With reference to Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild, was Chris McCandless intelligent?

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In the preface to his book about the late Christopher McCandless, Into the Wild, author Jon Krakauer provides some pertinent background into his human subject’s life—information that illuminated the paradoxical nature of McCandless’s final months on this earth. Newspapers are daily filled with reports about the deaths of lower-income men, many quite young and African American. These reports have pretty much lost their ability to astonish or even to disappoint. We have come to expect that inner-city life for ethnic minorities who have endured generations of prejudice will invariably fall afoul of the law or die violently by the hands of others who fit the same demographic description. The story of the life and death of Chris McCandless, however, fascinates precisely because its protagonist’s background would logically lead to expectations of professional success and financial affluence. Was McCandless intelligent? Read the following passages from Krakauer’s “Author’s Note”:

“He’d grown up . . . in an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C., where he’d excelled academically and had been an elite athlete. Immediately after graduating, with honors, from Emory University in the summer of 1990, McCandless dropped out of sight. He changed his name, gave the entire balance of a twenty-four-thousand-dollar savings account to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet. And then he invented a new life for himself, taking up residence at the ragged margin of our society, wandering across North America in search of raw, transcendent experience. His family had no idea where he was or what had become of him until his remains turned up in Alaska.”

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“He was an extremely intense young man and possessed a streak of stubborn idealism that did not mesh readily with modern existence. Long captivated by the writing of Leo Tolstoy, McCandless particularly admired how the great novelist had forsaken a life of wealth and privilege to wander among the destitute.”

Clearly, Chris McCandless was an intelligent individual.  In terms of academic achievements, he was highly intelligent. As anybody who has crossed back-and-forth between worlds knows, however, what one masters in school does not necessarily qualify one to succeed outside the classroom, and the arrogance that many intelligent, educated people possess can, as in the case of this young man, prove fatal. When I write ‘back-and-forth between worlds,’ I am not suggesting interstellar travel, or even time-travel within the same planetary history. Rather, I am referring to the skills and intelligence common to those who succeed in fields for which a Ph.D. is hardly needed and certainly not relevant. I, for example, am regularly humbled by relatives and friends who are possessed of far greater knowledge and skills applicable to everyday existence than I possess. I can quote Shakespeare and Tolstoy; I cannot repair a can opener, or exist in the wilds the way many here in northeastern Minnesota are capable of surviving. There are different kinds of intelligence and vastly disparate types of skills. McCandless, possessed of enormous knowledge was nevertheless very much in-over-his-head in his decision to survive alone in the wilds of Alaska.

There is an anecdote in Chapter Sixteen of Into the Wild that illustrates my point about intelligence and skill levels applicable to different scenarios. Discussing his subject’s decision to, against his beliefs regarding the sanctity of life, including animal life, shoot a moose for its meat, Krakauer describes McCandless’s fundamental error in thinking that he knew the proper way to preserve the meat so that it wouldn’t spoil:

“Alaskan hunters know that the easiest way to preserve meat in the bush is to slice it into thin strips and then air-dry it on a makeshift rack. But McCandless, in his naivete, relied on the advice of hunters he’d consulted in South Dakota, who advised him to smoke his meat, not an easy task under the circumstances.”

McCandless was sufficiently intelligent to seek out methods for preserving game, but he was not sufficiently knowledgeable to understand that distinctions based upon region or even upon typesof game might exist. As his moose meat proceeded to spoil and become infested with maggots, he gave up trying to preserve it any longer. In yet another example of academic enlightenment and its irrelevance to the situation at hand, Krakauer notes from McCandless’s diary that the young man had proceeded next to read his copy of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden or, Life in the Woods, specifically the chapter in which Thoreau discusses his moral quandaries regarding hunting and fishing, with the inevitable consequences for other other living things such activities entail. Was McCandless foolish for turning to a mid-19th century rumination on man’s relationship to nature for his own survival? One could conclude that the forbidding environment in which McCandless had submersed himself would necessitate the consumption of animal meat at some point. The Alaskan wilderness, after all, is considerably more hostile than was the atmosphere around Walden Pond.

Krakauer himself spends considerable time in his book questioning his subject’s wisdom, if not his underlying intelligence. Contrasting McCandless’s experiences with those of 19th century explorer Sir John Franklin, who led his expedition to its doom due in no small part to his arrogance, Krakauer notes that McCandless’s arrogance was of a different kind—a kind that was fatally naïve and born of a more innocent form of arrogance, but that he was sufficiently intelligent to survive in the wild longer than most of the rest of us probably could:

 “He tried to live entirely off the country—and he tried to do it without bothering to master beforehand the full repertoire of crucial skills. It probably misses the point, though, to castigate McCandless for being ill prepared. He was green, and he overestimated his resilience, but he was sufficiently skilled to last for sixteen weeks on little more than his wits and ten pounds of rice. And he was fully aware when he entered the bush that he had given himself a perilously slim margin for error. He knew precisely what was at stake.”

Chris McCandless was indeed highly intelligent, and his decision to cast-off the trappings of upper-class civilization in favor of the quintessential simple non-materialistic life could be viewed as highly-admirable. Intelligence, however, does not equal wisdom, and the road to Hell, as the saying goes, is paved with good intentions.

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