219 Into Self-Reliance

Delaney John-Zensky

For this project I wanted to pick a contemporary text that wasn’t going to be a glaringly obvious connection, while still allow me to relate it back to something we have read for this class. My criteria for picking something was that it had to be:

  1. Something I enjoyed
  2. Related to America in some way
  3. Have an understandable connection to something we’ve read. 

The piece I eventually settled on was Into the Wild, a 2007 film directed by Sean Penn. This is the true story of Chris McCandless, who after graduating from college forsake all his money and physical possessions, keeping only his car and basic necessities. Chris then hits the road, with the long term goal of eventually reaching the Alaskan wilderness. Along the way Chris meets many obstacles and characters that help him learn about the world, and himself, as well as exploring many types of American lifestyles and the country’s natural landscapes. This movie has always stayed in my brain after I watched it, which I attribute to not only the story, but also the amazing soundtrack by Eddie Vedder (but I’m off topic now).

After remembering the movie and it’s many messages and stories, it became very easy for me to relate this to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”. “Self-Reliance” promotes free thinking, and nature, among many other topics. One of the largest themes of the text, and in extension, transcendentalism, is the idea of rejecting society. Emerson writes “Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members.” He seems to believe that society is against man, so man should be against society. Emerson also thinks that society never advances, since “Society is a wave. The wave moves onward, but the water of which it is composed does not.” Nothing seems new under the sun for Emerson, just the same old world and the same old ways, presented differently throughout the years.

The entire idea of the movie Into the Wild is escaping from society, where it would be unable to influence Chris in anyway. In fact, one of the songs made for the movie is called “Society”, (see I found a way to bring up Eddie Vedder again. It really is a great song give it a listen). Vedder sings “Society, you’re a crazy breed/I hope you’re not lonely without me/Society, crazy and deep/I hope you’re not lonely without me”. To me this song is describing someone trying to escape from the “crazy breed” of society which has been recycled through the ages, and is hard to break out of. 

However, both Into the Wild and “Self-Reliance” end up contradicting their original statements, either directly or not. Emerson, through promoting the acceptance of his self-reliant way of life is actually encouraging others to conform to his own way of thinking. In wanting others to become self-reliant transcendentalists, he is creating a group in which to share his beliefs, essentially creating his own subset of society. In Into the Wild, near the end of the movie and (spoiler alert) Chris’ life, he is shown starving, and writing the sentence “Happiness is only real when shared” into a book. He then looks into the camera with tears in his eyes, as if realizing his mistake in making this realization so late, in a place where he is completely isolated in the wilderness he so desperately craved. The film also does not attempt to romanticize his downfall, showing the results of eating the wrong berries in attempt to feed himself off the land. In the end, nature, while still beautiful to Chris as the clouds and the sun are the last things he sees, are unforgiving and harsh. 

Here’s that scene, but it does get a bit nasty, don’t say I didn’t warn you. 

So now I have proven a bit how these two tales are related. Now onto the “why this matters” part. “Self-Reliance” was published in 1841, 166 years before the movie, Into the Wild came out. Emerson’s methods of communicating where pretty much the only option he had, but I think even today he would choose the written word, for the same reason that some people only listen to music on records, because its “pure”. However, Into the Wild, the movie, is based on a book which is based on a true story. I have not decided to analyze the book (partly because that wouldn’t be considered a technology, mostly because I haven’t had the chance to read it yet). I have looked only at the movie here. I think the movie is so effective because of its shots of the American landscapes which Chris explores, from kayaking the Colorado River, to observing the mountain ranges of Alaska, to watching a herd of elk. These shots, and the music that accompanies them, do well to make the viewer understand why Chris went to escape to the wild, and to help explain the beauty and allure of it. While words and texts can do well to describe nature and its beauty (I wouldn’t be an English major if I didn’t think this), I think using visual imagery drives that point home even more. I think the choice to tell a story via a visual medium, like a movie, also makes it more accessible to large audiences. Many more people today would rather spend two hours or so watching something on a screen, then dedicating the time to read a book, which in itself says something about our culture and how we decide to value and use our time. 

Overall, I think we are currently in an interesting time with studies of American Literature. The era we live in is very (and I hate this term) “politically correct” which I think is a great and wonderful direction to be moving in. I think a large part of this is due to the use of technology, allowing many people who previously hadn’t had voices, to share their stories. However, it does become iffy territory when people start to question the correctness of early American texts. According to a 2018 NPR article, Laura Ingalls Wilder, famous for Little House on the Prairie, had her name stripped from a major children’s literature award. This was due to her negative portrayal of Native American people. But that is where it gets difficult. Yes, it is important not to continue to teach children awful stereotypes of Native American people, but also the stories are considered a base of children’s literature. The Laura Ingalls Wilder Legacy and Research Association released a statement in which they said “Those perspectives are teaching moments to show generations to come how the past was and how we, as a society, must move forward with a more inclusive and diverse perspective.” This is a dilemma that will continue to be debated, but for now I think it is important to have a history of both sides. 

I’ve strayed far from my original point by now. This class has helped me see how media and technology is continuing to shape how we access and read American literature. The most important connection I’ve seen is the community of reading, which that is easy to see in the use of Hypothes.is. This technology brings readers together to share thoughts while in the process of reading, not an intellectual essay written after the fact. Even each class discussion or project also makes me realize that American literature, and literature more broadly is not made to be consumed and analyzed by one person, but by groups of people, brining in unique perspectives.  I guess in conclusion to this long blog post, it is easy to find messages from early American literature in unexpected places, that movies allow for messages to be spread more rapidly, what is allowed to be read as early American literature is changing in this growing world, and that everyone should listen to the Into the Wild soundtrack.  
Chow, Kat. “Little House On The Controversy: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Name Removed From Book Award.” NPR, NPR, 25 June 2018, https://www.npr.org/2018/06/25/623184440/little-house-on-the-controversy-laura-ingalls-wilders-name-removed-from-book-awa.

Into the Wild. Directed by Sean Penn. Paramount Vantage. 2007.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 1803-1882. “Self-Reliance.” https://openeal.pressbooks.com/chapter/self-reliance-1841/

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Into Self-Reliance by Delaney John-Zensky is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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