The Books She Carried - The role of literature in Cheryl StrayecTs Wild
Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, which was published in 2012 outlines her hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from California to Oregon in the summer of 1995. This hike is a journey to new-found strength and meaning in a life knocked out of balance by her mother’s untimely, unexpected death and Cheryl’s succeeding self-destruction as a means of dealing with the events. Strayed, upon embarking on the journey described in her memoir, brought along with her an array of literary works. Among these, Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language stands out as holding a very unique status and being rich with symbolism for Cheryl Strayed and her journey.
It must be mentioned that Strayed burned her books on the trail once finished with them, so as to not have to carry excess weight on the way. This, in itself may be read as a coming to terms with the past, making rid of it, starting anew, in addition to the basic utilitarian aspect of lessening the weight to carry along. The only book that she, in fact, does carry to the very end rather than burn is Rich’s 1978 collection of poems entitled The Dream of a Common Language. The fact that she did not burn this collection, but chose to endure its weight instead, in a situation in which every gram matters, gives it its very own unique status among all the other books taken along, also keeping in mind the symbolic value of burning the others. The significance of Rich’s poetry for Strayed and her journey, symbolic and real-world, is emphasized by the fact that it is the first book she decides to read from and is the last book that is mentioned, as well as the instance of the last chapter of Wild carrying the same title as Rich’s collection of poems, The Dream of a Common Language (cf. Strayed 2012: 59, 300-311).
Furthermore, Cheryl Strayed prefaces the second part of her memoir, which is the point in the narration in which the actual j ourney starts, entitled Tracks, with a quote from Adrienne Rich’s poem Diving into the Wreck: “The words are purposes. The words are maps.” (ibid.: 60). Chronologically within the memoir, this is the first part that speaks of the trek and hiking, and that which directly follows Cheryl’s description of the month preceding and leading up to her mother’s death. This is relevant because it must be read programmatically in that it sheds light on the significance of the symbolism the world of literature carries within Cheryl Strayed’s memoir. It hints toward the concept of the literary world being one of guidance and truth, further establishing its symbolism throughout the memoir. In fact, every new part, of which there are five total, is prefaced with a quote by a literary figure, which further supports the above notion.
Though there will be no mention here of every single book that Strayed, without a doubt, carefully picked as her only constant companions on her hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, the medium of literature in and of itself must be understood in the context of her soul-searching, if one will, as an escapist parallel reality, much in the Romanticist sense. Not only is her journey itself, at first, a sort of escapist venture in a Romanticist tradition; such is also this case with the concept of wandering in the wild on the whole, and, thus, a temporary escape from reality in order to better reflect upon it. This is a narrative touched on by the likes of Bünyan, Whitman, Thoreau, Kerouac, and more, and one that is, as seen with Cheryl Strayed, relevant to this day. That said, the world of literature, so to speak, which she opts to take with her, despite the weight, is a mirror of the journey itself, in that it is a medium of flight, at least initially, for Strayed. Understanding her connection with literature in this memoir as a mirror of the memoir itself and its reasons leaves no other consequence but to assume a connection and a reflection between or within Strayed’s biography, her encounters along the trail and the books in her backpack.
The fact that these books are worth mentioning at all in her memoir guides the reader toward making the connection not directly made by Strayed, between her encounters, thoughts, struggles and memories, as well as her self-concept throughout, before, and after setting out on her hike. With this in mind, it is fruitful to examine the situations in which literature is referred to in the memoir, as it is these instances in which the deeper symbolic meaning for Strayed’s situation, which it holds, becomes clearest.
There are several moments in which Strayed mentions the particular book she happens to be reading at that specific moment in time, all of which occur in the evenings, after a day on the trail - she states that reading is her reward (ibid.: 149). For one, this is based, simply, on the fact that it is impossible to read while hiking, however, it also exemplifies an escape within her escape. Reminding oneself that Strayed was a student of literature, as was her mother, this form of escape seems to be an escape back to her mother, rather than, as the trip itself is, one away from her old life and with that the painful memory of her and her death.
If one assumes that Rich’s is, as noted above, the central piece of literature with the most significance, symbolically, for Cheryl’s coming to terms with her loss and life choices, then it is imperative to take a look at the other books she carried for parts of her trip, so as to examine their role in relation to Rich’s collection of works. Considering the fact that Strayed could have opted out of mentioning them at all in her memoir, the very instance that she chose to give each book some space for reflection rather than omit this information must lead one to believe that they hold some sort of purpose for the memoir themselves, even if it is solely in order to further elevate The Dream of a Common Language to the status that it has, by way of them being specifically mentioned but more or less forgotten, traded, or burned along the way, in contrast to the Rich edition, which is not read, not forgotten, traded or burned, but ever-present in her mind.
Given Cheryl Strayed’s background of having lost her mother and more or less being unable to deal with her grief about this, the most obvious piece of literature to reflect this back story may very well be Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Its story, roughly, is that of a Southern family that, after their mother, Addie Bundren’s death, must journey across the American South in order to bury her in her hometown in Mississippi, as this is her last wish. It is told from multiple perspectives and brings to light the motivations of every family member - some noble, some not so much. That which causes this novel to be an obvious reflection of Cheryl’s own biography is the narrative of the dying mother and her last wish needing fulfillment. Cheryl’s siblings and her step-father more or less distance themselves from Cheryl and her mother as her mother is dying. Cheryl is the only caretaker in her mother’s last months and holds the sole responsibility, but must also carry the weight of the circumstances on her own. While there is no specific mention of a last dying wish, per se, Cheryl has, in the past, verbalized the notion of having had to go on living a life that sets forth her mother’s legacy of love (cf. http://twincities.com, 2014), which is not the case at first, as she spirals more and more out of balance, what with ever- changing sex partners, experimenting with drugs, cutting all ties to friends and family, and all the while becoming more and more unhappy.
Faulkner’s novel is one that Strayed self-proclaimedly had not read prior to her trip, and says that it may serve as “entertainment” (Strayed, 2012.: 60). The nonconnection caused by these circumstances may be true on the surface, however, the parallel of its narrative to Strayed’s trip is uncanny. She is setting out on a journey to find her way back to her old self, and, in doing so, honoring her mother’s legacy of having loved her and provided her a fulfilled life the best she could, to be seen as a parallel to honoring a last dying wish of sorts. Much like the Bundren family in As I Lay Dying, Cheryl is on a journey. Much like the Bundren family, she unwittingly uncovers aspects of herself and her motivations in the wake of her mother’s death and its aftermath. Though these resemblances seem fairly obvious and allow a connection to be made between Strayed and Faulkner’s novel, what actually makes it worthy of mention is that, though the connection seems obvious, there is no true connection, and if there were, it would be more subconscious than anything. This lack of connection with Strayed, its not holding any personal value as an unknown book to her, in light of it seeming so obviously a mirror at first glance, given the story told within, signifies the complexity of Cheryl’s situation and its inability to be paralleled by anything as concrete as a straightforward tale of a family burying their mother. In the context, further, of Rich’s poetry’s underlying importance for Strayed, the abstract, inaccessible and hermetic quality of the latter seems to be the only true means of characterizing what Cheryl is going through on an emotional level. This is to say that it is not as simple as a story of another family dealing with loss and last wishes, but is much more personal and complex, much in the same way poetry as a medium can oftentimes be more personal and dense than that of a novel, within a much more confined space. As such, the mention of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying serves as a means of elevating the meaning of Rich’s poetry as a hidden, ever-present explanation and representation of Strayed’s status quo and motivation at the time of the trip.
On another note, As I Lay Dying is explicitly mentioned as having been burned (cf. ibid.: 105) after reading. In line with the symbolism of burning the literatures carried as ‘burning the past’, also keeping in mind that the world of literature, as stated earlier, also represents Strayed’s past in a literal sense, Faulkner’s novel holds more meaning than merely serving as an ‘emphasizer’, of sorts, for Rich (see above). Considering the parallel that can be observed between Strayed’s biography and Faulkner’s story, Cheryl’s burning this book and mentioning this fact specifically in her memoir further underlines this act’s symbolism of leaving the pain and mournfulness - represented by Faulkner’s story and even its title in this case - behind and being able to move on. In this sense, Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying also holds the purpose of being a motor for Cheryl’s ability to come to terms with her sorrow along her j ourney.
Another book which is mentioned more than once in Cheryl Strayed’s memoir is an edition of short stories by Flannery O’Connor entitled The Complete Stories. Interestingly, this edition is not burned either, the same way her Rich edition is not. The difference between the two, simply, is that Cheryl ends up trading her O’Connor collection, which is the only thing preserving it from the fire. This, in itself may not be of greater interest if it weren’t for the book that she trades it for: James A. Michener’s The Novel. The reason this is relevant is because Michener is decidedly Strayed’s mother’s favorite author and one which Strayed looked down upon and made fun of her mother for (cf. Ibid.: 149-150), which causes her a great deal of regret upon remembering. Since it was received in a trade for O’Connor’s Complete Stories, The Novel may be understood as a stand-in for the former and is a clear reference and connector to Strayed’s mother on many levels. For one, it ties back to her mother by way of being a part of the world of literature, which is the two’s last connection due to them both pursuing literary studies simultaneously before her death. Secondly, it is a representative of her mother in that it is by an author she was passionate about and owned all books by, which Cheryl refused to take from her mother’s home after her death. The latter, in turn, connects the two again, on the level of signifying Cheryl’s regret and being unable to change the words she had spoken to her mother arrogantly. In this context, Michener’s novel is a medium of making amends for Cheryl, with her mother, by reading and enjoying it, despite her previous reservations (cf. ibid.:169) and comments about the author. Ultimately, in burning the book page by page after reading it, she is, much like with As I Lay Dying, burning her past and any negative feelings connected to or represented by that which she is burning, literally and figuratively speaking.
- Quote paper
- Phillip Grider (Author), 2017, The books she carried. The role of literature in Cheryl Strayed's "Wild", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/437811