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The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Last American Man

by Elizabeth Gilbert

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This book is the true story of Eustace Conway, a man who has been living a self-sufficient lifestyle on Turtle Island, his 1,000 acre property in Appalachia. Throughout the years he has hosted many school groups, apprentices, and other interested individuals on his land. He also tours around the country teaching kids and others about the skills of surviving in the wilderness. The author spends a significant about of time with Conway on his property, working alongside him and learning about his philosophy and way of life. She also interviews many of his family members, ex-girlfriends, friends, and former apprentices.

I had a lot of strong and conflicted feelings while reading this book, so this will be a long review. I respect much of what Conway has done and agree with many of his philosophies. I admire his sustainable lifestyle and would love to have all the knowledge he does about surviving in the wilderness. He is not just talking about how he thinks the world should be; he is actually living in accordance with his values. He knows that a truly sustainable lifestyle requires a lot of hard work and isn’t always comfortable. I deeply admire his authenticity in this respect.

That being said, I have very little respect for Conway as a person. He is narcissistic, condescending, and constantly playing the victim. He thinks he has all the answers in life and it is his sacred duty to impart this knowledge upon the lowly commoners, being fully aware that these commoners will never achieve his level of greatness.

Conway professes a belief in interconnectedness, yet fails to allow anyone else to be connected to his vision in any real way. He drives a lot of people out of his life with his stubbornness and high expectations. The apprentices who come to learn from him rarely stay for the amount of time to which they have committed. He has impossibly high standards for them and doesn’t seem to appreciate them, so they generally quit early. He is domineering and verbally abusive to the women in his life, berating them for any choice or action that doesn’t fit in with his vision. One of his ex-girlfriends commented that he doesn’t let good people feel good about themselves, which I would say is a very accurate assessment.

Conway sees himself as a misunderstood visionary who has risen above the evils of American society to become the only authentic human being. His journals are full of rants about how clueless and misguided everyone he meets is and how hard it is to be the only enlightened being among the senseless masses. He blames all of life’s frustrations and struggles on others, never fully realizing that maybe he needs to make some changes in his own life.

Towards the end of the book, one of Conway’s brothers states how he often thinks, “God, wouldn’t it be great to have a brother with all the skills and interests of Eustace, but was humble, too?” Exactly!! Conway is doing so many good and admirable things with his life, but it is so hard to appreciate it because he is such a narcissist.

I struggled with how many stars to give this book. Despite my ill-feelings towards Conway, or more likely because of them, I couldn’t put the book down. I’ll reluctantly admit that I took a fairly significant amount of pleasure in casting judgments upon a man who seemed to thrive upon judging others. I guess I didn’t learn my lesson from Conway about the importance of accepting others with all of their faults and imperfections and refraining from judgments. The book just leaves me asking a lot of questions about how to live a consistent lifestyle with true respect for all the life around me.
( )
  klburnside | Aug 11, 2015 |
I'm fairly certain that I could not stand to be in the presence of Eustace Conway. From reading this book and watching videos of his interviews, I would think that he and I would be at odds. His values are skewed from mine and that is the most disappointing aspect of learning about such a man. He takes a fragment of my individualist, libertarian ideals and twists them into a "my way or the highway" way of spreading the propaganda of his legend. But this is not a review of Conway's substantial character flaws. This is a review of the book written by Elizabeth Gilbert.

I'm not sure if the author's approach to this was supposed to be objective reporter (she definitely wasn't that), biased friend, or impassioned disciple. She seemed to be an annoying combination of the second two options. It was hard to take Gilbert's narrative seriously when she was relying heavily on Conway himself for a good portion of the source material.

It was a little ironic that the author mentioned Congressman Davy Crockett and how he wrote an autobiography of great outdoor adventures and daring (conveniently timed with his political campaign). This is about as reliable as the amazing things that Benjamin Franklin said about himself and I couldn't help but realize that Gilbert was doing the same service for Conway. Whether Conway is incapable of writing intelligently or just enjoys having his story told is beyond my ability to discern.

I can say that most of this book was hard to read because it read like fan-girl Gilbert had gotten her dream assignment of writing about one of her personal heroes. The gushiness and obvious high esteem that the author held for Conway made it difficult to believe that I was reading about the real man (rather than the idealicized version). There was a particular passage in the book that described a birthday card to Conway from his dad. It was overly sappy and dramatic and seemed like the author was manufacturing something more meaningful than the actual occurrence. There was another such over-done bit of drama near the very end when Conway was facing a deer or elk and started shouting feelings of love towards the creature. So what?

At any rate, this book was pretty much a bust and that's two strikes against Elizabeth Gilbert. Frankly, I don't intend to give her a chance for strike three because my time is precious to me and I have hundreds of other books on my list to read. The only part of this book that I liked was when Gilbert challenged Conway just to live as he teaches and stop messing with the idea of changing the world. She basically called him out as a fact and he begrudgingly admitted that he had to put on a mountain man act to get the message out. He is a phony and an attention-seeker. Gilbert portrays Conway as a man of action be he goes out of his way to do so as a public spectacle. I don't admire him and I can't respect her admiration of him. ( )
  jimocracy | Apr 18, 2015 |
More like 3.5 stars...this was an interesting read, but it could easily have been 100-150 pages. There was a lot of repetition, which made her point about eustace conway much less concise. ( )
  abbeyhar | Jul 23, 2014 |
More like 3.5 stars...this was an interesting read, but it could easily have been 100-150 pages. There was a lot of repetition, which made her point about eustace conway much less concise. ( )
  abbeyhar | Jul 23, 2014 |
More like 3.5 stars...this was an interesting read, but it could easily have been 100-150 pages. There was a lot of repetition, which made her point about eustace conway much less concise. ( )
  abbeyhar | Jul 23, 2014 |
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The result is that to the frontier the American Intellect owes its striking characteristics. That coarseness and strength comvined with acuteness and inquisitiveness: that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things, lacking in the artistic but powerful to effect great ends; the restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good or for evil, and withal that bouyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom--these are the traits of the frontier... --Frederick Jackson Turner
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What a wild life! What a fresh kind of existance! --Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, considering the possibility of writing an epic poem about the American explorer John Fremont
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0142002836, Paperback)

Finalist for the National Book Award 2002

In this rousing examination of contemporary American male identity, acclaimed author and journalist Elizabeth Gilbert explores the fascinating true story of Eustace Conway. In 1977, at the age of seventeen, Conway left his family's comfortable suburban home to move to the Appalachian Mountains. For more than two decades he has lived there, making fire with sticks, wearing skins from animals he has trapped, and trying to convince Americans to give up their materialistic lifestyles and return with him back to nature. To Gilbert, Conway's mythical character challenges all our assumptions about what it is to be a modern man in America; he is a symbol of much we feel how our men should be, but rarely are.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:33 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

[In this book, the author] explores the true story of Eustace Conway, who left his comfortable suburban home at the age of seventeen to move into the Appalachian Mountains, where for the last twenty years he has lived, making fire with sticks, wearing skins from animals he trapped, and living off the land. A charismatic and romantic figure, both brilliant and tormented, brave and contradictory, restless and ambitious, Conway has always seen himself as a "Man of Destiny" whose goal is to convince modern Americans to give up their materialistic lifestyles and return with him back to nature. [The author] tells of Eustace's crusade and his extraordinary wilderness adventures, including his 2000-mile hike down the Appalachian Trail (surviving almost exclusively on what he could hunt and gather along the way) and his legendary journey across America on horseback." To [her], Eustace Conway's mythical character challenges all our assumptions about what it is to be a modern man in America; he is a symbol of what we feel our men should be, but rarely are. From his example, she delivers a look at an archetypal American man and - from the point of view of a contemporary woman - refracts masculine American identity in all its conflicting elements of inventiveness, narcissism, isolation, and intimacy.-Dust jacket.… (more)

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