“Be awake, Eustace said (laughing at the very simplicity of it), and you will succeed in this world. …Only through constant focus can you become independent. Only through independence can you know yourself. And only through knowing yourself will you be able to ask the key questions of your life: What is it that I am destined to accomplish, and how can I make it happen?”
-Elizabeth Gilbert, in The Last American Man (2002)
I tried to keep my backpack light as I ran around in the Alps earlier this week, but I did pack two books: my black, unlined Moleskine journal (a staple), and Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man (this week’s read). The book was such a page-turner that I hardly wrote in my journal while I was away, and I stayed up until 2:30 last night to finish it.
The Last American Man (2002) is the true story of man named Eustace Conway. This guy lives in a teepee in North Carolina and lives off the land. He has acquired over a thousand acres of living space and invited others to join him at the place he calls Turtle Island. Although Eustace Conway is an endlessly fascinating figure, Gilbert’s exploration of his life goes beyond the level of a simple character sketch. She’s probing deep into American consciousness and asking questions about what it means to be a modern American man and what it really means to live a simple life. She draws upon American history and looks at this country’s pioneer spirit; she considers how maleness is often linked with myth. In Gilbert’s book, Eustace Conway emerges as an incredibly accomplished and romantic figure, but Gilbert also shows us the complexity and tragedy of his life. I have nothing but praise for this book—Gilbert is lighthearted and full of humor, but she’s also serious enough to consider the deeper threads that weave this man’s life into the web of American society—even though he has in many ways set himself apart from it.
This book is inspiring and carefully crafted, and I highly recommend it to: anyone wanting to read about a genuine life, anyone looking for some inspiration to break free from a prescribed way of living, anyone who has ever thought about living off the land, and anyone who might like to think more about this notion of “the contemporary American male.”
(BTW: the above photo is actually of a British man–Tim Burton, descending from New Zealand’s Mt. Aspiring.)