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,...
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