First, he ran. Then he ran toward danger. Then he probed the letdown when danger passes. Such was the theme that ran through Sebastian Junger’s talk on Nov. 14 at Johnson Chapel.
The author of 1997’s bestseller The Perfect Storm, 2010’s War and 2016’s Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Junger revealed he was an anthropology major at Wesleyan (class of 1984) and a cross country runner; he happily noted that he ran his personal best 1500 meters here at Amherst. He did his senior thesis on the running tradition in Native American societies, which included field work on a Navajo reservation.
That thesis, he told the crowd in the chapel, was “the first time I came alive as a student, by discovering something about humans and how they live.” Writing the thesis seemed “pretty close to journalism,” though that career held off for a few years while Junger worked in construction, waited tables and got “on casual terms with a chainsaw” as a climber for a tree company. “It was quite dangerous, well-paid and incredibly exciting,” Junger recalled of dismantling trees from above.
But when he nearly sawed off his ankle, he decided to court danger more as a raconteur rather than as a rappeller.
“A modern industrial nation relies on all kinds of dangerous work,” Junger said. “Logging, farm work, commercial fishing. We need these people, and they are not being honored. I thought ‘I want to write about dangerous jobs.’”
He got that chance in 1991, when he was living in Gloucester, Mass. and a huge nor’easter hit. The local commercial fishing boat Andrea Gail was lost offshore, which inspired The Perfect Storm. Later, he explored the dangers of the military.
Junger, now a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, decided to freelance from the siege of Sarajevo: “I wanted to know how war worked. I wanted to know: Would I be scared or courageous?” He learned that war “is unimaginably awful in all kinds of ways.” But he also learned that when there is not enough food or heat, “people start acting communally.” And when he left the war zone, he invariably got depressed.