History tells us that very few women ventured alone into the wilderness and recorded their adventures. When they do, though, Americans rarely like their narratives. The story is not the same for men. We can trace a long genealogy of heroic men—fictional and real—embarking on wilderness quests: Natty Bumppo, John Muir, Huck Finn, and Jack London are classics, but the story keeps renewing itself. A more recent example is the boy hero of Gary Paulsen’s novel Hatchet, the solo survivor of a backwoods plane crash who keeps himself alive in the wild. We see it today not only in the story of Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild, but also in David Roberts’s excellent recent book, Finding Everett Ruess, about the self-styled mystic who went out West in the 1930s.
Comparing early American women’s travel narratives with contemporary stories like Cheryl Strayed’s Wild reveal authors’ and audiences’ assumptions about what defines wilderness and women’s roles in it.
In one of colonial America’s first travel narratives, Puritan widow Sarah Kemble Knight describes how she set out in 1703 into the New England wilderness—including unmapped areas without defined roads—from Boston to settle a financial estate in New York City. Writing almost daily from the relative comfort of houses and inns along the way, she records the numerous disorientations and reorientations she experiences as she crosses rivers, walks through forests, and encounters cliffs and mountains, as well as her meetings with unfamiliar people. Knight often had male postal guides with her on the trek on horseback across early America’s unmapped wilderness. But she just as often got lost on her own without another human soul in sight. For instance, she loses track of her guide, which, she says, left
poor me with the rest of this part of the lower world in darkness, with which we were soon Surrounded. The only Glimering we now had was from the spangled Skies, Whose Imperfect Reflections rendered every Object formidable. …. Nor could I so much as discern my Guide, when at any distance, which added to the terror.
Knight’s narrative circulated only as a manuscript in her time and was first published in 1825, a time when travel narratives were gaining in popularity as Americans sought to build a uniquely “American” form of literature based on the expanding geography of the nation. By the middle of the nineteenth century, writers like Henry David Thoreau were reconceptualizing the wilderness as a place to be in touch with a higher power. An emerging popular desire to be out in wild nature is reflected in the kinds of literature people of the nineteenth century wanted to read, and Knight’s narrative gave readers a view of what the “wilderness” was actually like during colonial times.
Scholars show a curious aversion to Knight, and explorations of her work has been limited, especially when compared to other American female authors. They focus on her racism and classism as a reason not to admire her independence. (Knight was racist and classist, but no more than other white, affluent writers of her time, and a lot less than some.)
Mary Rowlandson, author of British North America’s first captivity narrative, found more commercial and critical success. Rowlandson was captured by Native people in Massachusetts in 1676, and her account of her three-month ordeal among the Narragansett was the best-selling book in colonial America. No first editions of the work survive, in fact, because they were literally read to pieces. Rowlandson crafted her narrative to entertain and inspire her readers, for she attributed her continual salvation from her various trials and tribulations to God’s divine redemption. Rowlandson, not Knight, is a staple of college reading lists across the country and inspired a whole genre of captivity narratives, whose popularity in America lasted two centuries.
So why does Rowlandson play better than Knight with their contemporary audiences and with today’s? Rowlandson was both a captive and a victim. She remarks that
I must turn my back upon the town, and travel with them into the vast and desolate wilderness, I knew not whither. It is not my tongue, or pen, can express the sorrows of my heart, and bitterness of my spirit that I had at this departure: but God was with me in a wonderful manner, carrying me along, and bearing up my spirit, that it did not quite fail.
Her way of describing this scenario set the precedent for stories of women traveling in the American wilderness: readers liked the stories of only the women who were under the power and threat of others. Knight therefore stands in stark contrast to Rowlandson as an independent woman who did not present herself as a victim of circumstance but rather as a courageous traveler who relied on her own wits to survive. This is not to say that Rowlandson is not courageous—she endures much pain and suffering, seeing her family slaughtered before her—but her appeal is one based on virtue and faith. Knight’s narrative is also decidedly less religious in tone, rarely invoking God or scripture during the most difficult parts of her journey.
The setting of the uncharted wilderness has allowed the woman-as-victim theme to live on through centuries of literature—and it’s alive and well today. Readers can find it in James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, the bestselling novel of the 1820s. Or in Tarzan of the Apes, hugely popular in many media since the early twentieth century.
Readers liked stories of only the women who were under the power and threat of others.
Wild does not fall back on this familiar trope. The film is based on Cheryl Strayed’s book, recounting her solo trek on the Pacific Crest Trail in search of herself. Like Knight’s travel narrative and Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, the book recounts Strayed’s real-life experiences in wild places. Critics evaluated Cheryl Strayed, the character, in many of the same ways that previous generations had considered the experiences and writings of Knight and Rowlandson.
Dana Stevens of Slate calls Cheryl, played by Reese Witherspoon, “unlikeable…a piece of work: disorganized, sailor-mouthed, given to self-destructive promiscuity and addictive behavior, but also curious, sardonic, and scary smart.” A. O. Scott in the New York Times warns that “We are not going to be charmed, teased, flattered or befriended” by Cheryl.
Why all the attention to whether viewers like or dislike Cheryl? Part of it may be due to the fact that Witherspoon plays against type in her Golden Globe nominated performance: she’s not the usual bubbly sweetheart she plays in Legally Blonde and other hits. But there’s more to it than that. Like Knight, Strayed does not play victim. Like Knight, Strayed chose the path that she walks each day. These women violate our expectations of how a woman should behave in the wilderness.
As a woman alone on the Pacific Crest Trail, Strayed constantly has to explain herself. Nearly everyone she meets inquires why she’s on her own, without a male protector (or captor). She even feels compelled to lie that her husband (whom she had recently divorced) would meet her on the trail.
Some of the people she encounters marvel at her independence. One woman tells her, “I think it’s neat you do what you want. Not enough chicks do that, if you ask me.” Another man tells her, “Women are the ones with the cojones”—suggesting that Strayed’s courage is borrowed from men.
Strayed rejects the idea that women can’t survive on their own: “I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me.”
In both film and life, Cheryl Strayed isn’t a captive in need of rescue. She’s traveling for her own benefit, even if she says and does things that we may not like. Strayed presents a new but familiar cultural figure, one that dates back to Rowlandson and Knight. Comparing contemporary stories like Wild to early colonial texts like the Journal of Madam Knight reveals a long-standing preoccupation with the simultaneous allure and danger associated with the wilderness. It takes a certain kind of heroine to brave the elements of nature on her own, hence the duality of Strayed’s title Wild—it can refer to the landscape or to Strayed’s character. By embracing her wildness, Strayed unapologetically strays beyond the boundaries of traditional expectations of female behavior. Focusing on what makes female adventurers “likeable” relies upon worn out notions of female propriety. Instead, by seeing Strayed and other women for who they are and what they accomplish, we can instead begin to examine the fluid relationship between humans and their environments, which can in turn lead us to a better understanding of what make a person or place “wild” in the first place.
Featured image: Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed in the film “Wild” (Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2014).
Jamie Bolker is a Ph.D. candidate in Early American Literature at Fordham University. Her dissertation, “Lost and Found: Wayfinding in Early American Literature,” explores the relationship between human identity and the environment in narratives about people who get lost. She has received fellowships from the Peabody Essex Museum, Winterthur Museum, Garden, & Library, and the Omohundro Institute for Early American History and Culture, and has work forthcoming in J19: The Journal of Nineteenth-Century Americanists and Book History. Twitter. Contact.