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Into the Wild | Context


New Journalism

While it is unclear who coined the term, Truman Capote is considered to have established the genre of New Journalism in 1965 with his book In Cold Blood (1966) about the murder of a Kansas family. Capote labeled his book a "nonfiction novel." New Journalism meshes the techniques of investigative journalism with literary techniques, particularly those used in fiction, such as structuring events for dramatic effect, using striking imagery, and emphasizing character development. In traditional journalism, writers aim to be as objective as possible. Not so in New Journalism, where writers are openly subjective, incorporating their own opinions or emotional responses to the subject matter. Other famous works of New Journalism include Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff (1979), which focuses on NASA astronauts, and Norman Mailer's nonfiction novel, The Executioner's Song (1979).

As an investigative journalist, Krakauer uses traditional techniques to piece together the truth about McCandless's personality, actions, and motivations from a variety of sources. He interviews several people who knew McCandless. He carefully reconstructs McCandless's two-year odyssey, incorporating quotations from McCandless's own diary. He even sends seeds McCandless consumed to a lab to find out if they actually caused his death. All of these methods produce objective facts.

One of the challenges of New Journalism, and therefore of Into the Wild, is gauging to what extent Krakauer's own subjectivity may bias his reporting of McCandless's story. Rather than simply focusing on the facts, Krakauer admits early in the book, "I won't claim to be an impartial biographer. McCandless's strange tale struck a personal note that made a dispassionate rendering of the tragedy impossible." One frequent argument against Into the Wild is that it suffers from Krakauer's authorial intrusions that obscure, rather than illuminate, what actually happened to McCandless.

Krakauer does not always tell McCandless's story in chronological order. He also inserts several narratives about other hikers and climbers whose lives parallel McCandless's in some way. He even includes two full chapters of autobiography in which he relates his own family history and his adventures in the high-risk sport of mountain climbing as a means to explore McCandless's behavior. Each chapter of Into the Wild is preceded by thought-provoking quotations, often from books McCandless actually read and underlined. But some quotations are personal selections of Krakauer. Whether the quotations actually shed light on the truth of what happened to McCandless, or merely manipulate readers into believing Krakauer's interpretation of events, is open for debate. New Journalism challenges readers to sort out the objective from the subjective.

Romanticism and Transcendentalism

Many facets of McCandless's moral code and philosophical beliefs echoed those of romanticism and transcendentalism.

Romanticism is a European cultural movement of the early 19th century. The romantics felt subjective experience based in emotion and imagination rather than reason and logic led to spiritual truth. The romantics also advocated the appreciation of nature, whose grandeur inspired awe. Communing with nature became a means to a deeper understanding of the self and the universe.

Chris McCandless considered Henry David Thoreau (1817–62) one of his heroes. Thoreau was a devoted follower of transcendentalism, an American movement led by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82), an essayist and poet, which was influenced by romanticism. Transcendentalists believed in the primacy of the individual and subjective experience and favored intuition and imagination over logic. They valued nonconformity, self-determination, and self-reliance as worthy traits that reflect the individual's right to determine his or her path in life. Rather than living, in Thoreau's words, "lives of quiet desperation," transcendentalists advocated a "life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust." As a young man trying to assert his own independence, Chris McCandless might have found this philosophy especially appealing.

Nature played a central role in transcendentalism. Transcendentalists believed a simple life immersed in nature led to spiritual fulfillment. As Emerson writes,

In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life ... which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space ... I am part or particle of God.

McCandless admired Thoreau's experiment in self-reliance detailed in Walden; or Life in the Woods (1854). Thoreau lived alone in the woods, built his own cabin, and grew his own vegetables. He also used his time there to meditate on nature as a means to understanding existence.

It is not surprising that Thoreau also wrote the highly influential "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience," in which he boldly declares, "[The government] can have no pure right over my person and property but what I concede to it." Transcendentalists also found their society and government conformist, corrupt, and unjust and, therefore, lent their support to social movements such as women's rights and the abolition of slavery.

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