“By retaining one’s love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable.”
—George Orwell

With the death of Edward Abbey, aged 62, in March of last year, the Western portion of what once was really the United States lost her greatest defender of the post-World War II era. And Americans everywhere—but especially those whose Anglo-Saxon heritage is not for them a cause for guilt-ridden anxiety—lost one of their most courageous spokesmen. For during a time when liberalism and conservatism have become virtually indistinguishable from each other, here was a writer with a growing audience who combined the profoundly old-fashioned American values of fierce independence and respect for the natural environment with isolation in foreign affairs. Edward Abbey was part Thoreau and Lysander Spooner—with a heavy infusion of John T. Flynn and Charles Lindbergh. Born and raised on a farm in northern Appalachia, he hitchhiked in his late teens throughout the West and in 1947, after military service in Italy, returned to the Southwest, where he spent the remaining 42 years of his life.

Classified—and often simply dismissed—as a “nature” writer, Abbey studied philosophy at the University of New Mexico. And although no author of recent decades was better able to give his readers a feel for the flora and fauna, the arid deserts and distant mountains of the West, he wrote novels and essays that have little to do with biological science. Rather, in them Abbey expanded upon some of his lifelong concerns: unquestioned economic growth that leaves the landscape—as well as most people—worse off in the long run; the so-called stewardship practiced by those state and federal agencies responsible for the management and preservation of our park and wilderness areas (“They want the whole West to look like an Illinois cornfield . . . Keep that old raw cranky smelly unpredictable Mother Nature where she belongs, namely in a zoo. Or a museum. Under glass and behind nice neat paved nature trails”); and the conflict between individuals who are content to mind their own business and the institutions of the state—any state—that demand discipline and reward conformity. But it was as a writer of fiction that Abbey wanted to be most appreciated. Through the use of poetic symbols—lonely cowboys, embattled ranchers, ruined cities—he hoped to dramatize his concerns. And, like so many authors, he dreamed of writing a magnum opus, an Abbeyesque War & Peace, a “fat masterpiece” of at least a thousand pages—a wish that remained unfulfilled at his death.

In the half-dozen novels that he did write. Abbey managed poignantly to convey his dismay over the direction America had taken. Once a country that respected individuals and provided them with a relatively safe and secure place in which to live, the United States had devolved into an increasingly unsafe, unhealthy, and uglified territory dominated by technocrats ruling over a neurotic, dependent, and eviscerated populace. All of these themes are explored in Abbey’s first successful novel. The Brave Cowboy (1956), which served as the basis for the film Lonely Are the Brave (and netting for Ed Abbey all of $7,500), and which is now regarded as a classic of Western literature. In this tale a modern cowboy, Jack Burns (who later turns up in Hayduke Lives! and Good News), refuses to bow to the dictates of postwar America and tries to free a friend who has been incarcerated for failing to carry a draft registration card. His friend, however, refuses to be rescued, and the cowboy, after escaping from the county jail, is pursued through the desert and into the mountains by a posse equipped with walkie-talkies, machine guns, and helicopters. Readers of The Brave Cowboy may be reminded of B. Traven, an author whose work—The Death Ship in particular—Abbey much admired.

During the late 1950’s and 60’s, Abbey spent part of his time working as a seasonal ranger and fire-lookout at parks throughout the West. This afforded him the opportunity to explore the great landscape and the time to develop his thoughts. His next novel, Fire on the Mountain (1962), received a measure of critical acclaim and was later turned into a well-received TV movie. It is another “serious” Western, which pits an aging rancher, John Vogelin, against the U.S. government. The Defense Department wants to seize the family homestead to use it as an Air Force missile test range. Like Jack Burns, Vogelin fights a losing battle against the forces of the New America. In Abbey’s novels the good guys do not ride triumphantly into the sunset: instead, they are crushed by the state, though retaining a measure of their personal dignity.

Abbey’s last serious novel to be set in the West was Good News (1980). It is a futuristic work in which the degraded survivors of a once proud and prosperous nation are reduced to scavenging for food and shelter amid the ruins of a metropolis. In this post- Bladerunner world a few men and women try to rebuild a new society that honors the values that had been discarded by a people who had embraced “growth” regardless of the foreseeable costs.

The Fool’s Progress (1988) was the first Abbey novel not to have the West as the primary scene of its action. It is thinly disguised autobiography, in which Henry Lightcap relates his journey from Tucson back to the family home in West Virginia. Through a series of flashbacks, Lightcap reflects on the course his life has taken and comments aciduously and often uproariously on everything from music (Abbey loved Beethoven and Bruckner, among others, and dismissed rock as the product of an “imitation Afro-Urban-industrial freeway culture”) to feminism and religion (Lightcap scorns the effeminate image of “Christ as the Bearded Lady”), Mexican cultural achievements (“murals, manslaughter, and beer”), Indians (there are too many of them), and Third World immigration:

What we really have to worry about … are not the Russkies but the Southerners. I mean Latin America, Asia, Africa. Those people are breeding like fruit flies. . . . Their boat is overloaded, sinking. They are already climbing into our boat by the millions. And they don’t stop breeding when they get here. Soon enough, maybe by the year 2000, life in America will be degraded to the level of life in Mexico. Assuming present trends continue. And who, my friend, is making any effort to change these trends? . . . Our troubles are not political, they are biological.

In fact, The Fool’s Progress is less a genuine novel than it is a device through which the author can deliver speeches on various issues he had addressed (often more persuasively) in his essays. As much as we may share Abbey’s concerns and sympathize with his outlook, for those of us who are already familiar with some of his other work there is something unsatisfactory about this nearest approximation to the unwritten “fat masterpiece” of the novelist’s dream.

Abbey’s most popular work of fiction was The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975). It is a comic novel in which The Gang—comprised of Doc Sarvis, his Brooklyn-born young mistress, Bonnie Abbzug, their guide Seldom Seen Smith (seldom seen by his three Mormon wives, that is), and George Washington Hayduke, a former Green Beret—roam the canyonlands of Utah and Arizona, burning down billboards, yanking up survey stakes, pouring Karo syrup into the fuel tanks of bulldozers, snipping barbed wire fences, and dynamiting a coal train. Before they are able to pull off their ultimate caper, the blowing up of Glen Canyon dam—that monument to Development with a capital D that, as has since been confirmed, accomplished in nature what the firebombing of the Louvre and the National Gallery would accomplish in the world of art—Hayduke falls through a firestorm of bullets into a slickrock canyon, and the other Monkey Wrenchers are arrested by the Polizei.

Hayduke Lives! is the long-awaited sequel to The Monkey Wrench Gang; the author and his wife, Clarke, had just finished correcting the proofs at the time of his death. The posthumous work apparently was not intended to be the final installment, but rather “the further adventures of” George Hayduke (who is modeled, like the Gang’s other members, on a living person whose identity the author never publicly disclosed). In what will be perforce their last adventure, the Gang is reassembled to tackle GOLIATH—the first Giant Earth Mover (G.E.M.) of Arizona. Standing 67 feet high, weighing 13 and a half thousand tons, and costing nearly $40 million, GOLIATH is a dragline excavator designed for digging open pits the size of Lake Titicaca. Flanked by Gog and Magog, as the escorting pair of Mitsubishi trucks are dubbed, the Super-G.E.M. is going to be used to help “develop” Lost Eden Canyon, a pristine patch of land along the Utah-Arizona border. Uranium has been found in them thar mesas. And once “maximum financial return” has been extracted from the ground—as state law requires—developers envision erecting a complex complete with deluxe hotel, championship golf course, and a condo village for the 50,000 people who can afford a desert view from their decks. A packed public hearing gives official endorsement to the project, and protestors at the site are dispersed by the state and federal constabulary, making yet another part of the great American outdoors safe for economic growth. But, like Igor and Frankenstein’s Monster—or Robin Hood, if you prefer—Hayduke lives, and has returned with his allies to take on the fast-buck developers, tourist operators, and political manipulators. Most readers will hope that, this time, Hayduke & Company finally get away with it. In any event, they will undoubtedly be led to ponder (as does Orval Jensen; one of GOLIATH’s operators) whether our economic health really requires the eventual commercial exploitation of every piece of as-yet undeveloped land. As for Abbey, his belief was that it isn’t a case of Nature or people, but rather of Nature and people.

Although he preferred to be known as a novelist, it was as a writer of essays on travel, ideas, people, places, and adventures that Abbey excelled. The lonely cry of a hawk, a stream bubbling over rocks, the wind whispering through canyons, the magnificent solitude of the desert, viewing the Grand Canyon for the first time, or taking a final rafting expedition down the Colorado River before a dam drowned many of its most precious sites—these are some of the things that Abbey rendered so well, and with so much clarity and forcefulness. And, yes, he would—in what became an Abbey trademark—sprinkle his descriptions with observations on the social and political topics he was most concerned with. In these he comes across not as some right-wing crank, which he wasn’t in any event, but rather as a representative for values that were once widely shared in this country, and which contributed to making the American Republic something of a success—at least before the onset of the 20th century.

Desert Solitaire (1968) was his first nonfiction best-seller and is regarded by many critics and readers as his finest book. It is an account of his three seasons spent as a ranger at Arches National Monument near Moab, Utah. In it. Abbey takes us on his hikes through the desert and on that memorable last trip down the Colorado before the dam builders flooded Glen Canyon and created the huge stagnant pond known today as Lake Foul (Powell). In it, too. Abbey inveighs against the dehumanization of what he called “Industrial Tourism” and pauses to reflect on “the wretched inhabitants of city and plain . . . can we even think of them, to be perfectly candid, as members of the same race?” Desert Solitaire is not to be mistaken for a tour book, since, as he pointed out, “most of what I write about . . . is gone or going under fast.” It is instead “an elegy. A memorial. You’re holding a tombstone in your hands.”

The Journey Home: Some Words in Defense of the American West (1977), Abbey’s Road: Take the Other (1979), Down the River (1982), Beyond the Wall (1984), and One Life at a Time, Please (1988) are the other collections of his essays, and all of them contain gems. It was in these essays that Abbey presented most effectively his views on the relationship between man and the natural masterpieces that surround him. Contrary to the impression some critics had of him, Edward Abbey was no misanthrope who preferred rocks and scorpions to humans. Far from it. He was a man who clearly enjoyed the company of his friends and who wished well for other people. What he seemed most to despair of was the relentless drive to regulate all mankind and to despoil our remaining “undeveloped” areas. There is an honesty expressed in his work that one rarely encounters in these days when, as in Oliver Goldsmith’s era, speech is used not to express thoughts but to conceal them.

Through his essays and novels. Abbey sought to share his love for the American West with his readers and to awaken a sense of awe, and of wonderment. He tried to provoke readers to reconsider what has become of our country and what it yet may be. He wrote in his essay “The Conscience of the Conqueror” (included in Abbey’s Road):

America offers what may be our final opportunity to save a useful sample of the original land. It is not a question merely of preserving forests and rivers, wildlife and wilderness, but also of keeping alive a certain way of human life, a wholesome and reasonable balance between industrialism and agrarianism, between cities and small towns, between private property and public property. Here it is still possible to enjoy the advantages of contemporary technological culture without having to endure the overcrowding and stress characteristic of this culture in less fortunate regions . . . Perhaps in the decades to come we can . . . restore to all citizens of our nation their rightful heritage of breathable air, drinkable water, open space, family-farm agriculture, a truly democratic political economy. Why settle for anything less? . . . It will be the job of another generation of thinkers and doers to keep that hope alive and bring it closer to reality . . . We may succeed in making America … an example to other nations of what is possible and beautiful. Was that not, after all, the whole point and purpose of the American adventure? 



[Hayduke Lives!, by Edward Abbey (Boston: Little, Brown and Company) 308 pp., $18.95]