For over twenty years, many different people have speculated on the reasoning behind Chris McCandless’ actions – particularly his trip to Alaska where he, unfortunately, met his demise. McCandless, the subject of Job Krakauer’s nonfictional book Into the Wild, was a young man at the time of his death – only 24 years old. It was only two years before his passing that he had graduated from Emory University; he was an excellent athlete, was incredibly involved, and did well in school his entire life. (Chris) Although estranged from his family, McCandless made many connections during his time; most notably Wayne Westerberg who took the gentlemen under his wing before he was off to Alaska. Yet, despite his life presenting as seemingly normal, Chris McCandless was a reckless individual. Even before the fated Alaska trip, he faced death when he nearly succumbed to dehydration in the Mohave Desert. When he did eventually make his way around Alaska, he was severely underprepared and the few items he packed included a ten-pound bag of rice, a rifle, and a coat. No knowledge of the area, and no particular goal in sight. Only traveling to the middle of nowhere, away from society, and truly all alone.
The actions of McCandless traveling to Alaska that summer was neither spontaneous nor out of character. He had traveled in the past – put himself in situations where he endangered himself before. The common denominator behind all of McCandless’ travels presents itself in a transcendentalist nature. From the prolonged journeys in his Yellow Datsun to the Mohave Desert, and then finally to Alaska; each of his travels exhibits the escape from society and the necessity of self-reliance. McCandless, at the core of the ideology, was a transcendentalist; and although many college students, as he was one himself, are able to sympathize with his beliefs, the extent to which McCandless pursued such is not applicable among the modern student.
Developed in the late 1820s, and originating in Unitarianism, the transcendentalist movement sought to protest against the state of intellectualism and spiritually of the time. Particularly, the earliest transcendentalists appreciated the intellectualism behind the Unitarianism philosophy, however, they yearned for a more intense spiritual experience as well. (Transcendentalism) The spiritual nature of transcendentalist ideals entails that humans are inherently good, however, they become tainted. Transcendentalism, in the philosophy’s most basic form, is defined as the belief that society corrupts the purity of the individual. (Sacks) The philosophy is only gaining popularity, especially as seen through fans of Chris McCandless; his journey – and the account of it – speaks a lot of transcendentalist ideals that attract his followers.
However, as much as one can label McCandless as a transcendentalist, what aspect of his journeys exemplify this? Well, the most obvious example lies between the pages of a journal he kept to himself. He states in a journal entry dated 1992 that his travel to Alaska was “the climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual pilgrimage.” (Krakauer) A few sentences later, in the same entry, was also written that he was “no longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild.” The entry was signed with the name Alexander Supertramp, interestingly enough. Yet aside from the amusement, these two statements are the very definition of a transcendentalist’s goals. Both spiritual enlightenment and freedom from society’s plague were achieved by Chris McCandless. The fact that he specifically mentions his spiritual pilgrimage and the poisons of civilization gives insight into what he was seeking; McCandless hopes to accomplish his transcendentalist goals and he did so victoriously.
The basic ideas of transcendentalism are highly attractive to many students today. Many students, as discovered through discussion, have felt that society places pressure on the individual to follow a certain pattern: go to school, get a job, have a family, retire, and die. For example, in the capitalistic society, instead of spending time as people wish, such as traveling, individuals are forced to spend time at a job to earn money (which is often not enough anyways). Not only is transcendentalism evident in the fact that students feel pressure to attend school and follow a certain path, but the philosophy is also present on social media. Fairly often a young adult in this society will make a point of disconnecting from Instagram or Snapchat; this disconnect from this media is often a way of cleansing and destressing from the hassles of daily life. Although the common student may not acknowledge, or recognize, that their actions and thoughts reflect a transcendentalist nature, there is no denying that the philosophy is still attractive to the demographic. Of course, however, the extent of which McCandless pursued his transcendentalist experience is not appealing to us ordinary college attendee; McCandless is an extremist in this case, and it is not an often occurrence, if it is one at all among college students, to travel completely unprepared in the wild.
The philosophy of transcendentalism has most definitely maintained its presence in society. Especially through various media, it is evident that transcendentalist ideals are a common theme. In fact, transcendentalism is even a part of children’s movies; spoiler alert, the popular Disney movie Frozen captures the philosophy perfectly. The plot – put simply – is the story of a young woman who is trapped in a society who is terrified of her potential; once she escapes this debilitating society the young woman finally feels free for the first time. (Bucks) Sounds pretty familiar to the basic idea of transcendentalism. Although there are many other movies, books, songs, games, etc. up for discussion, the point is made clear. McCandless followed transcendentalist thoughts and continues to inspire many young adults to set themselves free into the wild.
- Buck, Chris and Jennifer Lee, directors. Frozen. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2013.
- “Chris McCandless.” Google Sites, sites.google.com/a/sdst.org/chris-mccandless/home.
- Krakauer, Jon. How Christopher McCandless Lost His Way in the Wilds. www.hudson.k12.oh.us/cms/lib/OH01914911/Centricity/Domain/1167/Krakauer%20article%20McCandless.pdf.
- Sacks, Kenneth. Understanding Emerson ‘The American Scholar’ and His Struggle for Self-Reliance. Princeton University Press, 2003.
- “Transcendentalism.” Khan Academy, Khan Academy, www.khanacademy.org/humanities/us-history/the-early-republic/culture-and-reform/a/transcendentalism.