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America has always been a place of ideals, a place where people have striven for their concept of a perfect lifestyle. Certain virtues have permeated the American spirit, and they continue to influence social revolutionaries today. Motivation, courage, intellect, and thoughtfulness are some of the most pertinent assets of the stereotypical American hero. The perceptions of this hero have barely changed from America’s beginning to its present-day culture. Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s most influential founding fathers, exhibits many of the classic American qualities while Chris McCandless, a modern social revolutionary and adventurer, assumes many of these characteristics as well. The two men, despite being from completely different centuries, parallel each other in a strikingly fascinating manner. From their steadfastness to their parental issues, Franklin and McCandless bridge America then with America now while also demonstrating that the true American hero continues to exist. Despite their notable influences on American history and culture, these two men are also shrouded in controversy and fallibility. Their headstrongness and want for change can be viewed as destructive and flagrantly intrepid rather than valiant or heroic. Both representing age-old values of American society in their respective time periods, Benjamin Franklin and Chris McCandless share strikingly similar characteristics of a hubristic attitude towards their goals that, while responsible for a large part of their fame, culminate in deleterious consequences and solitary lifestyles.
While most people rely heavily on the opinions and affections of their family members, Franklin and McCandless were both extremely independent and sought realization without much outside help, consequently alienating many of their personal relationships. They displayed a reclusive attitude towards relationships, opting instead to find answers within themselves. For example, Franklin constantly searched for better work, despite having to separate himself from his family members many times throughout his life. At the age of only 17 years, he broke his indentured apprenticeship in printing with his brother James to find better work in Philadelphia. Early on, Franklin thought of himself as an adult and saw little need to stay connected to his brother. His relationship with James was badly damaged, but this never really got in the way of his work goals.
The idea of putting work before relationships is strong in Franklin’s mind, showing that he exemplifies the American ideal of industriousness to an extreme. In his autobiography, Franklin describes James’s bitterness over his resignation: “When he found I would leave him, he took care to prevent my getting employment in any other printing-house of the town, by going round and speaking to every master, who accordingly refused to give me work” (Franklin). His painstaking description of brotherly hate makes him seem almost cruel and self-absorbed, highlighting just how controversial Franklin’s actions can be. Only two years later, he moved to London to continue work as a printer there. Along with his brother, Franklin had a poor relationship with his father, who always tried to stop Franklin from achieving his true passion—taking to the sea on a ship. Franklin says, “I disliked the trade, and had a strong inclination for the sea, but my father declared against it,” showing obvious resentment towards his father’s rejection of his true aspirations (Franklin). The rift between Franklin and his father could have lessened Franklin’s need for affection and increased his want for independence and solidarity.
Rarely calling home to his family, McCandless separated himself from his loved ones, especially while attending Emory University and during his odysseys afterwards. Immediately after leaving his hometown in Virginia, McCandless drove south to Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and then to the Pacific Coast on a long, arduous adventure across the country. This trip shows his lack of a need for a strong connection with his parents. Also, his actions demonstrate how he does not seem to require any permanency in his life; he enjoys meeting new people and then leaving them only weeks later in order to start anew somewhere else. While Franklin did not move quite as much, they both show that they lean towards defining their own lives rather than allowing their location to define it for them. In Krakauer’s Into the Wild, McCandless’s mother, Billie, explains how his calls became less and less frequent, which worried her and separated him from her affection. She says, “Initially, he honored the agreement to phone regularly, but as the summer wore on, the calls became less and less frequent” (Krakauer 118).
McCandless clearly feels love for his parents, but it he does not believe that it should force him to stay the same throughout his entire life. Instead, he probably sees his parents as people that love him but also hinder his ability to develop and change. Two summers later, Chris’s pique with his parents grew even stronger, and Chris became especially solitary, showing the development of his independent spirit that would come to influence his future actions. Krakauer comments directly on McCandless’s self-separation: “Chris’s relations with his parents…deteriorated significantly that summer, and Walt and Billie had no idea why. According to Billie, ‘He seemed mad at us more often, and he became more withdrawn…he wouldn’t tell us what was on his mind and spent more time by himself’” (Krakauer 121). By this point, McCandless had severed most of the emotional ties he had with his parents. His obsession with self-reflection and aloneness is something that shows good character, but it also shows his insensitivity to care for his parents who need his love just as much he should need theirs. Dianne Trumbull, in an article about the psychological effects of a hubristic attitude, explains that a tendency towards anti-social behaviors and towards the rejection of parental affection is not inherent; rather, she argues that “shared intentionality forms the basis of human society…Pro-social behaviors have been fundamental in the creation and maintenance of societies” (Trumbull). So, she would argue that Franklin’s and McCandless’s self-separation is not helpful in creating a cohesive society, whether that be in a small family or in society at large.
Franklin and McCandless were very headstrong and often refused to see the “other” argument, which got them into trouble and created their reputations of inflexibility and even foolishness. Franklin demonstrates several times that he loves argumentation and stands firmly behind his beliefs, and he even shows that he sometimes likes to argue for the sake of causing a disagreement, especially with his childhood friend John Collins. Franklin says, “A question was once, somehow or other, started between Collins and me, of the propriety of educating the female sex in learning, and their abilities for study. He was of opinion that it was improper, and that they were naturally unequal to it. I took the contrary side, perhaps a little for dispute’s sake” (Franklin). His argumentative attitude is, once again, a two-sided quality that Franklin possesses; some may say being argumentative is necessary for pushing one’s beliefs and ideas while others may say that it is rude, obnoxious, and uncooperative.
Franklin’s hubristic characteristics, seen in his actions and his speech in the book, make him seem as though he does not care about the opinions of other people. Through making interesting connections between American society’s and Greek society’s obsession with honor, Trumbull writes in her article that “when an individual boasted that he could achieve the superhuman, when he violated established customs, or when he attempted feats reserved for the gods, he was guilty of the crime of hubris” (Trumbull). To the Greeks, hubris was detrimental to a person’s ability to be an effective leader and to cooperate with others; to fellow Americans at the time, Franklin’s hubris, while not a “crime,” would make his character seem more repugnantly arrogant. Nevertheless, argumentation is a skill that is stressed in American society, promoting a reputation of strong will among its people.
Mirroring Franklin’s disputatious character, McCandless refused to yield to countless warnings against traveling deep into the wilderness with so few supplies, ultimately costing his life and giving him a reputation of carelessness. After his first odyssey in the summer before starting college, Chris’s father chided him for being so reckless while traveling west. Walt says, “’I tried to explain that we the parents didn’t object to his travels; we just wanted him to be a little more careful and to keep us better informed of his whereabouts’” (Krakauer 119). However, McCandless took these worried comments with a grain of salt, showing the development of his hubristic attitude and the further disconnection from his parents’ affection and care. Krakauer explains McCandless’s aversion to his father’s opinions: “To Walt’s dismay Chris bristled at this small dollop of fatherly advice. The only effect it seemed to have was to make him even less inclined to share his plans” (Krakauer 119).
Chris’s inability to heed warnings did not only show itself with his parents; Jim Gallien, one of the last encounters Chris had with a person before leaving on the Stampede Trail, tried to persuade Chris, or Alex in this case, out of being so reckless and trying to walk into the wild utterly unprepared. Krakauer says, “Gallien offered to drive Alex all the way to Anchorage, buy him some decent gear; and then drive him back to wherever he wanted to go” (Krakauer 6). As usual, Chris remained headstrong and refused to let Gallien help him. Gallien describes Chris’s steadfastness, saying that “’There was just no talking the guy McCandless out of it.’…‘He was determined. Real gung ho’” (Krakauer 6). Both Franklin and McCandless perform actions that, at best, are valiant and heroic but that, at worst, are careless and arrogant. Their incapacity to listen to others brings them fame for being independent thinkers, but it also causes dark consequences in the form of a poor reputation for Franklin and loss of life for McCandless.
Franklin and McCandless represent a timeless American value about the want for social reform and a steadfastness to achieve this goal in order to spark change that is, in their minds, for the greater good. First of all, Franklin held fairly radical views on the role of religion in American society that profoundly affected its appearance in the creation of the U.S. Constitution. He focused less on organized religion and more on having a virtuous life that did not require strict dogma to be implemented. In his autobiography, Franklin specifically outlines 13 virtues that every morale person should attempt to follow. Ironically, he failed to follow most of them, most notably that of humility, giving him a reputation of being hypocritical and self-absorbed. He was a self-proclaimed Christian Deist, so he was not irreligious but rather more secular than most common people of the day. He describes his views of God that would have been shared by other Deists of the day: “I never doubted, for instance, the existence of the Deity; that he made the world, and governed it by his Providence…”
However, Franklin was socially reformist when saying that he was wary of strictly organized religion because he felt that it undermined morality between differing religious groups, which was a rare idea for the time. Discussing religious groups, he says, “I found them religions more or less mixed with other articles, which, without any tendency to inspire, promote, or confirm morality, served principally to divide us, and make us unfriendly to one another.” His ideas on religion had a profound influence on religion in government and the public sphere of America, showing how one man can make a profound impact on the future ideas of an entire nation. Religion in America is still controversial today, and, interestingly enough, Franklin would probably be distressed by the Christian revivalism that has affected American politics and social life in the past few years.
On the other hand, McCandless did not focus on religion like Franklin, but he did put emphasis on social reform through the individual by denying the typical materialism and selfishness of contemporary American culture through his destruction of personal property and self-reinvention. One of his first acts of self-reinvention was disposing most of his money, and, being the social reformist that he was, he decided to donate it to a charity. Krakauer descirbes this process, saying that “…he would shortly donate all the money in his college fund to OXFAM America, a charity dedicated to fighting hunger” (Krakauer 20). McCandless was anti-capitalist, which was reformist because capitalism is often considered one of the cornerstones of American society. Chris’s final acts of “killing off” Chris McCandless and giving life to Alex Supertramp was the destruction of his personal property, notably his car. Krakauer explains what Chris did to his assets before going on his long journey: “…he arranged all his paper currency in a pile on the sand…and put a match to it. One hundred and twenty-three dollars in legal tender was promptly reduced to ash and smoke” (Krakauer 29). Like Franklin, McCandless challenges the societally accepted aspects of American life; for Franklin, it was Christianity while it was capitalism for McCandless. Paradoxically, this attitude of social reformism against the precedents in American society is commonly considered a truly American characteristic in the first place.
While both a part of the eras in which they lived and created change, Franklin and McCandless transcend time in their characteristics, showing that American ideals of independence, headstrongness, and reformism are just as influential now as they were then. The double sidedness of the actions and ideas of these two men make them all the more controversial because each person studying them tends to use Franklin and McCandless to promote his own ideas of how American society should function and what the place of the individual in that society is. However, there is no doubt that these two men are influential to the concept of the true American, and this is a concept with which American society has struggled since its inception.
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