Thursday, June 17, 2010
The Last American Man (Elizabeth Gilbert) (1.5/10.0)
In titling her book, The Last American Man, Elizabeth Gilbert made a very tall and significant promise to her readers, namely that the story would reflect distinctly American values and otherwise reveal the embodiment of those values in a particular individual. Now, please understand that I have nothing against the man himself. Eustace Conway is, from all that I know about him, a supremely competent and skilled outdoorsman. What quickly becomes obvious in the book, however, is that Eustace spent the first half of his life suffering under and running from the harsh and autocratic rule of his father and the second half creating his own home (a primitive farm, known as Turtle Island), where he could draw young people in by the promise of a simpler life and then command and control them in precisely the same manner as his father commanded and controlled him. The rest of the book is no more than Gilbert's idealism of her subject and window-dressing. In escaping his unbearable home life, Eustace Conway exchanged the yoke for the whip, but the system and the philosophy remain precisely the same. Such autocracy is not an essentially American trait - indeed, it is precisely the opposite of a respect for individual liberty, a principle which Eustace Conway obviously abhors. A dedicated woodsman, he may be, but Eustace Conway is not in any way, shape, or form a paradigm of American masculinity.
And Eustace Conway is hardly the last of his kind, although he goes to great lengths to market and promote himself as the embodiment of American frontier principles. Gilbert treats this self-promotion as part and parcel of what it means to be an American hero, pointing to the images that Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, among others, created to enhance their public standing. By doing so, she tacitly elevates every travelling evangelist and snake-oil salesman to the status of American folk hero. But these traits are hardly uniquely American or disappearing in our time. In fact, self-promoting, self-righteous, and domineering natures abound in every society around the world. And so, the promise of the book's title goes not only unfulfilled, but directly contradicted. I can only conclude that the title was a misguided marketing effort to sell more copies of what is a decidedly flat, fractured, and uninspired tale of an otherwise skilled woodsman who has spent his life in trying to tell other American males (and females) how to live their lives, while he fails again and again to effect a life that is significantly different from that led by his father. He is, simply, one self-promoting autocrat seeking to escape the domination of another, which is hardly a unique story, much less an essentially American one.
Posted by Patrick (at The Literate Man) at 9:12 AM