The Influence of Henry David Thoreau's Philosophy in Jon Krakauer's Novel “Into the Wild”

Term Paper, 2014

17 Pages, Grade: 3,0

Marc Felsbrecher (Author)


Table of Contents

1 Introduction: „Into the Wild“ - The Story of Christopher McCandless

2 Thoreau´s Philosophy in Jon Krakauer´s “Into the Wild”
2.1 Life and Influence of Henry Thoreau
2.2 Thoreau in “Into the Wild”
2.3 Christopher McCandless - a modern Henry Thoreau?

3 Conclusion: Conflicting Perspectives on Christopher McCandless


1 Introduction: „Into the Wild“ - The Story of Christopher McCandless

The non-fiction narrative “Into the Wild”, written by Jon Krakauer, is the biography of Christopher McCandless, a college graduate from the American East Coast, who inexplicably left his family, friends and all the comforts of the civilized world to find his personal, ultimate freedom in living close to nature, clearly separated from the materialism of the American society. After graduating from Emory University, Georgia, with excellent grading, Christopher McCandless gave all his inheritance and possessions to charity to adopt a vagabond lifestyle, travelling across great parts of the American continent completely on his own. During his journey across the country, McCandless met several people who admired him for his charisma, his intelligence and his asceticism. However, he always avoided intimacy with the people he met to stay completely independent. He also never contacted his extremely worried family to tell them about his whereabouts. During his journey, Christopher McCandless also changed his name into “Alexander Supertramp” for the purpose of forming a completely new identity for himself.

Finally, “Alex” died of starvation and poisoning by toxic seeds in the Alaskan wilderness in summer 1992. His body was found in an abandoned bus, where “Alex” had lived in complete solitude over the summer. He died at the age of 24. Pinned to the bus a note from him, written on the back of his copy of Boris Pasternak`s novel “Doctor Zhivago”, was found that read: “I have had a happy life and thank the Lord. Goodbye and may God bless all!” (Krakauer 1996: 199)

The life of Christopher McCandeless raised public interest. The non-fiction biography of his life, written by Jon Krakauer and published in 1996, became very popular (Dykhuis 1995; Maryles 1997) and stayed on the “New York Times” bestseller list for over two years. In 2007 a movie adaption, directed by Sean Penn, was premiered. Jon Krakauer, the author of McCandeless’s biography, who also writes for the American “Outside” magazine and is an active hiker as well, writes about his motives for researching and writing about “Alexander Supertramp” in the foreword of his book:

“In April 1992, a young man from a well-to-do East Coast family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. Four month later his decomposed body was found by a party of moose hunters. Shortly after the discovery of the corpse, I was asked by the editor of the “Outside” magazine to report on the puzzling circumstances of the boy`s death. His name turned out to be Christopher Johnson McCandless. He`d grown up, I learned, in an affluent suburb of Washington D.C. where he`d excelled academically and had been an elite athlete. Immediately after graduating, […] McCandless dropped out of sight. […] Working on a tight deadline, I wrote a nine-thousand-word article, which ran in January 1993 issue of the magazine, but my fascination with McCandless remained long after that issue […]. Unwilling to let McCandless go, I spent more than a year retracing the convoluted path that led to his death in the Alaska taiga […]. In trying to understand McCandless, I inevitably came to reflect on other, larger subjects as well: The grip wilderness has on the American imagination, the allure high-risk activities hold for young men of certain mind, the complicated, highly charged bond that exists between father and sons. The result of this meandering inquiry is the book now before you.” (Krakauer 1996: ix f.)

As Krakauer states, the book is a biography of McCandless and is based on his own interviews with family members, friends and people who McCandless encountered on his way. Krakauer also studied letters and notes by McCandless. (Krakauer 1996: 214 f.)

In his narrative, Jon Krakauer puts forward his view of McCandless as a young man with an above-average intellect and salient spiritual ambitions. However, Krakauer was strongly criticized for his depiction of McCandless in his book and accused of glorifying his death since some of the readers of “Into the Wild” viewed McCandless’s lifestyle more critically than Krakauer did. Unlike Krakauer, some readers judged McCandless a “dreamy half-cocked greenhorn who went into the country expecting to find answers to all his problems and instead found only mosquitoes and a lonely death.” (Krakauer 1996: 73) Referring to that matter, Krakauer himself states that “some readers admired the boy immensely for his courage and noble ideals; others fulminated that he was a reckless idiot, a wacko, a narcissist who perished out of arrogance and stupidity.” (Krakauer 1996: xi)

As it becomes clear from this controversy, Krakauer`s book is more than an ordinary non- fiction biography. It is important to note that Krakauer tells the story of “Alexander Supertramp” rather freely, adds parts of his own hitchhiking experience as part of the book and uses means and techniques of fiction, such as similes, metaphors and interpretation, to create an alluring narrative. Hence “Into the Wild” can be regarded as a product of Krakauer´s own interpretation of McCandless’s life rather than an objective, academic essay. In his book Krakauer works with primary sources from McCandless, nevertheless his narrative “Into the Wild” is an appealing, romanticized characterization of “Alexander Supertramp” rather than a non-fiction, factual biography of Chistopher McCandless.

In his biography of McCandless, Jon Krakauer often refers to the American 19th century author, poet and transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. McCandless himself was a great reader of books, he read the major works of Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Pasternak, Dostojewsky, Thoreau and others. However, Krakauer refers to the works of Henry Thoreau most frequently in his narrative. One of many instances in the book where Thoreau is referred to is when “Alexander Supertramp” abandons his car in a national park. Here Krakauer writes that “McCandless could endeavor to explain that he answered to statues of a higher order - that as a latter-day adherent of Henry David Thoreau, he took as gospel the essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” and thus considered it his moral responsibility to flout the laws of the state.” (Krakauer 1996: 28) Later in the book Krakauer also refers to Thoreau, for example when when stating that “Bullhead city doesn`t seem like the kind of place that would appeal to an adherent of Thoreau and Tolstoy, an ideologue who expressed nothing but contempt for the bourgeois trappings of mainstream America. McCandless, nevertheless, took a strong liking to Bullhead.” (Krakauer 1996: 40) The aim of this essay is to critically investigate Jon Krakauer’s use of Thoreau’s ideas, principles, notions and beliefs with the purpose of characterizing “Alexander Supertramp” in the book “Into the Wild”. The thesis of this paper is that Jon Krakauer uses Thoreau´s perceptions and views on society, nature and wilderness to interpret Christopher McCandless actions and to illustrate his motives. Krakauer thereby characterizes McCandless as a late “Thoreauvian” transcendentalist. This essay will critically analyze Krakauer´s book and point out perceptions and ideas of Henry David Thoreau that Krakauer uses to illustrate and explain the protagonist`s actions according to his own perception. Differences and similarities between Thoreau and McCandless will also be discussed. The works cited by Thoreau will be his essay “Civil Disobedience” (1849) and his book “Walden” (1854).

2 Thoreau´s Philosophy in Jon Krakauer´s “Into the Wild”

2.1 Life and Influence of Henry Thoreau

Randall Conrad, director of the “Thoreau Project”, states that Henry Thoreau “exerted a profound, enduring influence on American thought and letters.” (Conrad: “Henry David Thoreau”) According to him, Thoreau was a skilled philosopher, a creative artist and a scientific originator. (ibd.) Bradley P. Dean states that Thoreau “engaged in detailed scientific study of nature´s phenomena within the larger framework of transcendentalist assumptions about the universe […]. He developed during the course of a single decade a highly sophisticated, truly ecological understanding of wilderness and the rest of the physical world.” (Dean 2007: 87). The following paragraph will give a brief overview of the life of Henry Thoreau, also focusing on his philosophy, beliefs and influence.

Henry David Thoreau was born on July 12, 1817, in Massachusetts and died on May 6, 1862, in the same place. (Howe 2009: 623) Today he is regarded as a leading American poet, author and philosopher, but is also known as an abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, historian and American transcendentalist. (ibd.) Thoreau published numerous books and articles, essays, and several volumes of poetry during his life. Most of Thoreau´s works deal with the either-way relationship between society, individual and nature. Thoreau´s best known works are his book “Walden” (1854), a reflection upon simple living, and his essay “Civil Disobedience” (1849), in which he claims that it is an individual´s right to disobey an unjust state. (Conrad: “Henry David Thoreau”)

Henry Thoreau was a student at Harvard University and already published essays and poetry before his graduation. However, his works achieved little notice throughout his whole lifetime and were dismissed by the public. (Harding 1995: “Thoreau´s Reputation”) The fact that Thoreau´s mentor was the leading American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803- 1882), whom he met during his university years in Harvard, led to the circumstance that most of Thoreau´s works were regarded as minor effusions by one of Emerson´s disciples (Dean 2007: 76). This fact hindered the development of Thoreau´s whole literary career since it was difficult for Thoreau to present himself as distinct from Emerson. (Harding 1995: “Thoreau´s Reputation”) Nevertheless, from today’s perspective Thoreau is regarded as one of the major American transcendentalist poets. (Dean 2007: 76)

The relationship between Thoreau and his mentor Emerson was friendly. It can be said that Emerson called Thoreau into being as a writer, because Emerson usually read and published works written by Thoreau. (Sattelmeyer 1995: “Thoreau and Emerson”) Thoreau died on May 6, 1862, at the age of 44, probably due to an infection with tuberculosis. When Thoreau died, Emerson arranged for the funeral service to be held at Concord’s First Parish Church and delivered the eulogy. Emerson also published the first extended account of Thoreau´s works after his death. (ibd.)

Thoreau´s literary works predominantly deal with the relationship between individual, nature and society. He had a romantic and idealized view on nature, putting forward his idea of wilderness as a kind of pastoral garden where one can retreat from civilization. (Conrad: “Henry David Thoreau”) Thoreau claimed that one should live deliberately, in conjunction with nature, to find self-fulfillment. Thoreau himself lived in solitude in a cabin in Massachusetts, near the Walden Pond, for several years. His account of this experience was published in his book “Walden.” (ibd.)

Thoreau had a critical view on the state system and on market economy. In his essay “Civil Disobedience” (1849) Thoreau claims that it is an individual´s general right to disobey to an unjust state. Thoreau was convinced that a life detached from a state apparatus and its market system would lead to a more sustainable, better way of living. (Conrad: “Henry David Thoreau”)

Henry David Thoreau was a transcendentalist. Ian Finseth states that American transcendentalism is based on the context of American unitarianism, the theological movement named for its understanding of God as one person. Finseth claims that “the transcendentalists felt that something was lacking in unitarianism. Sobriety, mildness and calm rationalism failed to satisfy that side of the transcendentalists which yearned for a more intense spiritual experience. For the transcendentalists, then, the critical realization, or conviction, was that finding God depended on neither orthodox creedalism nor the unitarians' sensible exercise of virtue, but on one's inner striving toward spiritual communion with the divine spirit.” (Finseth: “American Transcendentalism”) Respectively, the transcendentalists, such as Emerson and Thoreau, believed in an “inner striving” for a “spiritual communion with the divine spirit.” Practically this means that the transcendentalists believed in a monistic universe, where God is immanent in nature. Therefore, “nature” and “wilderness” became divine places for the transcendentalists because enlightenment and completeness could be achieved there.


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The Influence of Henry David Thoreau's Philosophy in Jon Krakauer's Novel “Into the Wild”
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Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer, henry david thoreau, chris mccandless, philosophy, influence, literary analysis
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Marc Felsbrecher (Author), 2014, The Influence of Henry David Thoreau's Philosophy in Jon Krakauer's Novel “Into the Wild”, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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