In order to provide a modern comparision to Walden, I have students read the article "Death of an Innocent" by Jon Krakauer. This article becomes the basis for Krakauer's novel Into the Wild, which describes the adventures of Chris McCandless who in a Thoreau-inspired gesture rids himself of all his earthly possession and travels around the United States. In the interest of time, I divide up the article into sections and assign it to student groups. I usually pick groups, but it does depend on the class. We "jigsaw" the article and students identify five salient points from what they read. Students will report out to the class their five points so that once all groups report out, we have a good sense of what the article is about. My goal is for students to really delve into the motives of Henry David Thoreau and Chris McCandless. I want them to apply the theories of Transcendentalism to these individuals in assessing whether each was in fact a Transcendentalist or someone on a self-destructive path. Both Thoreau and McCandless "simplified" their lives; however, Thoreau always had some sort of safety net to protect him from the wild: he was on the estate of Ralph Waldo Emerson and he was never really far from civilization. McCandless, however, was truly isolated from society. I want students to consider whether one must suffer to be a Transcendentalist.
To reinforce the article and to allow students to see how the article serves as the impetus behind the book Into the Wild and subsequent movie, I show an abbreviated version of the movie. Basically, this is just a "best of" from the movie. The movie also demonstrates how moving into the wilderness is not an easy task. McCandless eventually dies from eating moldy vegetation. It also demonstrates the power of nature over man as McCandless is totally unprepared and inexperienced to handle the rigors of the wild. This serves as a great contrast to Thoreau because the latter still maintained contact with the outside world while he was in the wilderness. Additionally, Thoreau's "wilderness" was the estate of Ralph Waldo Emerson where Thoreau still had easy access to modern conveniences if he chose.
I want to get students to connect Into the Wild to Walden by posing the following questions which students will respond to:
Is Chris McCandless a Transcendentalist? Explain. What theories of Thoreau's would apply to McCandless's actions?
Would you consider McCandless and adventurer or did he have a death wish?
If Thoreau met McCandless, what kind of conversation would they have? What advice would Thoreau offer to McCandless?
Why do you think both Thoreau and McCandless decide to leave the wilderness?
What is the irony behind McCandless's death?
In this part of the lesson, I want students to pull out Transcendentalist theories (exact quotes)and match them to plot events in the movie.
Students usually respond that Chris McCandless was a Transcendentalist espousing its beliefs and practicing its philosophies, but he completely underestimated nature. It's ironic that his fate mirrors the fate of the protagonist in Jack London's short story "To Build a Fire." London was McCandless's favorite author. Both protagonists ventured into the wild unprepared and refusing to heed the advice of more tenured outdoorsmen.