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The Last American Man
Elizabeth Gilbert
New York: Viking, 2002
$24.95, 271 pages, ISBN 0-670-03086-4.

Valerie Palmer-Mehta
Oakland University

The changing shape of white U.S. masculinity has been the subject of burgeoning debate in the U.S. since the early 1970s, when reactions to second wave feminism's challenges to patriarchal ideology and the gender order emerged. The conversation has been broad and varied through the years, prompting a wealth of self-help books, men’s liberation rhetoric, the Mythopoetic men’s movement, the evangelical Promise Keepers movement, and a profusion of academic and journalistic work. The resulting musings and research have claimed consistently that white American masculinity is in a "crisis." More often than not, the crisis is tied to the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, which spurred new rights and opportunities for women, minorities and the gay community while questioning and disrupting white male power and privilege. Adding to the ever-expanding list of books exploring white men in crisis is Elizabeth Gilbert's The Last American Man.

Gilbert's latest work is not an academic treatise that theorizes men and masculinity, although she does sporadically discuss historical and contemporary facets of American masculinity to add depth to her explication of the protagonist. Rather, it is a New Journalism biography that weaves the reader into the tangled and complex life of Eustace Robinson Conway IV, an occasionally heroic and often troubled man who lives out what Gilbert calls the "homegrown self-mythology" of the American man. Comparing him to such prominent American figures as Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, Gilbert explains that Eustace believes that he is a Man of Destiny, intent on saving "our nation's collective soul by reintroducing Americans to the concept of revelatory communion with the frontier." Eustace is concerned that Americans are losing their vital connection to the rhythms of nature and hence their humanity is slipping away, resulting in "inherent corruption and greed and malaise" as well as the exhausting of their resources, both natural and internal. Eustace contends that the solution lies in bringing people to Turtle Island, his 1,000 acre nature camp in North Carolina, where, "under his guidance, they would shed the fragility, ignorance and pettiness brought about by their contemporary upbringing" by studying and, ultimately, living out, his simple way of life.

And who better to liberate Americans from their materialism and environmental apathy than a man who lives what he preaches? In chapter one, the reader learns that Eustace has hiked the 2,000 mile Appalachian Trail on foot, has ridden across America—from the Atlantic to the Pacific—on horse back, and has traveled 2,600 miles in a horse-drawn buggy in 45 days. He has kayaked across Alaska, resided with the Navajo in New Mexico and spent five months living among the Mayan Indians in Guatemala. He grows or catches all the food he consumes, uses animal hides for clothing and lives in a teepee. Later, he builds and lives in a log cabin. Gilbert explains that, unlike many Americans who simulate being a cowboy by spending one summer on a ranch, donning a cowboy hat and riding horses, Eustace actually lives the life of a frontiersman on a daily basis. And, similar to a frontiersman, after much laboring, he has developed his own 1,000 acre Walden, which he offers up freely to the American public for their environmental and spiritual re-awakening.

Not surprisingly, Gilbert advises that there is a tendency to romanticize Eustace and his life. This is perhaps obvious to readers, who are, until Gilbert mentions it, wishing that our lives were more like Eustace's. Indeed, there are few people who can boast such a list of accomplishments and therefore one cannot help but question, what prompts a person to engage in all the amazing activities that Eustace has enjoyed? In chapter one, Gilbert herself paints a romantic portrait of Eustace's life, even as she advises against it, stating that Eustace lives in the woods simply because "he belongs there."

In chapter two we receive an answer to our speculation, as Gilbert provides a more somber vision of our protagonist. She paints the image of a talented but tormented child who is drawn to the woods not simply out of a love for nature, but because it is a refuge from a dictatorial, abusive father. Although Eustace's father, who is referred to as Big Eustace, exacted abuse on other members of the family, even pushing his middle son, Walton, out of a second story window when he threatened to run away, Eustace was largely his target in this devastatingly dysfunctional family. Gilbert explains that Big Eustace was an acknowledged genius, skipping grades in school and earning a doctorate in chemical engineering in his early twenties. He expected as much or perhaps more from his oldest son, and he eagerly went about educating Eustace in hopes of making him the next prodigy in the family.

Unfortunately, he was neither a patient, nor reasonable teacher. At the age of two, Little Eustace received a jigsaw puzzle from his father that was far too complicated for his young years. When he was unable to piece it together and showed signs of disinterest in the puzzle, his father went on a rampage. Little Eustace’s mother attempted to intervene, but her husband’s rage was simply displaced on her and she was rebuked for encouraging her son’s ignorance. This was only the beginning of Eustace's troubled relationship with his father. Gilbert carefully recounts the stories of friends, distant relatives and the immediate family, describing what was an unbearable existence for Eustace, as he endured his father's cruel habit of belittling his namesake in front of anyone who would watch. Years later, in his twenties and thirties, Eustace would send numerous letters to his father begging for his validation, to which he would receive no response until, at the age of 39, he would get his first birthday card. Gilbert suggests that the only reason Eustace was able to survive his childhood is because his mother was a constant wellspring of surreptitious encouragement, slipping him notes of love and validation, and she was also the source of much of his initial knowledge of and interest in the outdoors.

Not surprisingly, Eustace leaves home when he is seventeen, taking a teepee that he has made by hand, a knife and some books. In chapters three through five, Gilbert narrates Eustace's early twenties, during which time Eustace traverses the Appalachian Mountains, goes to college and works relentlessly to shore up money to purchase Turtle Island, all the while living in his teepee and subsisting primarily on roadkill and squirrels. During Eustace's hiking of the Appalachian Mountains, it becomes evident that he is immensely and perhaps obsessively driven, walking 25-30 miles a day, sometimes without food. Later, this same relentlessness is reflected in his attitude towards work, as he races from state to state, night after night, giving speeches about primitive living and Native American philosophy in order to obtain money to pay for his land. Gilbert explains that "Eustace was killing himself with work" as he preached the "comforts of 'the simple life.'"

In chapter six, Gilbert points out the contradictory nature of this situation and adds that while Eustace positions himself as a seemingly guileless mountain man, it is evident that he is a very shrewd businessman, developing strategies, facilitating negotiations and doing whatever else is necessary to acquire his land. Rather than seeing this aspect of Eustace as inconsistent with the simpler way of life that is supposed to be characteristic of frontier times, Gilbert compares Eustace's business attitude with the real estate speculations of Daniel Boone, contending that this is exactly how frontiersmen operated. Gilbert argues that "the story of Eustace Conway is the story of American manhood. Shrewd, ambitious, energetic, aggressive, expansive—he stands at the end of a long and illustrious line of the same."

For all his ambition and energy, however, Eustace finds little satisfaction with his life's labor. Chapters six through nine, which correspond with his thirties, reveal an unraveling of Eustace, as he faces disillusionment with his fellow Americans and with his own failure to effectuate the kind of broad based change that he had intended. This is manifest in his unhappiness with his speaking tours. The depth of Eustace's dissatisfaction is best embodied in a journal entry written after he met with a sixth grade class:

I could not believe the lack of education and inspiration I met with! They [the schoolchildren] were pitiful….No motivation whatsoever. No understanding of their world. Just robots going through an established pattern of living to get by. We are truly on a survival level here—no arts or creativity. No passion. Just a slow monotone existence in oppressed ignorance. I asked if they knew what the world sacred meant. They didn't know. They put money, new cars and telephones on their lists of what was valuable to them….So here we are in the 1990s, where children are now less than human.

Eustace's disappointment is not confined to the groups with whom he speaks. Just two years after establishing Turtle Island, he becomes increasingly annoyed with and fatigued by the constant social contact he must endure in order to keep his camp running, resulting in an irritable demeanor that alienates him from his general staff and his many girlfriends. He also slowly becomes heartsick by the failure of his apprenticeship program, which he had hoped would generate many others who would live off of and care for the land as he does. However, 90% of the apprentices leave embittered and dissatisfied with their interactions with Eustace and his program. Eventually, Eustace completely suspends the apprentice program.

In an effort to clear his head of frustration and to feed his spirit of adventure, he decides to take two major trips. The first is a journey with his brother, Judson, on horseback across America. The second is a horse and buggy trip with his girlfriend, Patience. While the trips are technical successes, they take an enormous toll on these relationships. On both trips, he is more concerned with setting timing records than appreciating the journey or the time spent with those who accompany him. For Eustace, these journeys were not about communing with nature, but accomplishing a goal at any cost. Both his brother and his girlfriend remark separately, with disappointment, that Eustace acted just like his father on the trip: dictatorial, oppressive, perfectionist, patriarchal, and unappeasable. And each decides that it would be best to limit or end their relationship with him. Eustace's disturbing upbringing is made even more tragic when we learn that he brings the very tendencies he abhors in his father to his interpersonal relationships and activities time and time again. These two examples are representative of Eustace's relationships with countless girlfriends, apprentices and camp staff workers, and family members, all of which are recounted in the book. His relentless pursuit of success and perfection, which Gilbert suggests is Eustace's unconscious method of gaining his father's approval, drives away even his most ardent admirers and makes it impossible for him to maintain long term, intimate relationships or to be truly effectiveness in raising America's environmental consciousness.

In the end, the reader is left to wonder what Eustace's legacy will be. Will he recognize why he alienates and drives away those who adore him in time to make himself a more successful messenger of environmental preservation? Will he ever fulfill his dream of getting married and having children who will take his dream to the next generation? Or will his greatest accomplishment simply be that he has saved 1,000 acres from America's tireless and reckless development? Gilbert does not presume to answer these questions, and perhaps that is best.

In the final analysis, Gilbert has woven together skillfully the multifaceted aspects of Eustace's fascinating and tragic life. In lucid detail, she tells the story of his amazing accomplishments and his pressing personal philosophy, as well as the suffering he has experienced, and that which he promulgates. Ultimately, the profile is as much about the devastating ramifications of a failed father-son relationship and the human perversion of blindly perpetuating the suffering that one has endured, as it is about Eustace's courageous effort to prompt Americans to commune with, and preserve, nature.

The book also provides an interesting contribution to the contemporary work on American masculinity. When I first held Gilbert's book in my hands, I was brimming with curiosity to learn how she defined American masculinity, a vexing and nebulous construct these days, and why it is so perilously close to annihilation. Gilbert is correct to say that Eustace is the last of a dying breed in the sense that he rejects modern materialism in favor of a more responsible and selfless approach to living with nature. Conversely, however, he is one of numerous Americans, particularly those in public office, who lack sufficient self-reflexivity and humility to understand why their own autocratic attitude provokes the contempt of their peers and ultimately renders them burned out and impotent. Rather than blaming multiculturalism and feminism for all that ails the protagonist, Gilbert makes plain that Eustace's troubled relationship with his father and his own lack of self-reflexivity are the reasons behind his greatest successes, as well as his greatest failures. While this is just one man's experience with life in America, it does compel the reader to think that there may be much more than the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s prompting the contemporary crisis in white American masculinity.

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