The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

A book I read last month that I really loved was Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Last American Man. It came out in 2002 and was a finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction. It’s one of those books that I love the more I think about it, the more time away from it I get. It’s rare that I go back and re-rate a book, but I’ve decided this a five-star read (up from four) with the distance of a couple of weeks. Gilbert so skillfully and holistically examines her subject (the confounding Eustace Conway) that I can’t stop thinking about the book and the man himself.

51XDqHOJJGL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_But this is how Eustace interacts with all the world all the time – taking any opportunity to teach people about nature. Which is to say that Eustace is not merely a hermit or a hippie or even a survivalist. He does not live in the woods because he’s hiding from us, or because he’s growing excellent weed, or because he’s storing guns for the imminent race war. He lives in the woods because he belongs there. Moreover, he tries to get other people to move into the woods with him, because he believes that this is his particular calling – nothing less than to save our nation’s collective soul by reintroducing Americans to the concept of revelatory communion with the frontier. Which is to say that Eustace Conway believes that he is a Man of Destiny.

Gilbert came to know Eustace through one of his younger brothers, whom she met working at a ranch in Wyoming after college. (“I went to Wyoming, in other words, to make a man of myself.”) I don’t know if someone without a family connection would have been able to get Conway to open up like she did. She even shares her conversations with Conway’s dad, who it seems to me is the driving force behind everything the younger Conway tried to do, at least in his youth. I grew furious at Eustace’s father, known as Big Eustace. He is described by each of his children differently, but to Little Eustace, his first born and namesake, he was pretty much an emotionally withholding and abusive monster.

If Little Eustace so much as touched a hammer from Big Eustace’s toolshed without permission, he would be sent to his room and forced to stay there for hours without food or water. If Little Eustace didn’t finish every morsel on his plate in proper time, Big Eustace would force him to sit at the dinner table all night, even if it meant the child had to sleep upright in his chair. If Little Eustace, in his play, accidentally kicked up a divot of grass from his father’s lawn, he would be beaten with a wooden paddle. If Little Eustace, in doing his chores, dared to mow the grass in a counterclockwise pattern instead of the clockwise pattern his father had commanded, there would be a huge scene and hell to pay.

The picture that emerges is a terrified and overanxious-to-please little boy, who is trying his best to make his taskmaster father happy, not understanding why his father is so hard on him and encourages his siblings to join in on the mocking. As the mother of a little boy it breaks my heart to think of a child who only wanted what he should have had, unconditional love from his parent.

Only when he had dutifully finished high school did Eustace Conway split. He took the teepee he’d made by hand (an older Native American woman who knew Eustace at the time described it as “the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen”) and he took his knife and he took some books and he was gone.

See, while his childhood was a minefield of trauma, Little Eustace realized that he felt his most free and most competent outside. His parents both were outdoor types and gave him enough freedom to explore the nearby woods on his own. He threw himself into things like archery, throwing knives, beadwork, weaving, and reading about “Men of Destiny” like Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Kit Carson, and Geronimo. He observed turtles and snakes and frogs close-up, tending to a community of turtles in his backyard for years. So it makes sense that as soon as he was legally able he left home and lived for a time in his teepee for a time, until he took a notion to hike the Appalachian Trail with a friend on a whim, totally unprepared.

From there Eustace has more cross-country adventures (including a wild horseback trek with his brother all the way to the Pacific Ocean) until he finally settles back in North Carolina and starts buying tracts of land near the city of Boone. Here Gilbert really digs into Conway’s relationships, both with the endless stream of women who are attracted to him and the people he tries to work with and mentor on his farm/education center. Turns out he is nearly impossible to work for and completely hopeless at romantic relationships. (The armchair psychologist in me says it’s because of his childhood trauma – never getting the love he wanted from his father and feeling like the only way he could possibly get it would be to be absolutely perfect in all his endeavors.) Gilbert really portrays him skillfully, honestly but also sympathetically. He’s someone I don’t know if I’d really want to be around in real life, but he’s someone who was absolutely fascinating to read about. And his aims of giving young people a taste of the natural world through hard work, farming, and back-to-nature methods of living are undeniably admirable. Gilbert tries to situate Conway’s story, and some of the young men who are drawn to work for him, within the framework of American masculinity, the lack of ritual to young men coming into manhood, the disconnection with any sense of nature. It makes for thought-provoking reading, even when I wanted to smack Eustace for being so obtuse in his romantic and business endeavors.

Conway’s farming and education center, Turtle Island, is still operational. You can read about it here. Apparently he was also on a television show on the History Channel called “Mountain Men.” I’ve never seen it. I wonder if Gilbert is still in contact with Conway, if they’re still friends, and what his response to this book was. It’s approaching 20 years since publication. I wonder what compromises Conway has made to keep his place going, because as of the end of this book it didn’t seem like he would do something like be in a TV show. Maybe I should check it out!

I seem to have a thing for books about explorers/hermits/back-to-nature types. Last year one of my favorite reads was The Stranger in the Woods about the North Pond Hermit, and I also have loved Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. This is funny because I’m about the least outdoorsy person you would ever meet. I have never even been camping and the longest hike I’ve ever been on was a five mile round trip. But there’s something so appealing to me about the notion of wild spaces, of solitude and time for reflection in those natural places. There’s something that speaks to me in the desire for a simpler, unplugged lifestyle, and for pushing your physical limits to commune with nature and find inner peace. For now I am an armchair traveler/hiker/camper, but I do so appreciate reading about these intrepid (sometimes foolhardy) souls who continue to reach for something basic and wild about humanity even in these turbulent times of technological revolution. Eustace Conway was a maddening, complicated person to read about, but I am glad someone like him exists and is still trying to draw others into wild spaces.

Have you read any books about nature and/or explorers that you would recommend? I’d love to read your suggestions and thoughts!


39 thoughts on “The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

    1. Thank you, Diana! His upbringing is a small part of the book but the effects really do resonate for him throughout the years, it seems. It wasn’t too heavy, actually, but rather a page-turner, which surprised me!


  1. I’m so glad I read your review! Although I’ve never read Eat, Pray, Love, it sounds kind of too woo-woo for me (I could be totally wrong here) so I’ve never paid much attention to Elizabeth Gilbert. This book, however, sounds fascinating! I love books about people who’ve chosen to lead a different sort of life. I totally get you about appreciating things like books about hermits and nature people even if you seemingly have nothing in common with them. There’s always something to learn and appreciate!

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    1. Thanks! It was fascinating for me, and rather a page-turner, which surprised me. I LOVE Gilbert’s writing. I’m convinced she can write in any style or about any subject. Her historical fiction novel The Signature of All Things was marvelous, and I am one of the people who love Eat, Pray, Love, although I know not everyone does. Anyway, I hope if you try this one that you enjoy it.

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  2. I read this a number of years ago when I was on an Elizabeth Gilbert kick — I’m pretty sure I’ve now read everything she’s written — and while it didn’t make as much of an impact on me as it has on you, I did think she did a great job of capturing his life.

    I love stories of extremes and solitude/survival, even though I am a homebody who rarely takes risks. I’d recommend Deep Country by Neil Ansell, Fire Season by Philip Connors, In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, 127 Hours (orig. title: Between a Rock and a Hard Place) by Aron Ralston, and Cold by Bill Streever.

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  3. When I was a kid, I wanted to be like the kid in My Side of the Mountain, who lived outdoors on his own for a year. If you haven’t read that book, it’s a great one. And the parents aren’t abusive.

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  4. When I was reading your review, I thought to myself “that sounds just like Eustace from Mountain Men.” 🙂 I had no idea he was a subject of a book. My kids used to watch Mountain Men all the time. To me, the show is a bit silly; they make it all way more dramatic than it actually is. They are always close to dying, but then of course they miraculously make it all work. But there are worse things the kids could be watching. It is fun to see them use stuff they learned through the show when they are playing in the woods behind the house.
    Both Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World (fiction) and Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature (nonfiction) talk about Alexander von Humboldt, a largely forgotten German naturalist in the early 19th century. He discovered and explored so much that it is surprising how few people know of him. Into Thin Air is good and Endurance are both great books, too.

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    1. That’s so funny! I had no idea he was in a TV show until after I’d finished the book and Googled him! 🙂 I love that your kids like it – it’s pretty innocuous sounding, I’d say! Thank you for the recommendations!!


  5. I also love books about survival/hermits/living-off-the-land, and there are probably a bunch I could recommend. But all that’s coming to mind right now (besides a couple that have already been mentioned) is A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson (which also takes place on the AT), and Hatchet by Gary Paulson (which you and your son can both enjoy). Oh, and The Mountain Story by Lori Lansens.

    I have owned The Last American Man for a while, but this is the first I’ve seen of it on anyone’s blog. I’m really glad to hear that you liked it. I LOVED The Signature of All Things, so I thought it might be a good bet. Now I’m off to follow the link to Turtle Island…

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    1. Good suggestions! I did enjoy A Walk in the Woods, although I thought Bryson came across a bit too snarky at times. I hadn’t thought of Hatchet and that’s a good one I can try with my son. I am not familiar with The Mountain Story!

      I LOVED The Signature of All Things too. Yay for another fan of Gilbert!

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  6. Great review – your enthusiasm comes through loud and clear! I had no idea Elizabeth Gilbert had been around that long. I thought Eat, Pray, Love was her debut! I have mixed feelings about these wilderness types – half of me would like to be them and the other half thinks they must be nuts! I second TJ’s recommendation for Endurance as a brilliant real-life wilderness book. 😀

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  7. Great review-I can’t see myself ever picking this book up myself but I did enjoy reading about it, i find these characters fascinating too, mostly because I could never see myself doing what they do. And how interesting that Elizabeth Gilbert wrote it-perhaps she fell under his spell for a bit as well?

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  8. Into the Wild mentions the author’s own foolhardy outdoor adventure attempts. Have you read his book about climbing a mountain and almost dying?

    Someone else reviewed Gilbert’s book recently, and I remember thinking he sounds like a horribly unlikeable person. People on Goodreads have a lot to say about him.

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  9. Conway sounds like a fascinating man with a fascinating background. I can see why you would pick this book up! How did it end up on your radar? And have you read Eat, Pray, Love? While both biographical, it seems like these books would be drastically different from each other.

    I personally picked up Into the Wild yesterday from the library. I look forward to digging into it! Other nature/explorer type books I’d recommend would be the hilarious A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson. I love his exploration of the Appalachian Trail as well as In a Sunburned Country where he explores the Austrailian Outback– always with a sense of humor! Walden requires the right frame of mind, but I think it also fits the ask; half philosophy and half naturalism. Finally, while I haven’t read it yet, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand is high on my TBR! A story about a WWII pilot stranded in the Pacific Ocean. So many recommendations! O_o

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      1. Wow! I didn’t realize how diverse Gilbert’s subject matters were. I haven’t read any of her books yet, sadly. Where would you recommend I begin? Also, have you listened to the audiobook for any of them? If so, would you recommend audiobook versions?


  10. Conway sounds like an interesting and intense fellow. I kept waiting for you to say how he died, so was surprised when you said he is still alive. It would be interesting to know what he thinks of the book. Both of Krakauer’s books Into the Wild and Into Thin Air are supper good. Into Thin Air is especially good on audio when it is hot and humid outside 🙂

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  11. Hi. I have read the same ones you’ve read — loved Into the Wild and Wild and Stranger in the Woods. I haven’t heard of the Gilbert book so thanks for letting me know about it. So does Conway live in the NC woods?

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