Into the Wild & Transcendentalism

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  • 0:03 Into The Wild
  • 0:56 Transcendentalism
  • 2:17 Literary Legacy
  • 3:00 Influence on McCandless
  • 4:14 Emerson vs. McCandless
  • 5:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

John Krakauer's 'Into the Wild' has often been called an example of modern transcendentalism as it wrestles with similar themes found in the works of transcendental writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Learn more about it in this lesson.

Into the Wild

Into the Wild is author John Krakauer's 1996 nonfiction account of the life of Christopher McCandless. In 1990, after graduating from college, Chris McCandless got rid of most of his possessions, left his friends and family, and began a two-year odyssey across the United States. His journey ended with an attempt to hike the formidable Stampede Trail in Alaska and live off the land. Unable to find food, McCandless died alone in the wilderness in 1992.

John Krakauer is a mountain climber who spent time exploring the Alaskan wilderness alone. In Into the Wild, he retraces Chris McCandless' steps through interviews with his family and the people he met on his journey, attempting to better understand his motivations and the circumstances that led to his death. As an adventurer himself, Krakauer feels a bond with McCandless.


Both Chris McCandless and John Krakauer were heavily influenced by the philosophy of transcendentalism, a 19th-century movement believed in the goodness of the individual as compared to society and championed a return to nature and self-reliance. Many literary critics have argued that Into the Wild is a modern example of transcendentalist literature which should take its place alongside classics such as ''Self-Reliance'' by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walden by Henry David Thoreau.


The movement known as transcendentalism began in the 1820s in the eastern United States as a rebellion against the common intellectual and spiritual beliefs of the time. Influenced by Eastern religions such as Hinduism, European art, and the philosophical movement known as Romanticism, transcendentalists believed that individuals were basically good but had been corrupted by society. They believed organizations like churches and political parties had poisoned people's inherent goodness and that humans must transcend this state by turning inward and focusing on individual reason and self-reliance.

The movement began with a group of writers and thinkers in Massachusetts, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Frederic Henry Hedge, and Margaret Fuller, who published their philosophy in the journal The Dial. They attracted many followers, some of whom even attempted to set up communal living colonies based on transcendentalist principles.

Literary Legacy

Though these colonies and the transcendentalist movement itself died out by the mid-19th century, transcendentalist ideas would have a lasting influence on American thought and literature. Credit is due to the writings of Emerson and his disciple Henry David Thoreau, who would become two of the most important American literary figures of the 19th century. Transcendentalist ideas are discussed in Emerson's essays, most famously ''Self-Reliance,'' and Thoreau's beloved book Walden, an account of his time spent living alone in the woods. Transcendentalist ideas had a major influence on later movements that attempted to rebel against society and return to nature, including the counterculture and environmentalist movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

Influence on McCandless

Christopher McCandless was heavily influenced in his thinking by transcendentalism. He had studied Emerson and Thoreau as well as other writers inspired by these ideas, like the Welsh poet W.H. Davies, from whom McCandless took his new name, Alexander Supertramp. In his diary and interactions with people during his adventure, McCandless frequently refers to Thoreau, in particular his famous quote, ''Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.'' Like the transcendentalists, McCandless believed modern society was a corrupting influence, and the only way to find truth was through solitude and self-reliance.

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