It is tempting to see Abbey as an itinerant preacher, with “love” tattooed on one hand and “hate” on the other. The dichotomy of his preferences appears to be crystal clear. Wilderness is good. Civilization, manifesting itself in the form of urban sprawl and industrialization, is bad. Stop the latter and preserve the former. Indeed, he has been dismissed as an “eco-crank,” a leftover Luddite, and an anarchist, but Abbey’s voice challenges the common assumptions that modern society has come to accept complacently about the nature of progress and the idea of the “good life.”
Abbey’s first novel, Jonathan Troy, reveals the unhappy contrast between the decadent civilization of the East and the promising wilderness of the West. The title character encounters conflict and disappointment in his native Pennsylvania—squalor and hopelessness in the mining towns and barbarism in the backwoods. It is a place that suffers from rot, a rot he must escape by flight to the liberating landscape of the West, where there is room for the individual to be free.
The Brave Cowboy, Abbey’s second novel, further develops the contrast between the landscape of the wilderness and the contamination of urban life established in Jonathan Troy. Jack Burns, the cowboy of the title, is one of Abbey’s most memorable characters. He loves the freedom of his life as an itinerant herder, a life characterized by physical labor, personal freedom, and respect for the land, but he is a man out of step with his time. Abbey sends his hero riding into Duke City on horseback. Burns is a happy-go-lucky sort who hates fences, highways, and urban sprawl. When he comes to a fence, he cheerfully cuts it. When he comes to a highway, he and his horse have difficulty, but they manage to cross it. Burns lives by a personal code that has nothing to do with the constraints of modern civilization.
When Burns comes into conflict with the law and is asked to produce his identification cards, he replies, “Don’t have none. Don’t need none. I already know who I am.” To know Burns is to like him, but he is doomed by his refusal to knuckle under to the forces of change. When he and his beloved little mare are run down on the highway by a truck carrying a load of bathroom fixtures, it is tragic but not unexpected. The message is clear. There is no room for a Burns and the way of life he represents in urban, industrial society. The future belongs to the developers and bureaucrats who are the faceless representatives of modern repression.
The notion of government as an expression of the violent repression of the individual is more explicit in Fire on the Mountain. The United States government wants John Vogelin’s ranch for a weapons testing site. Vogelin refuses to sell. He sees himself as a part of the land upon which he has lived his life. The conflict is intrinsically unequal, for it pits the collective power of government against the individual. Like Burns, Vogelin is doomed to perish in the defense of a lost cause, and like Burns, he must resist the inevitable or lose his essential nature, the very core of his individuality.
The publication of Desert Solitaire, a series of reflective essays centered on Abbey’s experiences as a park ranger at Arches National Monument, propelled Abbey into public attention and the center of controversy. Unconfined by the strictures of fiction, Abbey speaks in his own voice, and it is a voice that soars in lyrical praise of the land he loves and drips with contempt for the destructive forces of industrial and commercial development. For Abbey, the bringing of roads and automobiles into the wilderness means the beginning of its end and the onset of what he calls “industrial tourism.”
The Monkey Wrench Gang might be considered a prescription for sedition, insurrection, and sabotage. It contains detailed descriptions of procedures for destroying earth-moving equipment and using explosives to destroy bridges. It counsels the destruction of private property in defense of the wilderness and the burning of billboards in the name of preserving beauty. His characters are fueled by rage against a society that would trade profit in the present against the future of the remaining wilderness; they believe their actions to be not only justified but also essential. Doc, Hayduke. Seldom Seen Smith, and Bonnie are fragments of Abbey that take action against an industrial society bent on destruction of the land. In Desert Solitaire, Abbey insisted that “wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit, and as vital to our lives as water and good bread.”
In both his later fiction and nonfiction, Abbey’s voice frequently becomes strident. The essays collected in The Journey Home: Some Words in Defense of the American West (1977) and Abbey’s Road (1979) repeatedly lash out in furious anger or drop into despair. In Good News, set in a dark and grim future, both the land and the individual have fallen victim to the pervasive power of greed, the inevitable outcome when government becomes the tool of industrialism.
Abbey’s last major work, The Fool’s Progress, is transparently autobiographical, a darkly comic tale of a dying man wandering across the damaged landscape of America and the damaged landscape of his own...
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