Books: The Last American Man

I haven’t really been keeping up with my book reviews, but since I recommended The Last American Man over at The Morning News a few weeks back, I figure I could at do the same for my readers over here.

Those of you unfortunate enough to be adults may remember a spate of books released in the mid-90s that purported to tackle the thorny issue of “masculinity.” The tomes tended to come in two varieties: those that analyzed the issue from a feminist perspective and urged readers to identify their masculine side and then quash it in favor of nurturing their inner womyn, and those that warned that the former were turning us into a nation of simpering nancyboys and encouraged men to combat this creeping menace by making more of an effort to behave like an asshole.

Since I was at Evergreen during the throes of this trend, it was pretty much inescapable for me. And, consequentially, I have an irrational fear of any book that has the word “masculinity” anywhere near it. So the only thing that’s more amazing than the fact that I picked up The Last American Man from the library is the fact that I then went on to read it, despite a blurb on the front cover that declared it to be “the finest examination of American masculinity since Into the Wild.” And hey, you know what? It was great — best nonfiction book I’ve read so far this year.

The Last American Man is the biography of one Eustace Conway, written by his good friend Elizabeth Gilbert. Conway was literally the stuff of legends. As a teen he decided to forego a comfortable existence and live in the wilderness, surviving off what food he could catch or grow, fashioning his clothing out of buckskin, and eschewing even the luxury of matches. Unlike many hermits, though, Conway’s desire was not to get away from people — in fact, he was an extraordinary public speaker, and early on decided that it was his life’s calling to proselytize this lifestyle, urging city folk to ditch the suburbs and come join him in the forest. In that end he established the Turtle Island Preserve, where he gave workshops and mentored those who wanted to learn how to live a “traditional lifestyle.” He also travelled to schools and conferences as a handsomely paid guest speaker. And, between gigs, he found time to hike the entire Appalachian Trail and ride across the nation on horseback.

In chronicling the life of Conway, Gilbert makes little effort to hide her affection for the subject matter: she freely admits that she’s a friend of the protagonist and is obviously not immune to his considerable charms. Even so, she’s not afraid to tell it like it is when it comes to Conway’s many failings. Gilbert makes it all too clear why a man of Conway’s charism nonetheless winds up alienating his friends, family, lovers and apprentices. Indeed, Conway come across less as a paragon of manhood and more like a greek god: larger-than-life, but with a flaw for every virtue. That Gilbert is able to navigate the tightrope between objectivity and personalization is a credit to her skills as an author.

And while I haven’t rushed out and purchased a copy of Iron John just yet, I will say that The Last American Man went a long way in destigmatizing treatises on masculinity for me. Better still, I found it an engrossing, funny, and thought-provoking book, one perfect for summer reading on the beach. Or in the middle of a rainforst, whichever you prefer.

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5 comments.

  1. Now you have done it! I have long been infuriated by the practice some men have of referring to other men as “girls” as a perjorative. But to use the term “nancygirls” is just the living end! I definitely am leaving you the Legos in my will.

    PS. I do not simper.

  2. It’s weird but when I was a kid I used to dream about living that way. I read this book “My Side of the Mountain” about a kid who runs away to live in the wilderness. That and Robinson Crusoe were my favorites. I even tried making raisins at home like Crusoe. I wonder if this is a common dream?

  3. Hey, that Conway guy once proposed to my boyfriend’s ex-girlfriend’s sister. For reals. She said no. She likes her flush toilets.

  4. I gave my little brother a copy of Last American Man for his 18th birthday. Now he’s in the Air Force PJs…or was, last time anyone heard from him.

  5. I don’t know where to start on this topic but one good place to look is at the fact that society has so placed us at the mercy of each other – what do any of us actually do for ourselves nowadays? – that we forget the psychological benefits of independence and self-sustenance.

    To me, that’s what is even remotely appealing about these books on masculinity – there is a return to some primal notion of independence. The only issue I have here is that the same is possible for a woman, why let a man have all the benefits of being the ‘lobo solo’?

    What might be innately masculine is some sort of authoritarian hierarchy – a state of nature where men order themselves according to a set of practical and life-affirming values (like the ability to provide food or protection against wild beasts). I get the feeling women don’t operate in this way.

    Such a state of nature would free men from the societal impositions of equality and universal humanism. That’s liberating as well – except, of course, for he who is able to provide nothing and ends up on the bottom of the hierarchy.