Fifteen years after I arrived in the West, I can no longer recall how I first became aware of Edward Abbey, though I do know that I had been the book editor of a national magazine for nearly four years before the name penetrated my consciousness. (The parochialism of the New York literati.) But I remember as if it were yesterday buying an armload of his books at the Zion Bookstore in Salt Lake City (capital of the only society on earth where a Jew is a gentile) and reading them in bed in my single-bedroom rental in the Regency Apartments in Kemmerer while blizzards raged out-of-doors and an occasional pistol discharged in one of the surrounding units, followed by drunken shouts and a confused roaring, I was working in the oil patch that winter, arriving home at odd hours of the day and night, my biological clock gone haywire, my muscles aching, my body stiff from the forty- and fifty-below zero temperatures; and though I accomplished little reading in those months, I did manage to plough through everything of Abbey’s I could find in Salt Lake. Quite an effort—like managing to drink a case of beer after being lost in the desert all day. He has been dead nearly six years now, still owing me the protracted horseback trip along the Mexican border we had promised one another, but, as if by some miracle, the books have started coming again: Confessions of a Barbarian: Selections from the Journals of Edward Abbey, 1951-1989 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1994), edited and with an introduction by David Petersen, this fall and, next year, a volume of his letters, also edited by Petersen, a longtime friend. And of several biographies rumored to be in the making, the first—not really a biography—has recently been published: Epitaph for a Desert Anarchist: The Life and Legacy of Edward Abbey (New York: Atheneum, 1994), by James Bishop, Jr.

Was Abbey really a barbarian and an anarchist? By the standard of Bill Clinton and Al Gore, who exhort us plaintively to have “faith in government,” he certainly was the latter, while what Chesterton called “the huge and healthy sadness” of the pre-Christian era pervades Confessions. According to the vulgar and narrow understanding of his day, Ed Abbey was politically unclassifiable, a torpedo launched at those ungainly iron Liberty Ships of carefully welded opinion. Believing that the writer unprepared to tell the truth had better be looking around for something else to do, he did not strive for approbation or awards (“prizes,” he wrote to Irving Howe, who had just offered him an award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, “are for little boys”). And to the present Age of Sensitivity, he was anathema: tender, over-sensitized, and insecure souls could either toss the insult back, or grow a thicker skin—or suffer. In the company I mostly keep, the name Edward Abbey is either unrecognized or despised. Those of my friends (cattle ranchers, miners, oilfield roughnecks, local business people) who are familiar with the legend but have neither read nor heard of the highly disruptive speech Abbey delivered at the University of Montana in Missoula in 1985 against a background of shouts and jeers and gunfire in the parking lot, would probably be able to guess correctly the gist of his remarks. (“I’m in favor of putting the public lands livestock grazers out of business. . . . Almost anywhere and everywhere you go in the American West you find hordes of these ugly, clumsy, stupid, bawling, stinking, fly-covered, sh–smeared, disease-spreading brutes. . . . I’ve never heard of a coyote as dumb as a sheepman The cowboy is . . . a farm boy in leather britches and a comical hat. . . . Anytime you go into a small Western town, you’ll find [the ranchers] at the nearest drugstore, sitting around all morning drinking coffee, talking about their tax breaks.”) Among my first reactions to Abbey’s work was the thought that the author insufficiently appreciated the degree to which the physical and social openness of the West depends upon the ranching “industry,” as the Western ranch is unimaginable outside the context of the wilderness surrounding it—a fact of which the present generation of ranchers needs to be reminded. Yet, of Abbey’s eight novels, one (The Brave Cowboy) has for its hero a farm boy in britches, while another (Fire on the Mountain) is the story of an elderly rancher who defies the attempts of the federal government to condemn his property for a missile range. More than he scorned Western cattle growers as “welfare parasites” and despoilers of the land. Abbey admired the best of them for their independence, their toughness, and their stubborn commitment to the preindustrial values held by citizens of the old American Republic whose passing he deplored and lamented.

An American original and individualist who resisted mass opinion all his life. Abbey in late career suffered the inexorable fate of the celebrated nonconformist by inadvertently helping to create and shape it. In some degree he had himself to blame, since he chose against dissociating or distancing himself from the environmental groupies and monkey-wrench cultists who fawned on him. But James Bishop, though inept in his role of literary critic, is sensitive to the importance of his subject as a social critic as well as a “nature writer” and environmentalist. Abbey’s true subject, he suggests (echoing an essay by Wendell Berry), was himself—a self that could not be complete in a world despoiled by a self-ravaged society. “True human freedom,” Abbey remarked a year before his death, “economic freedom, political freedom, social freedom, remain basically linked to physical freedom, sufficient space, enough land.” Unlike the majority of “environmentalists,” he believed that what is finally at stake is not the future of the earth, which will endure for eons after human beings, their worst accomplished, have driven themselves to extinction, but that of humanity and the civilization it has created—especially in America. As Bishop points out, Abbey’s interest was not in saving the world (which he regarded as unsalvageable, sordid, and barbaric) but in saving America, a special land inhabited by the chosen people who had created for themselves the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. It was this interest, as much as the vision of the vast and multisplendored Western landscape being overrun by tens or scores of millions of Latin Americans, that prompted his notorious (“racist,” “xenophobic”) stand against immigration from the Third World. “How many of us, truthfully, would prefer to be submerged in the Latin- Caribbean version of civilization? . . . Harsh words, but somebody has to say them.”

Had Henry David Thoreau’s view of the Mexican-American War carried the day. Abbey’s Road would have been patrolled by the federales. Still, Thoreau was a hero for Abbey, the man to whose work his own has most often been compared. In fact, it is much better than that, Walden having all the natural interest of a walk in Central Park, enlivened by transcendentalist musings in lieu of a few good muggings. Abbey deserves to be treated much more broadly as a late 20th-century representative of a long and distinguished line of American anti-urban intellectuals, many of whom also opposed social, economic, and technological giantism and the centralization of the state, that includes Jefferson, Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, Josiah Royce, Lewis Mumford—and Thoreau. Abbey’s prose, for all its revolutionary mystique, has many sober and even polite antecedents. A passage from Royce’s Race Questions, Provincialism and Other American Problems (1908), expounding the Harvard philosopher’s “higher provincialism,” has the Abbey ring to it:

There [to the province] must we flee from the stress of the now too vast and problematic life of the nation as a whole. . . . [N]ot in the sense of a cowardly and permanent retirement, but in the sense of a search for renewed strength, for a social inspiration, for the salvation of the individual from the overwhelming forces of consolidation. Freedom . . . dwells now in the small social group, and has its securest home in the provincial life. The nation by itself, apart from the influence of the province, is in danger of becoming an incomprehensible monster, in whose presence the individual loses his right, his self-consciousness, and his dignity.

Those over-consistent souls who remark that, as Thoreau’s cabin was within walking distance of his mother’s house and her washboard, so Abbey’s primary residence over the years was the sprawling ultramodern city of Tucson have missed the point. For Abbey, the American West—”All of it”—was his province, defined not only in terms of wilderness but of its (ever-decreasing) remoteness from the Eastern monster that the West seemed bent on recreating between the Front Range and the Pacific Ocean. To Thoreau’s statement that, “What we call wilderness is a civilization other than our own,” Abbey might have added, “What I call civilization is surrounded by a civilization other than our own.”

Confessions reveals a susceptibility to the conviviality of city life and even to the aesthetics of the cityscape (though characteristically Abbey preferred Hoboken, where he spent several years while married to one of his two Jewish wives, to Manhattan) but none at all to smalltown or farm life which he, having been raised on a farm in western Pennsylvania, loathed. For Abbey, happiness was always one thing or the other, megalopolis or wilderness: an unexceptionable preference that nevertheless compromised his appreciation of rural culture and, especially, agriculture.

That, for several reasons, is too bad. For one thing, it left him vulnerable to the ideological excesses of the Social Democratic Wilderness Party, including its Deep Ecology faction, and therefore to plausible counterattack by the Enemy. (What right anyway have city people and suburbanites—at least 90 percent of environmentalists in America—to create policy for the management of wilderness and other rural lands, of which their knowledge is almost entirely theoretical and secondhand? The land, as Latin American revolutionaries say, belongs to those who work it. Imagine the uproar if the farmers of upstate New York insisted on writing crime control bills for New York City!) Another is that it prevented him from recognizing that the maintenance of a rural culture based on ranching is infinitely more important to the preservation of the Western United States than any number of wilderness set-asides engineered by congressional representatives from urban California and bluestocking districts on Manhattan Island. The third is that it blinkered and blinded him against a truth that seemed axiomatic to human beings throughout most of their history, and that is being rediscovered today even as it is most emphatically denied.

“The main problem of the coming century,” John Lukacs says, “will be people’s relationship to the land. But the pollution of land, indeed of all matter, is preceded and produced by the pollution of minds.” Early in the 20th century if not before, the causal connection between man’s depredation of the natural world and his own self-degradation began to be noticed. Romano Guardini concluded that culture arises from a living human relationship with nature, an argument that was developed in the United States over the next decade by the Southern Agrarians; Santayana in his last book published in 1953 wrote that an animal economy, based on the breeding and hunting of animals, is the natural condition of man: neither wilderness nor city but rus in urbe or urbs ruri, the rural center. What Lukacs calls the “insubstantialization of matter”—its remoteness from our lives in combination with the increasing “abstractness of patterns of thought”—in his opinion demands “a conscious realization, not only of the sinful nature of man, but the already overdue necessity to rethink the entire meaning of progress,” an agendum that Abbey pressed for 40 years.

“Lavender cumuli floating like armadas of men-o’-war over the arid canyons, bombarding them with lightning bolts; hisses and shouts of wind; the irritable whining of flies; clear open seas of blue and green to the west and north; the charged stillness, the heat, the sudden flurry of the whirlwind; . . . danger, pressure, tension, anticipation in the air. . . . ” Despite a somewhat messy and disordered life that included five marriages and in which satyriasis yielded only to ill health and premature death, there is nothing of the barbarian in the man who could create this description of afternoon storms above the summer desert of southeastern Utah. Nothing, that is, except the alien, the dissenter from a society widely considered superior to his own.