Connect to Thoreau with Into the Wild

Allusions, Resources, and Teaching Ideas for Into the Wild

I’m slowly chugging through a unit on Henry David Thoreau as part of a larger year-long study of Transcendentalism and the American Identity. The entire unit includes Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, plus complimentary poems by Langston Hughes and Marge Piercy.

Henry David Thoreau
Henry David Thoreau

But for now, it’s all about Thoreau, and the more I teach Thoreau, the more I love Thoreau and how he makes me think deeply about productivity, intention, and commitment.

You can’t be lazy and claim to be a Thoreau adherent. Nor can you be a multi-tasker. To subscribe to Thoreau’s beliefs means you work hard and with a singular, almost obsessive focus… the kind of focus shared by Christopher McCandless, the subject of Into the Wild, the narrative non-fiction account by Jon Krakauer, the “cherished contemporary classic of investigative journalism” about the young man who ventured into the Alaskan wilderness on a journey of self-discovery.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
Find Into the Wild on Amazon here.

Published in 1994, Into the Wild is a long-time classroom favorite. Besides it’s spell-binding prose, the book is sprinkled with allusions and downright amazing text-to-text connections to Thoreau’s philosophy and writings. I can’t imagine teaching Thoreau and not also teaching Into the Wild in some capacity.

I first discovered McCandless’ story when I read a captivating piece by reporter Chip Brown that appeared in the Feb. 8, 1993 issue of The New Yorker magazine. It was one of several articles that, after reading the first time, I tore from the issue and stored in a separate binder of “keeper” articles to re-read later.

There was something about McCandless’ story that captivated me… a college grad from an affluent, troubled family gives away his savings, leaves home, and takes to the American West on a journey that will eventually lead him to a life of deliberate meditation in the Alaska bush. In 1992, the bush would take his life and his story would spawn a seeming cult of McCandless devotees.

The Grand Canyon in Arizona
Photo by Mauricio Thomsen on Pexels.com

So when Krakauer’s book came out in 1996, followed by the feature film in 2007, I drank it all in and to this day, the story of Chris McCandless (a.k.a. Alexander Supertramp) and his desire to experience a true fullness of life on his own terms is part of my worldview DNA.

Outside Magazine, Jan. 1993. This issue contained Jon Krakauer's article about Chris McCandless.
“Death of an Innocent: How Christopher McCandless lost his way in the wilds,” Jon Krakauer’s article in the Jan. 1993 issue of Outside magazine “generated more mail than any other article in the magazine’s history,” writes Krakauer in the author’s note of Into the Wild.

Into the Wild was preceded by Krakauer’s best-selling article in Outside magazine published at about the same time as the New Yorker piece by Chip Brown. Here’s a PDF link to Krakauer’s Outside article. Download it here:

If you’re not familiar with the Chris McCandless story, I invite you to jump in and immerse yourself. And if you teach Thoreau, by all means, figure out a way to incorporate some or all of Into the Wild. Students identify with Thoreau’s thinking –and by extension, McCandless’. They want to follow their dreams, live deliberately, and, as Thoreau writes, “suck out all the marrow of life.”

Rich with Allusions and Text-to-Text Connections

To get the most out of Thoreau and Into the Wild, make sure to draw special attention to all the allusions and/or connections to Thoreau that are sprinkled throughout Krakauer’s book. Whether you read the book aloud, listen to it on audio, or assign it to students as independent reading, emphasize the contemporary spin that McCandless takes on Thoreau.

Here’s something I created for myself to make it easier to keep track of the allusions. Last summer, I took my high-lighter and paged through Into the Wild, looking for any mention of Thoreau. My free downloadable list below gives you a page-by-page accounting of every Thoreau excerpt or quote that Krakauer included in Into the Wild along with the precise text cited.

Print this out and tuck it inside the front cover of your copy of Into the Wild.

There is so much to love about Into the Wild as it relates to Thoreau.

For example, in chapter six, McCandless writes a letter to his friend, 81-year-old Ron Franz. In the letter, McCandless admonishes Franz to live more deliberately. He writes…

“You had a wonderful chance on your drive back to see one of the greatest sights on earth, the Grand Canyon, something every American should see at least once in his life. But for some reason incomprehensible to me you wanted nothing but to bolt for home as quickly as possible, right back to the same situation which you see day after day after day. I fear you will follow this same inclination in the future and thus fail to discover all the wonderful things that God has placed around us to discover.”

Chris McCandless, into the wild, chapter 6

This nod to Nature that McCandless makes recalls some of the most well-known writings of Thoreau. McCandless continues…

“You are wrong if you think Joy emanates only or principally from human relationships. God has placed it all around us. It is in everything and anything we might experience. We just have to have the courage to turn against our habitual lifestyle and engage in unconventional living.”

Chris mCcANDLESS, INTO THE WILD, CHAPTER 6

Whether a modest, yet sturdy cabin near Walden Pond or Fairbanks City Transit Bus 142 down the Stampede Trail, this is American Transcendentalism at its core.

Krakauer seamlessly and subtly reveals the shared philosophies between the 19th-century Thoreau and the 20th-century McCandless. While students may not connect to the person of Thoreau — that staid, wide-eyed, stone-faced philosopher — they do connect to his self-affirming ideas. In contrast, students connect to both the person of Chris McCandless and his ideas.

That observation alone makes Into the Wild an excellent resource to drive home the relevance and relatability of one of American culture’s most foundational thinkers.

Marilyn Yung, Owner of ELA Brave and True

Thanks for reading!

Ever taught Thoreau in tandem with Into the Wild? Drop me a message on my Contact page or click the red Ask Me Anything box here to fill us in on your experience.

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Published by Marilyn Yung

Writes | Teaches | Not sure where one ends and the other begins.

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