Into the Wild

by: Jon Krakauer

Context

Into the Wild tells the true story of the journey of 24-year-old Christopher McCandless into Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve, where he starved to death in an abandoned bus after spending four months foraging and hunting game. Intelligent but burdened by anger at his brilliant but overbearing and imperfect father, McCandless went entirely without human contact for four months in an attempt to purify himself of what he felt were the evils of civilization. American nonfiction writer Jon Krakauer meticulously reconstructs every stage of McCandless’s journey and relates other, shorter trips McCandless made before determining that he would spend the rest of his life in the wild.

A pre-eminent journalist of the American outdoors, Krakauer first published an extremely popular article about McCandless in the magazine Outside in 1993, after seeing a write-up of his death in The New York Times. Into the Wild extends Krakauer’s original investigation of McCandless’s life and death into a meditation on American male adolescence, the complications of father-son relationships, and the role of nature and the wilderness as furthering the great American myth of self-reliance. In the 1990s, questions of changing gender relationships and the role of manhood and manliness in sustaining national and cultural identity were very much in the air, part of a long series of cultural changes begun by the counter-cultural movements initiated after World War II. By the time Christopher McCandless made his trip into Denali National Park, the American frontier could no longer be said to exist. Into the Wild thus documents both the disappearance of the American ideal of masculine self-reliance and a rising, late twentieth century awareness of environmental crisis.

Into the Wild’s internal structure is both carefully arranged and complex, drawing from multiple American literary traditions both mainstream and high-brow to craft a landmark example of twentieth century American mixed-genre nonfiction. Krakauer works through intensely emotional material gathered from first-hand interviews to examine the consequences of McCandless’s death on the people close to him, rendering Into the Wild a study of risk-taking behavior and its effects as much as it is an adventure story. In some ways, Into the Wild is also a work of literary criticism or intellectual biography. Krakauer scrutinizes the same books McCandless is known to have read, too, including the fiction of Leo Tolstoy and the nonfiction of Henry David Thoreau, lending Into the Wild a distinctly intellectual, even scholarly tone absent from most mainstream writing about the outdoors. The history of American nature writing, especially regarding the American West, also influences Into the Wild. Krakauer himself cites Thoreau, Wallace Stegner, and John Muir. In keeping with the genre of investigative biography, Krakauer also details McCandless’s early life and interviews his family as well as the helpful strangers who became his friends during his travels.

In addition to the portrait he offers of McCandless’s journey and psychology, Krakauer also relates an extreme outdoor adventure of his own, rendering the book an example of memoir or personal essay. When Krakauer was in his early twenties, he nearly died during an attempt to summit the Devils Thumb in Alaska. Into the Wild thus blends personal essay and investigative nonfiction with biography and autobiography. This genre, which appears in many different forms, can be traced back to a number of American literary influences and origins, including the magazine writers Studs Terkel, Tom Wolfe, and Susan Orlean. Insofar as Into the Wild attempts to resolve the mystery of how McCandless died, it shares a tradition with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and American true crime stories generally.

Like many nonfiction works developed from magazine fiction, Into the Wild’s style is largely objective. Its rigorous description of camping, hitchhiking, and the American outdoors remains one of Krakauer’s signatures as a writer. The book’s artful, nonlinear narrative is not typical of most twentieth century journalistic writing and represents another of Krakauer’s more recognizable traits. Recent editions of Into the Wild include additional research into what McCandless could have eaten that led to his death by starvation, a mystery Krakauer could not resolve by the publication of the original Outdoor article. Krakauer’s own fixation on McCandless’s story and his engagement with doubters and critics of McCandless’s life also informs the book’s revisions.

Into the Wild spent two years on the New York Times bestseller list when it was first published in 1996, and it remains one of the central works of late twentieth century American nonfiction. It also accrued to its author a number of awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Krakauer’s other works include the nonfiction bestsellers Into Thin Air, an account of the most deadly Everest ascent of all time, and Under the Banner of Heaven, which investigates the nature of Mormonism and polygamy. Krakauer remains one of the most lauded American nonfiction writers, especially on the subjects of outdoor adventure, nature, and mountain climbing. His work as a journalist for Outdoor and other publications has been collected in Eiger Dreams. In 2007, Into the Wild was adapted into a nonfiction feature film directed by Sean Penn.