Ed Abbey was a singular fellow, and we’re not likely to see his kind of provocateur again – Nancy Lord
Edward Paul Abbey (1927-1989), was an environmental activist, philosopher, essayist, anarchist, avid outdoorsman, and literary outlaw. In Abbey in America: A
Philosopher’s Legacy In A New Century (University Of New Mexico Press, 2015), editor John Murray gathers together a sterling list of contributors who make the case as Murray puts it for Abbey’s acceptance “into the English and American prose canon.” With such works as The Monkey Wrench Gang which inspired and foreshadowed eco-terrorist groups and the nonfiction Desert Solitaire which detailed Abbey’s activities as a park ranger at Arches National Park as well as numerous essays decrying the exploitation of the western wilderness, his legacy should be secure. This collection of essays by the likes of Murray who knew Abbey personally as well as writers inspired by him such as Alaskan Nancy Lord, place the man and his substantial literary output in its prominent place as one of the greatest nature and fiction writers this country has ever produced.
But Murray reminds us that 26 years after his death, Abbey
remains a controversial and polarizing figure in American literature and culture. He had his share of detractors and “haters” as they say in modern day parlance. After all, this was a man who was dogged for 37 years by the FBI…right up until his death. And the self described “redneck”, often inebriated, accumulator of wives, gun toting bearded curmudgeon, was not the ideal poster boy for the Sierra Club. As one contributor
noted, had it not been for his ardent defense of threatened wilderness areas, Abbey could very well have been lumped in with current red staters. He had a huge distrust of Big Government. Abbey took Walt Whitman’s declaration to heart – “Resist much, obey little”. Like his friend and fellow outlaw Hunter Thompson, Abbey developed a persona as a badass. He was known to cruise the streets of Phoenix in his vintage Cadillac
with a plastic geranium as a hood ornament blasting the music of Mozart, Brahms, and Waylon Jennings. He wrote a 1980 article for Running magazine in which he admitted he didn’t care that much for running. He once referred to himself as…”the most hated, reviled, and ignored of modern American writers”. He often savaged such contemporaries as Tom Wolfe and John Updike for their suburban chatter and their irrelevance to much
of life as he knew it. One of his novels begins with the main character shooting his refrigerator. That’s the Ed Abbey I love. And all of Abbey In America contributors love him as well…warts and all. Even one of his most controversial views which concerned illegal immigration gets a very thoughtful and prosaic treatment by contributor Charles Bowden. And with all of that baggage, Abbey could still go toe to toe with any pointy
head academic that crossed his path. After all, Abbey was armed with two philosophy degrees from the University of New Mexico.
As many of these essayists point out, were Abbey’s writing and views really that controversial? His stance on limiting vehicular traffic in our national parks seems like a no-brainer. His novel The Monkey Wrench Gang which was used as a bible for violent
eco-activists contained not one instance of anyone being killed. His anti-immigration stance came from a reasoned belief that any influx of immigrants – legal or illegal would only put added stress on our national parks and wilderness areas. He was called a racist by some, but the facts don’t mesh with that assertion.
Beyond Murray’s lofty intentions concerning Abbey’s place in
American literature, the book serves as an excellent starting point for those unfamiliar with the man and his works. But the best testament to the man comes from contributor Kathleen Dean Moore who in a very inventive ‘posthumous” interview with Abbey allows his own words to reign down on us like manna from heaven:
I believe that words count, that writing matters, that
poems, essays, and novels-in the long run-make a difference. The writer’s job is to write, and write the truth - especially unpopular truth. Especially truth that offends the powerful, the rich, the well established. But he also has the moral obligation to get down in the dust and the sweat and lend not only his name but his voice and body to the tiresome contest. How far can you go in objectivity, in temporizing, in fence straddling, before it becomes plain moral
cowardice? “It is always the writer’s duty,” Samuel Johnson said, “to make the world better.”
And just to assure us that Abbey has reached a new generation with his literary output, Murray includes contributions from twenty somethings Esther Rose Honing (journalist) and Genoa Alexander (educator). While Abbey was content to have the coyotes gnaw on his bones and his remains used to fertilize a
Saguaro cactus, his creative spirit lives on, as this collection of essays clearly demonstrates.
Amen Brother Abbey, amen!