Last American Man

Elizabeth Gilbert wrote the huge bestseller Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything but, as much as we liked that book here at Modern Mint, we think her book The Last American Man is far more thrilling.

It explores an incredibly complex character – huntsman, teacher, craftsman, farmer, horse rider and (somewhat incredibly) astute businessman – Eustace Conway, and his relationship to the world, which by sheer force of his own will and personality he has shaped to be what he wants. Or, as the book progresses, we find out he has shaped a world he thinks he wants.

We want to share with you some quotes from the book, but they give only a flavour of what Eustace is like, the impact he has had on those around him – some of the scenes, like the fight he has with Peter Rabbit the mule, or standing in the back garden with his father while they try and work out which bird is singing in such a way, or wearily trying to stop the boy who is learning to farm using animals and a plough from killing himself, because he chose to turn up to do this work in flip flops… these are scenes that are worth everything in the book, and that the quotes below can only give you a taste of.

Eustace Conway on Society…

“What Eustace sees is a society steadily undoing itself, it might be argued, by its own over-resourcefulness… nobody needs to know how to do anything anymore, except the one narrow skill that will earn enough money to pay for the conveniences and services of modern living.”

“The whole world isn’t here for you to consume and destroy. Remember that you aren’t the last person who will walk through these woods. Or the last person who will live on this planet. You’ve got to leave something behind.”

Teaching a mule called Peter Rabbit to behave…

“Eustace, reduced now (or elevated) to a purely brutish state, clamped onto Peter Rabbit’s nose with his teeth and bit down, hard. Then he pried open Peter Rabbit’s mouth and bellowed into it like a grizzly on attack… then he circled the mule, beating him with his fists….

‘What can I tell you?’ Judson whispered to Susan, ‘my brother is an animal.’”

CuChullaine O’Reilly on Eustace’s affinity with horses…

“Nobody can understand Eustace… because what you get when a modern day American encounters Eustace Conway and his horse is the twenty-first century running head on into a six thousand year old nomadic tradition… they are so removed from that episode of their humanity that it is foreign to them. They have no idea what trans-species communication is. They don’t understand that Eustace uses his horsemanship not as a prestige gimmick or as a means of winning blue ribbons or collecting rodeo belt buckles, but as a way to become bonded to another animal so that they pass through curtain after curtain of incomprehensible and invisible experience until they reach the indescribable other side.”

When Eustace’s favourite horse, named Hobo, broke its leg…

“Eustace got his shotgun and went back to the horse. Hobo was standing there, as before, looking at his leg and then at Eustace, trying to make sense of it. ‘I’m so sorry, Hobo,’ Eustace said, ‘and I love you so much.’ And then he shot Hobo in the head…

He left Hobo where he’d fell. He wanted the vultures to eat him. He knew that the Native Americans believed vultures to be the sacred transport, the means by which a spirit is delivered from the earth up into the sky… which means that, even today, whenever Eustace is working outside and sees vultures driting in the air, he looks up and says hello, because he knows that’s where Hobo lives now.”

On children not being raised properly…

“The world is ruled by a few basic physical laws – leverage, inertia, momentum, thermodynamics – and if you’re out of touch with these fundamental principles, then you can’t hammer a nail, carry a bucket or roll a wheel. That means you’re out of touch with the natural world. Being out of touch with the natural world means you’ve lost your humanity and that you live in an environment that you completely do not understand… it took mankind one million years to learn how to roll a wheel, but it only took us fifty years to forget.”

About his dream house…

“You go beyond the necessary because you have a love for the aesthetic… I’m not going to sacrifice quality for anything.”

Teaching children to make fire…

“Trees hold fire. They get their fire from the sun. Inside every tree is a little bit of the sun that you can release with your own energy… what we have here is a baby ember, a newborn piece of fire. If we don’t treat it right and feed it the nice food of oxygen, it will die.”

On the reason to keep the 1000 acres of pristine land he farms…

“He can’t see that a little recycling fever is any match for the famished momentum of industry and overpopulation and rampant consumerism that define our culture… maybe what Eustace is doing by saving this little patch of Appalachian forest is what medieval monks once did by copying all those ancient texts. In a dark time, one that does not value knowledge, he is steadfastly preserving something small and precious in the hope that a more enlightened future generation will be grateful to have it.”

Advice for how to live…

“Show up for your own life.”

On physical labour and a man’s tools…

“He had an intimate physical relationship with his tools. When he swung that sledgehammer, he didn’t just use his arms, he swung it in one perfectly economical motion, using his whole body. His hips helped him hoist the sledgehammer up, and then he arched back and put all his momentum behind the blow. It was beautiful. It was complete physical attention to one task. It was like watching a dance. The dance of manual labour.”

On being an American Man…

“The history of Eustace Conway is the history of man’s progress on the North American continent.

First, he slept on the ground and wore furs… he was a nomad; he moved on foot.

Then he moved into a tepee and became a more sophisticated trapper of animals…. he began to wear wool.

He moved out of the tepee and into a simple wooden structure. He became a farmer, clearing the land and cultivating a garden. He acquired livestock. He cut paths into the woods, which became trails and then roads. He improved the roads with bridges. He wore denim.

He was first an Indian, then an explorer, then a pioneer…

And then he will become a villager, and then he will move out of his cabin… and into a large and expensive show house full of walk-in closets and appliances and family and stuff. And he will have finally caught up with his time. At that point, Eustace Conway will be the paradigm of a modern American man.”

The Last American Man is a wonderful book, exploring the history of the trailblazer, and their role in a contemporary world. As good as Eat Pray Love is, it is with The Last American Man that Elizabeth Gilbert really works some magic.

To buy The Last American Man – click here.


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