The Last American Man, by Elizabeth Gilbert (2002)
I wish I could offer my seminar students an overview of what I see as the most popular version of pastoral escape/regression fantasy in the current publishing market: memoirs or how-to manuals for upper middle class urbanites of going back to the land and becoming successful organic farmers. The Dirty Life by Kristen Kimball is one that I read an excerpt from in an Alaska airlines in-flight magazine. The fashionable manhattan journalist writes of her immediate sexual turn-on when she meets the virile strong farmer who soon becomes her partner on a farm in upstate New york. The page fr that book on Amazon suggests several others, including The seasons on Henry’s Farm, and The Bucolic Plague, which looks like a gay version. You get the same kind of thing in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book here. She first learned of Eustace Conway because she worked on a Wyoming dude ranch where Eustace’s younger brother Judson was also working. It is strongly implied that the author had sex with Judson. Gilbert says that although she grew up in suburban connecticut, her parents were back to the landers who farmed and tried to make their own clothing for their kids.
Kolodny’s Lay of the Land proposes a theory of the sexualization of the landscape by (male) American authors. The land, in our modern, de-animated view of it, can only be passive, and this suits the Freudian sexual dynamics that kolodny employs. Whether mother, virgin or whore, whether a breast from which the European settler can absorb and easy sustenance, or a vaginal furrow in which his phallic plow can plant a seed, the active principle is male.
Gender roles have changed even since the mid-1970s, however, and now we are comfortable with the idea of female farmers and of females as active sexual agents seeking their mates. We need not relegate women to such narrow practical or symbolic roles.
Gilbert writes in effect a biography of Eustace Conway, who was born about 1960. She had access to his diaries going back to the 1970s, and seems to have befriended and interviewed everyone in his family, and several of his ex-girlfriends. The first was Donna Henry, whom he met when he first hiked the Appalachian trail just after graduating from high school. Donna moved on, started a business, married and raised a family yet says 20 years later that she’s still in love with Eustace.
Gilbert is well-read in American literature, and consciously tries to present her subject as the modern realization of the mythic figure of pioneer mountain man like Daniel Boone or leatherstocking. See 58-60: “Eustace Conway presented himself as an epic American masculine hero, and the whole notion of romantic or sexual love is something that is entirely missing from the classic American masculine epic” 58 and she cites Leslie Fiedler, and Cooper’s Deerslayer, and says she assumed that Eustace would be asexual, but she was wrong. He’s had many partners, but has not settled down. p99 lists several more of his brief mates. By p177 where I’ve reached now, he has fallen in love with a 23-year old Duke field hockey captain.
The other point in the book where Gilbert is savvy about updating the 19th century myths is pp124-129 where she describes his longterm project to acquire many parcels of land to cover an entire watershed, some 1000 acres in all, somewhere in the appalachian mountains, that he calls “Turtle Island” and where he runs a summer camp, much as his mother’s father had during the boy scout era of the 1920s. He has to work hard to earn cash, borrow some from this father, cajole the neighbors to sell, and even wheel and deal with a rich urbane speculater. Gilbert points out that for Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone the simplicity and primitivism of the mountain man was largely a pose, a ruse, because these men were all successful land speculators. Boone collaborated with John Filson to acquire Kentucky land and to promote it to emigrants. see p129