The controversial writings on the American West by American essayist and novelist Edward Abbey (1927–1989) exerted a strong influence on the development of the modern environmental movement in both its mainstream and radical forms.
Abbey's voluminous writings, mostly about or set in the Western deserts, ranged from intensely detailed descriptions of the natural world to angry or satirical commentaries on effects of modern civilization on American wildlands. One of Abbey's most widely quoted aphorisms, first appearing in the essay collection Desert Solitaire , held that "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell." Abbey held anarchist convictions, and he viewed government and industry as collaborators in the destruction of the natural environment. Desert Solitaire and Abbey's comic novel The Monkey Wrench Gang achieved mass success, winning Abbey a strong following among members of the counterculture of the 1970s and beyond. The overarching emphasis of Abbey's writing, however, was personal and philosophical; like the 19th-century New England essayist Henry David Thoreau, to whom he has sometimes been compared, Abbey viewed the natural world in almost mystical terms.
Family Suffered Hard Times
The oldest of five children, Abbey sometimes suggested that he had been born in a farmhouse in a tiny community with the idyllic name of Home, Pennsylvania. In fact his birth occurred on January 29, 1927, in a hospital in Indiana, Pennsylvania, a considerably larger town nearby. His tendency toward unconventional attitudes was partly shaped by his father, Paul Revere Abbey, a committed socialist who subscribed to Soviet Life magazine for many years. A rootless, searching quality in Edward Abbey's life may also have had its beginnings in his childhood: the family was hard hit by the economic depression of the early 1930s, moving from place to place as Paul Abbey searched for work as a real estate agent and camping out during several stretches when money was at its tightest.
Abbey's family made the best of their situation; his mother, Mildred Postlewaite Abbey, instilled in him an appreciation of nature. In 1941 the family moved to a farm, located near Home, that Abbey dubbed the Old Lonesome Briar Patch. His creative energy began to show itself early on when he began to write and draw little comic books for which he would demand series subscriptions from siblings and friends. In high school he did well in English classes and was thought of as highly intelligent but as something of an intimidating loner.
This perception changed in 1944, for that summer, between his junior and senior years at Indiana High School, Abbey lived out a dream held by many young people: he took off from home and traveled around the country, relying mostly on hitchhiking and freight trains for transportation. The trip, described in an essay called "Hallelujah on the Bum" included in Abbey's book The Journey Home: Some Words in Defense of the American West , took him through Chicago and Yellowstone National Park to Seattle, San Francisco, and the desert Southwest in the middle of summer. He had all his possessions and money stolen by one driver who gave him a ride, and in Flagstaff, Arizona, he spent a night on the floor of a jail cell with a group of drunks after being arrested for vagrancy. He also fell in love with the West. "I became a Westerner at the age of 17, in the summer of 1944, while hitchhiking around the USA," Abbey later wrote (as quoted by biographer James Cahalan). "For me it was love at first sight—a total passion which has never left me." And he began to write about that passion in articles published in his high school newspaper, the High Arrow .
For the next several years, Abbey's life resembled those of many other young American men. Drafted into the U.S. Army in the summer of 1945 after graduating from high school, he was sent to Italy and served as a clerk and military motorcycle police officer. Honorably discharged in 1947, he used the stipends he received as a result of the socalled G.I. Bill (Servicemen's Readjustment Act) to attend college, first at Indiana University in Pennsylvania, and then at the University of New Mexico, where he graduated with a philosophy degree in 1951. He married a college sweetheart, Jean Schmechel, in 1950.
Published First Novel
Underneath these activities, however, brewed various ideas of a nonconformist cast. As an undergraduate, he had already run into trouble when he adorned the cover of a student literary journal with a controversial quotation ascribed to the 18th-century French philosopher Denis Diderot—"Mankind will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest"—and then compounded the insult by attributing the line to Little Women author Louisa May Alcott. Abbey found himself drawn toward creative writing. In 1954 he finished a novel, Jonathan Troy . He later disparaged the work, which drew heavily on the locale of his Pennsylvania boyhood, but the book landed with a major publisher (Dodd, Mead) and successfully launched his long literary career. Later critics found much to admire in this early effort, and in 1956 Abbey found a ready market for his second novel, The Brave Cowboy: An Old Tale in a New Time . The book, which dealt with the doomed heroics of an old-time cowboy in the modern world, was adapted to screen in the 1962 film Lonely Are the Brave with actor Kirk Douglas in the lead role of Jack Burns. Douglas insisted on making the film over studio objections.
Abbey also took steps that brought him closer to the desert he loved. For many years between 1956 and 1971 he took temporary jobs with the U.S. National Park Service as a ranger and fire lookout. For his first two summers he worked at Utah's Arches National Monument (later Arches National Park). A compulsive journal-keeper by this time, he wrote voluminously about the awe-inspiring rock formations that gave the park its name, about the ecology of the area, and about the future Abbey saw coming—a future in which fragile natural areas would be overrun with hordes of tourist automobiles. Abbey's journals later became the basis for one of his most celebrated books, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness .
For much of the 1950s and 1960s, Abbey's life was restless. His first marriage quickly ended in divorce, but in 1952 he married New York-born New Mexico art student Rita Deanin, and the couple had two sons. Abbey enrolled in a master's program in philosophy at Yale University in 1953 but hated his symbolic logic class and left. The family bounced back and forth between the New York area, where Abbey held various jobs (he was a technical writer, factory employee, and at one point a welfare caseworker) and Albuquerque, where he received a master's degree in philosophy at the University of New Mexico in 1959. His thesis was entitled Anarchism and the Morality of Violence . Around that time, Abbey and some like-minded friends began to commit occasional acts of sabotage against development projects in the West—they would, for example, pour sugar syrup into the oil tanks of construction equipment, thus putting it out of commission. He continued to write fiction; his third novel, Fire on the Mountain , was drawn on the real-life story of a rancher who refused to turn over land to the government for a missile test site.
In 1965 Abbey's marriage to Deanin, long on the rocks, came to an end. Close to 40 years old, with few stable employment prospects, he seemed to have hit a career stall. But with the publication of Desert Solitaire in 1968 (by the McGraw-Hill house) his fortunes as a writer turned around for good. Abbey alternated chapters on parks development and on such topics as water in the Western ecosystem with grand philosophical themes, and the mixture caught on among young readers in whom an environmental consciousness was just beginning to awaken. The book was reprinted well over a dozen times, and by the mid-1970s Abbey was able to augment his income from his books and his park ranger work with writing professorships at several schools. Chief among these was the University of Arizona, which provided Abbey with a base for his work in his later years.
Inspired Radical Environmentalists
Always productive as a writer, Abbey was distracted from his work by the death of his third wife, Judith Pepper, from leukemia in 1970. With Pepper Abbey had a third child, Susannah. A fourth marriage, to Renee Dowling, lasted from 1974 to 1980, and a fifth, to Clarke Cartwright, began in 1982 and endured for the rest of Abbey's life. Two more children, Rebecca and Benjamin, were born to Abbey and Cartwright. Abbey published a novel, Black Sun , in 1971, and he furnished text for several large-format books of Southwest photographs, including the Time-Life series volume Cactus Country in 1973. His most important book of the 1970s, however, was 1975's The Monkey Wrench Gang , a comic novel drawing on Abbey's development-sabotage activities. Not strongly promoted by its publisher, Lippincott, the book was reported to have sold 500,000 copies thanks mostly to word-of-mouth publicity. The activities of the loosely knit Earth First! group were sometimes modeled on those in Abbey's novel, and the term "monkeywrenching" entered the vocabulary of radical environmentalism.
Abbey discouraged violence and remained ambivalent about the more radical applications of his ideas. He characterized The Monkey Wrench Gang as something of a rant, inspired by anger over such events as the inundation of a spectacular stretch of Colorado River scenery after the river was impounded by the Glen Canyon Dam in the 1960s. Abbey was never afraid to stir controversy, however, and he alienated some of his allies within the environmental movement with various positions he took in the 1970s and 1980s. He advocated closing the U.S.-Mexican border to Mexican immigration, for example. And he was unsympathetic to the feminist movement; critics complained that the female characters in some of his novels were little more than thin stereotypes. In the West, Abbey had admirers and detractors on all points of the political spectrum. He was defended by fellow antidevelopment activist Wendell Berry in an influential 1985 essay entitled "A Few Words in Favor of Edward Abbey." Arguing that Abbey had never claimed the environmentalist mantle, Berry asked, "If Mr. Abbey is not an environmentalist, what is he? He is, I think, at least in the essays, an autobiographer." Indeed, Abbey's larger-than-life personality showed through in everything he wrote, whether fiction, nonfiction, or the poetry that was published at the end of his life.
In poor health in the 1980s, Abbey was at one point given a terminal cancer diagnosis and told he had six months to live. The diagnosis proved erroneous, however, and Abbey lived to complete several more books—essay collections and several novels, including the autobiographical The Fool's Progress and the posthumously published Hayduke Lives! (1990, featuring characters from The Monkey Wrench Gang ). Abbey's journals and essays provided material for a steady stream of publications that appeared after his death. Suffering from increasingly serious esophageal bleeding, Abbey laid plans to die in the open, under the desert skies. He and several friends went out into the desert in early March of 1989, but he rallied and was brought back to his cabin in Oracle, Arizona, near Tucson, where he died on March 14, 1989. His friends buried him, illegally, at an unspecified location said to be on federal land, and the legend of his burial, together with the outlaw mystique and the philosophical vigor of his writings, continued to strengthen his reputation in the years after he passed away.
Bishop, James, Jr., Epitaph for a Desert Anarchist: The Life and Legacy of Edward Abbey , Atheneum, 1994.
Cahalan, James M., Edward Abbey: A Life , University of Arizona Press, 2001.
Dictionary of Literary Biography , Volume 256: Twentieth-Century American Western Writers (Gale Group, 2002); Volume 275: Twentieth-Century American Nature Writers (Gale Group, 2003).
Independent (London, England), March 27, 1989, Gazette section.
New York Times , May 7, 1989.
St. Petersburg Times (St. Petersburg, FL), March 19, 1989.
Berry, Wendell, "A Few Words in Favor of Edward Abbey," http://home.btconnect.com/tipiglen/abbey.html (September 23, 2006).
"Biography," http://www.abbeyweb.net (September 23, 2006).