Edward Abbey 1927-1989
American novelist, essayist, and poet.
Abbey was one of the most prominent nature writers of the twentieth century. Although he resisted characterization as a “nature writer,” preferring to think of himself as a novelist, he is best remembered for his impassioned and often irreverent defense of American wilderness areas, particularly in the Southwest. Anarchistic and outspoken, he was called everything from America's crankiest citizen to the godfather of modern environmental activism. His nonfiction work Desert Solitaire (1968) is credited as being a key source of inspiration for the environmental movement, and his comic novel The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), which follows the misadventures of four environmentalist terrorists, became an underground classic.
Abbey was born January 29, 1927, in the small Appalachian town of Indiana, Pennsylvania, though he often claimed he was born in the nearby town of Home, a name he found more evocative. The eldest of five children, he inherited some of his political concerns from his father, Paul Abbey, who was a registered socialist and an organizer for the International Workers of the World labor union. His mother, Mildred Postlewaite Abbey, was a teacher. Abbey learned his appreciation of nature from both his parents, who, during Abbey's early years maintained an itinerant lifestyle, moving the family frequently and, for a time in the early 1930s, living in a series of campsites. After graduating from high school in 1944, Abbey traveled to the West for the first time by walking, hitchhiking, and riding in boxcars. The trip left a lifelong impression. In 1945 Abbey was drafted into the Army and served for two years in Italy during World War II. Abbey later remarked that the experience turned him into an anarchist. After an honorable discharge he briefly attended Indiana University of Pennsylvania before moving to New Mexico to attend the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque, where in 1951 he earned a degree in philosophy. Abbey spent the next two decades traveling abroad and living in New York while working as a seasonal park ranger and fire lookout for the National Park Service at several different national parks and monuments. In 1954 he published his first novel, Jonathan Troy, about a Pennsylvania youth who dreams of escaping to the West. His second novel, The Brave Cowboy (1956) was very successful, and in 1962 it was adapted into the movie Lonely Are the Brave. In 1968 Abbey published Desert Solitaire, which is considered his best work and the book on which his critical reputation rests. In 1987 Abbey was offered an award by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, but he declined to accept. Abbey was married five times and suffered from intermittent periods of depression and physical ailments. Upon his death on March 14, 1989, his body was, upon his written instructions and against Arizona state law, placed inside his favorite sleeping bag, taken to a secret place in the desert, and covered with rocks.
Of all Abbey's works, Desert Solitaire has garnered the most critical attention. Called a “minor classic” by one critic, Desert Solitaire contains explorations of most of Abbey's major thoughts on the environment, tourism, and human interference in wilderness areas. Abbey continued to detail his opinions in the subsequent collections of essays, The Journey Home (1977), Abbey's Road (1979), and One Life at a Time, Please (1988), which combine Abbey's reverence for the wild landscape with his contempt for a society—and government—that promotes destruction of the land. His novel The Monkey Wrench Gang traces the exploits of a group of vigilantes intent upon saving the desert from industrialization. While the novel maintains a comic tone, its message is serious: peaceful protest is inadequate to protect the environment. The novel is said to have inspired the formation of the real-life radical environmental group Earth First! Abbey intended The Fool's Progress (1988) to be his masterpiece. Picaresque and autobiographical, the novel tells the story of Henry Lightcap, who embarks on a 3,500-mile journey with his old dog to the place where he was born and raised. Abbey's last novel, Hayduke Lives! which was published posthumously in 1990, is a sequel to The Monkey Wrench Gang. Continuing the story of the radical environmentalists, the novel includes sketches of real Earth First! members. Earth Apples (1995) collects Abbey's previously unpublished poems that he had read aloud over the years.
Although critics note that Abbey's work tends to be didactic, verbose, and sometimes repetitive, he nevertheless has been praised as a skillful prose stylist whose powerful descriptive language evokes vivid images. Known to be cantankerous and politically aware, Abbey is frequently compared favorably with his hero, Henry David Thoreau. While opinions differ on the question of whether or not Abbey is a “nature writer,” his novels, essays, and nonfiction works have earned Abbey a reputation as one of the most admired writers who explore and defend the natural world.
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