defining the overall attitude of modern environmentalism.

To understand the colossal evolution of wilderness in Transcendental terms, it is important to understand the complex history of the word. Environmental historian William Cronon points out that wilderness “is the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history.”[4]  Every now and then, mankind encounters a movement or shift in its culture that will change the shape of it forever.  The control of fire, occurring over a million years ago, paved the way for today’s technological revolution and a multitude of other manmade successes; with fire, what initially was something that was considered dangerous and uncontrollable became something necessary to sustain an ever-growing lifestyle.  The same drastic change can be said about the term wilderness.[5] Prior to the eighteenth-century, wilderness was something to be feared. In fact, one of fire’s initial uses was to burn down forests to create open areas in which communities could be built because forests were viewed as unsafe or “wild”.  In Classical mythology, there were wild-lords like Pan, who in his goat-like form was commonly feared by Greek travelers in the forest.[6] In the Bible, chiefly in the Old Testament, wilderness is depicted as a wasteland and desert – the opposite of Eden.  In his book Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Nash argues that this fear of wilderness rose from the “inability to control or use [it].”[7]  In this fear, Mankind’s goal was to flee from nature towards civilization.

However, when the pilgrims landed in Plymouth around 1620, this fear of wilderness began to change.  Although there was an initial fear to this new “American” wilderness, there was something unique about it: it was virgin soil.[8] In this respect, the land did invoke fear, but the virgin landscape also summoned the urge to conquer and tame in a few brave souls who ventured into the frontier of America.  This subtle shift in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries created a mindset in which wilderness needed to be subdued and mined for resources in the construction and establishment of a new country.  America’s biggest accomplishment as a self-conscious and new-coming nation would be the expansion into the wilderness of the West.  Although the fear of wilderness was still present, the pioneers attacked it rather than fleeing to society.  Essentially, America was at war with the wilderness.[9]

This war against wilderness changed when America decided to create an identity as an independent country.  Nash argues that “…wilderness was actually an American asset.”[10]  Although America had indeed expanded into the wilderness, the land to the West was still considered virgin – and virgin land was something that the older counties of Europe lacked.  The Mississippi river was often compared to the Nile.  The pines in the West were greater than any of the pines in Europe.  Nash states, “America’s nature, if not her culture, would command the world’s admiration.”[11] American’s began to rush to defend not just nature, but the unique aesthetic landscapes of its wilderness.  This admiration and protection of nature “worked to convince Americans that because of the aesthetic and inspirational qualities of wilderness they were destined for artistic and literary excellence.”[12] In other words, this sudden defensive stance for nature paved way for the conventions of Transcendentalism.

With these drastic historical changes in mind I argue, that in the context of wilderness history, wilderness appreciation is a relatively new concept stemming from nineteenth-century culture.  From the century-driven changes going from fear, to war, to defense, it is easy to see that rather than referring to wilderness in terms of what it physically is, we have had a tendency to create our own version of it based on perception. And perception is something easily created by a literary movement. The Transcendentalists of the nineteenth-century emphasized the importance of wilderness and elevated it.  Wilderness was perceived as being unique to America, but that was its only defense, and with the industrial revolution hungry for more expansion, it needed something more. It needed to be deemed sacred.[13]

Transcendentalists like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir used nature in a way no one else had, creating an innovative and evocative definition of wilderness.  They did this by merging it with the term “sublime.”[14]  Although the term sublime has a rich philosophical history, it was the eighteenth-century philosophers Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant that allowed it to be used as one of the major concepts attached to the idea of Romanticism and nature-writing in the nineteenth-century.  According to both Burke and Kant, the sublime feeling draws on the feelings of both terror and awe.  In Ecosublime, Lee Rozelle mentions that in the presence of nature or wilderness, “these feelings demand a respectful awe that both Burke and Kant associate with the sublime moment.”[15]  These feelings were aroused in Thoreau and Muir through their experience of sublime landscapes, which to them became “those rare places on earth where one had more chance than elsewhere to glimpse the face of God.”[16]   In this Kantian view, sublimity established a relationship with the divine and nature.  Nature and wilderness suddenly became a way for God to display his creative power in the purest of forms; wilderness became sacred, creating an influential connotation that would remain permanently attached to the term.   In this combination of Romanticized sublimity and deism, “the appreciation of wilderness became a literary genre.”[17] In this respect, this philosophical concept was then adopted by eighteenth and nineteenth-century writers as one of the primary terms of the Romantic and Transcendentalist periods.  Thanks to writers like Thoreau and Muir, who deeply advocated the sublime characteristics of the wilderness experience, the appreciation of what was deemed sublime wilderness spread into the public eye.

Google the quote “in wildness is the preservation of the world” and you are likely to find a plethora of bumper stickers and t-shirts.  This quote, said by Henry David Thoreau in his piece “Walking” (1862) is one of the many statements of the period that advocated the appreciation of wilderness.  He is considered to be “the foremost among American authors who deal with nature.”[18]  What was once a term associated with demons, heathens, and fear was now being called, by one of the greatest minds of the time, the very thing that sustains the Earth.  Rozelle states, “Appreciation for wilderness began in the cities.  The literary gentleman wielding a pen, not the pioneer with his axe, made the first gestures of resistance against the strong currents of antipathy… by the mid-nineteenth century a few Americans had vigorously stated the case for appreciation.”[19]  Intellectual Transcendentalists and writers like Emerson, Whitman, Muir, and Thoreau himself published some of their most famous works on the importance and power of wilderness and the sublime experience it provided them.  However, Thoreau was chief among them.  Not afraid to express his distaste for the conventions of society and inspired by the musings of Emerson, he helped to lay the base for other nature writer’s of his time to follow: society is corrupting; simple living helps to mitigate corruption of society; wilderness is where one can have a true deistic sublime experience; and this sublime experience leads to self-discovery.[20]  These conventions, in association with sublimity, changed the perception of wilderness for centuries to come.

Society, once viewed as a safety net from wilderness, was no longer a shelter; it became a trap.  In the nineteenth-century, society and wilderness appeared to switch places.  Thoreau begins his piece “Walking” by saying, “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil—to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.”[21]  To Thoreau the terms freedom and society or “culture” do not go hand in hand.  Rather society does the opposite; it creates a loss of individuality, a loss of self. Wildness, or wilderness, in contrast, represents freedom. This contrast creates the perfect dichotomy between society and wilderness.  In the “Economy” chapter of one of his most notable works, Walden, Thoreau states “Most men, even in this comparatively free country, through mere ignorance and mistake, are so occupied with the factious cares and superfluously coarse labors of life that the finer fruits cannot be plucked by them.”[22] The reason society cannot represent true freedom is because they get locked into what is considered a civilized lifestyle of work and conformity that is nearly impossible to get rid of.  He is amazed that the workers around his hometown can maintain such ignorance to their “false” complacency, “I confess that I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day for weeks and months, aye, and years almost together.”[23]  Thoreau believes that the mind becomes too busy with frivolous cultural norms and labor to be concerned with the true nature of “the self.”  Society “trusts to heating manures, and improved implements and modes of culture only!”[24]  The fact that is concerns itself with “culture” only furthers the dichotomy between wilderness and society in which “…nature has from the first expanded the minute blossoms of the forest only toward the heavens, above men’s heads and unobserved by them,”[25] or in short, nature and the sublime remain unobserved and ignored by man.

Thoreau saw that the society’s problems were continuing to grow, which was unsurprising considering the industrial expansion occurring during the time period.  In “Walking” he mentions the fear of expansion and property.  His love of the land and of walking allows him to enjoy a freedom that is threatened by private property:

…the landscape is not owned, and the walker enjoys comparative freedom. But possibly the day will come when it will be partitioned off into so-called pleasure-grounds, in which a few will take a narrow and exclusive pleasure only—when fences shall be multiplied, and man-traps and other engines invented to confine men to the public road, and walking over the surface of God’s earth shall be construed to mean trespassing on some gentleman’s grounds. To enjoy a thing exclusively is commonly to exclude yourself from the true enjoyment of it. Let us improve our opportunities, then, before the evil days come.[26]

As I argued earlier, Thoreau’s dichotomy between nature and society is such that society ignores the effects of nature and wilderness.  He fears that a day will come when man will exclude itself from nature completely, degrading man’s own transcendental spiritual capacity.  This society will eventually create a world in which “God’s earth” will become a “gentleman’s ground”, thus taking away nature’s sublime divinity and destroying its purpose.  Some would argue that Thoreau was a sort of misanthrope, that he disliked society so much he denounced it – however, it was his passion for mankind that caused his infatuation with the sublime and wilderness.  In his Transcendentalist background he knew that mankind had the capacity to transcend into a true good, that its intellectual capabilities were beautiful and boundless.  The purpose of man is not to remain static in society, but rather to find its true identity.  Truth was not “…in the protean garb of the flux that entices you and confuses your vision…”[27]  If truth was not in the protean garb that Thoreau so humorously deems society, then it must be in nature.  It was in this knowledge that he advocates the importance of truth and the self in contrast to society, an importance that drove him to focus much of his life on exploring and writing about the sublime, spiritual feelings offered by nature and wilderness.

In order to establish a sublime experience in his writings, Thoreau needed to account for divine experience, which he does.  Thoreau believed that “nature, rightly read was the key to all mysteries.”[28]  It was this concept that drove him on his many nature hikes and also his experiment at Walden pond.  In 1846 Thoreau climbed Mt. Katahdin in Maine, this experience was completely different than his walks in the country surrounding Concord.  Maine shook Thoreau in a way that no other place did, it was a true wilderness experience. His description of the mountains in the area created a supernatural landscape in which the divine, or God, was forever present in his own, raw, untouched creation.  The mountains were the artwork of God himself.  He describes, “The tops of mountains are among the unfinished parts of the globe, whither it is a slight insult to the gods to climb and pry into their secrets, and try their effect on our humanity. Only daring and insolent men, perchance, go there. Simple races, as savages, do not climb mountains, — their tops are sacred.”[29]  True wilderness is sacred; it is a cathedral that inspires feelings of both awe and terror and is where the divinity of God is most felt. To Thoreau, when society is juxtaposed with nature, “nature was the proper source of religion.”[30]  The mountains were a place of spiritual awakening in the experience the awe of divinity.  However, as he noted, it is also a place to be feared.  This fear is not the same fear that mankind faced when they thought demons lurked in the shadows; rather it was a fear of divinity, of terror drawn from the anxiety in the direct presence of the Lord.  In his feelings of anxiety, which continued throughout his journey in Maine, Thoreau decided it was not wise to attempt to climb to the mountains peaks.  However, regardless of fear, this divine connection to wilderness made wilderness even more important, as losing a connection with wilderness meant losing a connection with God.

John Muir, a nineteenth-century nature writer, engineer, environmentalist, rancher, and mountaineer followed in the footsteps of Thoreau.  As an avid outdoorsman he often enveloped himself in Thoreau’s own writings.[31]  Like Thoreau, he saw the corruption of society on the human spirit.  He “was inclined to think that man is at his best, not when he is most human, but when he is most natural.”[32]   To be at the most natural level, parts of society would obviously have to be left behind.  Moved by core Transcendentalist values, Muir believed that in the wilderness of the forest one can connect with the universe,[33] building off of the idea of self-discovery in wilderness. This mindset played a big part in Muir’s defensive stance of frontier when industry threatened to spread to the west, eventually leading to the founding of America’s first national parks[34] and the Sierra Club.

Although Thoreau inspired Muir in is advocation of wilderness protection through the use of the sublime[35], he carried the legacy in a completely different manner.  Where Thoreau was observant and philosophical in his approach to wilderness and the sublime, Muir was an outspoken and extremely enthusiastic individual, constantly traveling and hiking in the American frontier.  His enthusiasm was seen in both his lifestyle and his writings.  So much so that, in fact, when offered a professorship at Harvard from one of his idols, Emerson, he turned it down writing, “I never for a moment thought of giving up God’s big show for a mere profship!”[36]  Wilderness, to him, was all God’s work, associating the sublime with the term just like Thoreau and others.  However Muir did something different with this sublimity; he domesticated it.[37]  Where there was awe and terror in the description of literary wilderness, in his eyes it simply became awe.  Muir ripped the long-winded fear of wilderness out of its very definition.  He was “glad to be a servant of servants in so holy a wilderness.”[38] Thoreau did not wish to intrude on the creation of God on the mountain peaks, but Muir relished the idea.

In 1868 Muir traveled to Yosemite, where he remained for years to follow.  There he seemed to thrive through the pure sensations the wilderness provided him.  This sublime experience is expressed in his book, My First Summer in the Sierra, in which he accounts his adventures in the area:

“The place seemed holy, where one might hope to see God. After dark, when the camp was at rest.  I groped my way back to the altar boulder and passed the night on it, above the water, beneath the leaves and stars,  everything still more impressive than by day, the fall seen dimly white, singing Nature’s old love song with solemn enthusiasm, while the stars peering through the leaf-roof seemed to join in the white water’s song. Precious night, precious day to abide in me forever. Thanks be to God for this immortal gift.”[39]

This sublime experience is very different than Thoreau’s, although both accomplish the similar goal of displaying the importance of wilderness.  Rather than feeling out of place in the sublime wilderness, Muir is completely at home in it.  Nature sings comforting songs of love and he is in a place where he hopes to encounter God himself.  His exclaim when encountering a sublime, aesthetic landscape was always “Praise God from whom all blessings flow!”[40]  Based on Muir’s descriptions these environments were obviously something to rejoice in, rather than fear.  They were the creation of God, meant to be both respected and enjoyed by God’s children – man.  His creation was pure pleasure.  In his description of Yosemite Valley Muir writes, “No pain here, no dull empty hours, no fear of the past, no fear of the future… These blessed mountains are so compactly filled with God’s beauty…. And every movement of limbs is pure pleasure” he ends the passage calling wilderness a “divine manuscript.”[41]  Muir’s feelings of ecstasy in the sublime wilderness experience, rather than  an anxiety, help to tame the term wilderness, removing the fear in it where Thoreau did not.  Because of this, Muir’s writing became an inspiration for the people of America.  When the national parks movement began in the late 1800’s, he stated, “Thousands of tired nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is necessity…”[42]  Muir did not only broaden the philosophical wilderness of Thoreau’s creation, he also created an entire nature movement based around the conventions of Transcendentalism, leading to the creation of America’s first national parks.  In essence, Muir recreationalized the sublime aspects of nature, making it both accessible and attractive.  It is in this domestication of the term wilderness, that provided it with enough fire to remain admired through the centuries.

In his article “The Trouble with Wilderness,” William Cronon explains the idealized images of wilderness that almost seem innate in humanity’s mind now.   Images of waterfalls crashing down a cliff into a pristine lake, a glowing sunset over open plains, and the crisp scent of the air as you walk through dewy grass in untouched woodlands[43] – when one thinks of the term wilderness these Romantic images will, more often than not, be evoked.  If not for people like Thoreau, Muir, and other Transcendentalists, wilderness would still be “Satan’s home,” but thanks to their influence it has become “God’s temple.”[44]  While this transformation of wilderness may have been harmless and perhaps beneficial to the environment during the nineteenth-century, its alluring sublime conventions in a modern society that bases itself on industry and technology proves to be problematic.  As I stated earlier, I am arguing that the conventions of these writers can prove to be problematic.  The problematic aspects of these conventions are especially seen in people like the eco-terrorists, like Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, and simple wilderness enthusiasts like Christopher McCandless.

Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber, is sometimes called the modern (and more radical) Thoreau.  Both men attended Harvard[45] at the age of 16 and proved to have very high intellect.  They both attempted teaching and disliked it, quitting the profession after a short period of time.  In fact, Kaczynski was so influenced by Thoreau that in 1969 he decided to build a small cabin in Montana, very similar to Thoreau’s cabin in Walden; a cabin that has a library filled with volumes of Thoreau and Emerson.[46]  His goal in this was to learn to live off of the land, without running water or electricity; to rely on only himself.  While these similarities are chilling, it is the influence of Thoreau and Muir’s sublime conventions that led Kaczynski to perform the most startling act of all – murder.

One could argue that we are in a new industrial revolution.  The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have witnessed some of the fastest technological growth known to man.  However, this growth in industry and society means that, inevitably, nature is affected;  society has nowhere else to expand but into the wilderness.  William Cronon notes that, “This nostalgia for the passing frontier way of life inevitably implied ambivalence, if not downright hostility, toward modernity and all that it represented.  If one saw the wild lands as freer… then one was also inclined to see that cities and factories of urban-industrial civilization confining, false, and artificial.”[47] Kaczynski’s influence from Thoreau is reflected in his “nostalgia for the passing frontier;” he views technology and society as a plague on humanity, and it is this plague that generates his eventual hostility towards modernity in the form of eco-terrorism.  In his manifesto he writes, “…19th Century American society had an optimistic and self-confident tone, quite unlike that of today’s society.”  Thus, I argue that it is the conventions of the nineteenth-century that he wants society to return to.  He believes we have lost ourselves in society and technology.

Much of the Romantic and sublime conventions Kaczynski adheres to are found in his personal manifesto. He expresses a hatred of society that resounds with the words of those of nineteenth-century, especially Muir and Thoreau.  He writes, “The industrial revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race…. They have subjected human beings to indignities, have led to widespread psychological suffering, and have inflicted severe damage on the natural world.”[48]  Similar to Muir and his deep fear in the disappearance of the pristine landscape, Kaczynski fears the encroaching society on what he, and many others, deem to be wilderness.  Based on the conventions of Muir, this infection of society is not only bad for the landscape but also bad for humanity in general, because in losing this environment we are losing a part of ourselves.  As Muir mentioned, the mountains are our home – something Kaczynski believes as well in mentioning that “isolation from nature” is an abnormal condition that becomes more and more present in an industrialized society.[49]

In the duality of divine wilderness and society, society is covered in unnatural and false characteristics.  In the nineteenth-century Thoreau points out the lives of bankers and farm workers, saying that they lose their “true” selves by being forced into these societal conventions of “protean grab” that confuses them.  In the twentieth-century Kaczynski calls this “over-socialization”, in which humanity finds itself in an “identity crisis” where they fall into a surrogate-activity in search for “purpose.”[50]  This is almost an exact reflection on what Thoreau thinks of the jobs that people are forced into, which he goes into detail about in the “Economy” section of Walden.  In contrast to this view of society being responsible for a zombie-like state is the idea of “primitivism,” an idea that infatuates both Thoreau and the Unabomber. Cronon argues that the Romantic attitude towards primitivism was that it is, “…the best antidote to the ills of an overly refined civilized modern world was a return to simpler, more primitive living.”[51] Thoreau was very intrigued by native culture, respectful of the way they off of the land and the idea of living simply. Kaczynski held similar beliefs idealizing primitivism.  If man’s problem is complete separation from nature, then primitivism is the only way to erase abnormal conventions and return to those of the sublime.  Through his manifesto he describes primitive society as stable thanks to its “relationship to the natural world.”  He goes on about how “primitive man suffered from less stress and frustration” and was “more satisfied.”[52]

The problem with falling into the conventions of these nature-writers is that Kaczynski continues where Thoreau and Muir stop.  Although Thoreau advocated the conventions that society holds mankind from transcendence, he remains optimistic that his overall conception of wilderness is an idea that everyone is capable of living if they live a balanced life in society and in nature.  Kaczynski actually believes that a revolution is necessary to bring mankind back into a stable, natural state. This especially became true when the forests around his Montana cabin were destroyed to make room for construction.  This threw Kaczynski’s conventions into action, making him “the most intellectual serial killer that nation has ever produced.”[53]  Where Thoreau wrote to awaken his neighbors, Kaczynski used bombs in attempt to start a revolution that would lead to a return to the very conventions created by the nineteenth-century – a return to enlightenment through nature.

The life of Christopher McCandless, as described through John Krakuer’s biography Into the Wild, is not simply an inspiring story of a man who followed his dreams.  Rather it is a biography of another man who became aroused by the conventions of nineteenth-century Transcendental and nature writers.  Graduating at the top of his class from Emory University, McCandless prove to be, like Thoreau, Muir, and Kazynski, a very intelligent man.  His family was financially well off, he was academically successful – and yet he was not happy.  McCandless felt so much discontent with his life, that after his graduation from Emory in 1990 he simply left his apartment in Atlanta behind and began to drive west. In Arizona, his car got caught in a flashflood area.  Rather than speaking with the park rangers to help get it out, he decided to continue his journey on foot.  McCandless was exhilarated in the thrill of trying something new.  When he finished cleaning out the car, he “then, in a gesture that would have done both Thoreau and Tolstoy proud…,” burned all of the money he found in his pockets before loading up a backpack.[54]  Traveling lightly from that moment on, Krakauer describes that “the heaviest item in his [McCandless’s] backpack was his library:  Volumes of titles by Thoreau and Tolstoy…,” as well as Muir and other Transcendental writers.[55]  To McCandless, these nature writers were not merely Romantic literary figures, they were the figures that greatly influenced him throughout his life.  He even went as far as writing quotes from Jack London and Thoreau in the bus he found along the Stampede Trail.  The extreme adoration McCandless held for these writers was an adoration that stemmed from the conflicts he found within his own life. Like Thoreau and Muir before him, he wanted to break free from the patters of modernity and materialism.  To him, his journey into the wild would mitigate the feelings he held toward society and allow him to find his true self.

In his book Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Nash states that in the context of nineteenth-century nature writing “Man’s happiness and well-being decreased in direct proportion to his degree in civilization.”[56]  Perhaps this is why Muir declined Emerson’s teaching offer and why Thoreau often felt inclined to venture off into the woods of Maine or walk the countryside of Concord.  Perhaps it is also why McCandless felt such a strong need to leave society in the first place.  To him, society was filled with greed and materialism. He saw how easy it was to lose ones individuality in society, and saw what the obsession with material gain and money did to his parent’s crumbling relationship.  When his parents offered to buy him a new car for his graduation, he refused, appalled at their obsession with material goods and the idea that they wanted to waste money on a new car in order to replace a car that, to him, was still perfectly fine.  This hatred of materialism and society can easily parallel that of the Unabomber, as well as Muir.  In a letter to a friend, McCandless writes:

So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservatism, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more dangerous to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.[57]

McCandless was not necessarily upset with his parents; he was upset with their attitude.  He did not like the fact that they felt the need to conform to social norms in order to feel secure in their lives.  To him, this conformity was not what man was made for.  For McCandless, “Civilization [was something that] contaminated its inhabitants and absorbed them into faceless, collective, contemptible crowd.”[58]  Because of the contamination of civilization, the pursuit of joy and happiness must lead away from society.  The closer McCandless got to Alaska, the more he berated and blamed society for creating a falsified contented lifestyle and praised nature for bringing him closer to truth.

Just as Thoreau went to Walden Pond to find a more Platonic[59] sense of truth through internal apprehension, McCandless did the same.  In fact, one of his chief objectives in traveling into the wild was to find his true self by escaping the conforming nature of modern society.  He states, “I’m going to paraphrase Thoreau here… rather than love, than money, than faith, than fame, than fairness… give me truth.”[60]  As if listening to the advice of Thoreau as he “brag[s] as lustily as chanticleer,” McCandless seeks inner-truth over anything else.[61]  He was so completely enthralled by the concept of finding himself, or “killing the false being within,” that he threw everything of value in his life away.[62]  Krakauer says that, “[McCandless] intended to invent an utterly new life for himself, one in which he would be free… To symbolize complete severance from his previous life, he even adopted a new name.”[63] The fact that McCandless goes as far as changing his name to Alexander Supertramp in search of his individuality reflects the conventions of nineteenth-century writers, who also went to nature to find themselves. This Romantic concept of finding reality in nature is what motivated McCandless to travel into the wild; he wanted to find his “pure” self – a self uncorrupted by society.

In addition to a disdain of society and an understanding that internal truth is found in nature, McCandless also adheres to the sublime convention of God in wilderness.  In a prose that echoes Muir himself, he writes to his friend Ron:

I fear you will follow this same inclination in the future and thus fail to discover all the wonderful things that God has placed around us to discover… 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. We just have to have the courage to turn against our habitual lifestyle and engage in unconventional living… It is simply waiting out there. Ron, I really hope that as soon as you can you will get out of Salton City… and see some of the great work God has done here in the American West. [64]

In this excerpt McCandless tells Ron that he needs to leave the town he is in and experience the natural world, because in wilderness there is joy.  This stems from the idea that wilderness is God’s ultimate and pure creation.  In doing this, McCandless establishes the sublime connection between divinity and nature.  The same convention that Thoreau expressed in fear and awe and Muir mused about in glory and praise.  Not only was wilderness a place of self-discovery for McCandless, but it was also a place where one can feel completely and utterly alive in the presence of God himself.

The definition of the word wilderness has changed throughout the centuries.  Prior to the nineteenth-century it was considered something to be feared, often being associated with heathens and sometimes even Satan himself.  The progression and expansion of industry and cities was considered to be a positive asset to society because it helped mankind to avoid wilderness.  In the nineteenth-century this view changed rapidly in the Romantic and Transcendental literary movements.  Young America adopted its wilderness as something to embrace and be prideful of, something that can grant it uniqueness in order to compete against countries with more affluent histories.  Out of this mindset arose writers like Thoreau and Muir, who advocated wilderness as something that had aspects of divine sublimity, a place in which one can experience God and escape the conforming grasps of society.  In this respect the writers of the nineteenth-century changed the face of wilderness from something that is feared to something that is appreciated and associated with a divine encounter, eventually leading to environmental protection organizations and America’s national parks.

Although Thoreau, and especially Muir, believed that the overall gained appreciation in wilderness would prove to be a good change of direction for wilderness protection, in a modern context it can actually prove to be harmful.  Roderick Nash states that “Irony, literary critics tell us, occurs when the result is opposite that which is intended or expected… Wilderness appreciation offers a classic instance of irony… Ironically, the very increase in appreciation of the wilderness threatened to prove its undoing.”[65] Nash points out that there can be some serious ramifications in appreciating wilderness, which is a rather ironic idea indeed.  The problem in following the conventions of nineteenth-century nature writers is that they place a value on aesthetic environments in the frontier while disregarding those closer to home.  Cronon points out that wilderness, in the context of these conventions, is absent of humanity.  He states, “these peculiarly American ways of thinking about wilderness encourage us to adopt too high a standard for what counts as “natural.” If it isn’t hundreds of square miles big… if it doesn’t permit us the illusion that we are alone on the planet, then it really isn’t natural. It’s too small, too plain, or too crowded to be authentically wild.”  He goes onto say “This, then, is the central paradox: wilderness embodies a dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural. If we allow ourselves to believe that nature, to be true, must also be wild, then our very presence in nature represents its fall. The place where we are is the place where nature is not.” [66]  Essentially, the wilderness conventions of Thoreau and Muir have created an illusion that wilderness must lack human contact to be considered wilderness at all.  This establishes an unrealistic view of wilderness because, in reality, nature and humanity must coexist.  The idea that man and wilderness are separate is also contradicting in that, if wilderness is the only natural thing, if it is what takes humans back to how they naturally were, and if society is deemed as impure, then the concept of humanity in wilderness is ironically impure as well.

In a modern context we can see how this wilderness ideology has created problematic effects.  In terms of environmental protection, it establishes a value system in which more aesthetically pleasing environments like the frontier, are admired and protected, but less pleasing landscapes such as marshlands and swamps are almost forgotten.  The first national park that featured swamplands, the Everglades, was not established until 1947, well over 50 years after Yosemite was established.  In addition, the United States can drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, but yet we cannot drill in Alaska, a state deemed to be the final frontier.  The Unabomber was deemed an eco-terrorist and was sent to prison, and Christopher McCandless died in Alaska, writing quotes from Muir and Thoreau on the wall of his bus.  At the end of his life, McCandless shared the epiphany of his journey writing, “And so it turned that only a life similar to the life around us… is genuine life, and that unshared happiness is not happiness… HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED”.[67]   McCandless did not “kill the false being within” on his journey, nor did he achieve a greater appreciation for nature.  He simply saw that life in society is required to truly enjoy nature, that society is a natural and unavoidable part of life.  In some respects, his epiphany shows that a co-existence between man and the environment can and must occur to have a successful and more inclusive environmental movement, one that includes all people and all parts of the environment so that an equal value of preservation and appreciation can be placed on the frontier as well as the areas that lack appeal or are touched by man-kind.  If the line between humanity and wilderness can be blurred, then a more inclusive and realistic movement will be created.  A movement that advocates the protection of all environments – be it man-made or part of nature –a movement that allows for the sustainability of both nature and society.

[1] The Embargo Act of 1807 paved way for the Industrial Revolution as well as the War of 1812.

[2] Stemming primarily from the intellectual culture of Harvard.

[3] Eco-criticism asks that readers to look at past wilderness conventions in a modern environmental context.

[4] Cronon, William . “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” <; (November 2012)

[5] Etymology of term Wilderness: Norse language root “Will” meaning willful or uncontrollable. Became Wil-deor (n.) in Anglo-saxon, meaning animal or wild beast. –ness was added in reference to “a place with wild beasts” in Beowulf. (Nash)

[6] Nash, Roderick. Wilderness and the American mind. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1967),


[7] Ibid, 9.

[8] Only considered virgin if one ignores the Vikings and Native Americans that came before the pioneers.

[9]  Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind,27-28

[10] Ibid, 67.

[11] Ibid, 68.

[12] Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, 69

[13] Cronon, William . “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” <; (November 2012)

[14] For the sake of this essay, sublime will be defined as “…of outstanding spiritual, intellectual, or moral worth.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

[15] Rozelle, Lee. Ecosublime : environmental awe and terror from new world to oddworld. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006), 4-5

[16] Rozelle, Ecosublime,6

[17] Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind, 64

[18] Foerster, Norman. Nature In American Literature. (New York: Russell & Russell, 1958),69

[19] Rozelle, Ecosublime,44

[20] What Thoreau called “simple living” can be associated with primitivism. It is a romantic appreciation of essentially, living simply and closer to a primitive or savage lifestyle in order to avoid what is considered a world of corrupting modernity.

[21] Thoreau, Henry, and “Walking.” The Atlantic  <; (November 2012)

[22] Thoreau,Henry D, and Jeffrey Cramer. Walden : a fully annotated edition.(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), 52

[23] Thoreau, Henry, and “Walking.” The Atlantic  <; (November 2012)

[24] Ibid.

[25]  Ibid.

[26] Thoreau, Henry, and “Walking.” The Atlantic  <; (November 2012)

[27] Foerster, Nature in American Literature,99

[28] Ibid, 77.

[29] Thoreau, Henry D. “The Maine Woods.” <; (November 2012).

[30] Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind,86

[31] Foerster, Nature in American Literature,254

[32] Foerster, Nature in American Literature,255

[33] Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind,126

[34] Yosemite National Park was established in 1864, following ideas and inspirations from Muir’s writing.

[35] Muir often noted that he would always carry volumes by Emerson and Thoreau with him on his hikes.

[36] Tallmadge, John. Meeting the Tree of Life: A Teacher’s Path. (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press,1997),53

[37] Cronon, William . “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” <; (November 2012)

[38] Muir, John . “My First Summer in the Sierra” <; (November 2012).

[39] Ibid.

[40] Foerster, Nature in American Literature,261

[41] Muir, John . “My First Summer in the Sierra” <; (November 2012).

[42] Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind,140

[43] Cronon, William . “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” <; (November 2012).

[44] Ibid Cronon

[45] Chase, Alston. Harvard and the Unabomber : the education of an American terrorist. (New York:        W.W.Norton and Company, 2003),

[46] Ibid. 11.

[47] Cronon, William . “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” <; (November 2012).

[48] Kaczynski, Ted . ” Unabomber’s Manifesto.”  <; (November 2012).

[49] Ibid.

[50] Kaczynski, Ted . ” Unabomber’s Manifesto.”  <; (November 2012)

[51] Cronon, William . “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” <; (November 2012)

[52] Kaczynski.

[53]Chase, Harvard and the Unabomber, 11

[54] Krakauer, Jon. Into the wild. (New York: Anchor Books, 1997), 28

[55] Ibid.

[56] Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind,47

[57] Krakauer, Into the Wild,54

[58] Cronon, William . “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” <; (November 2012)

[59] Plato advocated the idea that because the material world is always in flux, a material truth is unreliable.  Thus truth based on the individual is superior.

[60] Krakauer, Into the Wild, 142

[61] Thoreau, Walden,81

[62] Krakauer, 116.

[63] Ibid, 23.

[64] Krakauer, Into the Wild, 57-58

[65] Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind,316

[66] Cronon, William . “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” <; (November 2012)

[67] Krakauer, Into the Wild, 189


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