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.