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.
Jonathan Troy (novel) 1954
The Brave Cowboy (novel) 1956
Fire on the Mountain (novel) 1962
Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness (essays) 1968
Appalachian Wilderness: The Great Smoky Mountains. [with photographs by Eliot Porter] (nonfiction) 1970
Black Sun (novel) 1971; published in England as Sunset Canyon, 1972
The Monkey Wrench Gang (novel) 1975
The Journey Home: Some Words in Defense of the American West (essays) 1977
Abbey's Road: Take the Other (essays) 1979
Good News (novel) 1980
Down the River (nonfiction) 1982
Beyond the Wall: Essays from the Outside (essays) 1984
Slumgullion Stew: An Edward Abbey Reader (fiction and nonfiction), 1984; republished as The Best of Edward Abbey, 1988
Confessions of a Barbarian (novel) 1986
The Fool's Progress: An Honest Novel (novel) 1988
One Life at a Time, Please (essays) 1988
Hayduke Lives! (novel) 1990
Vox Clamantis in Deserto: Some Notes from a Secret Journal (aphorisms) 1989; republished as A Voice Crying in the Wilderness (Vox Clamantis in Deserto): Essays...
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SOURCE: Bryant, Paul T. “Edward Abbey and Environmental Quixoticism.” Western American Literature 24, no. 1 (spring 1989): 37-43.
[In the following essay, Bryant argues against the commonly held view of Abbey as an extremist.]
When Edward Abbey visited my campus some years ago, I was curious to know what he was like. His public lecture was in the tone one might expect from his writing—a mixture of Jack Burns and George Washington Hayduke. But I was interested in the person behind the public image. At a reception at a colleague's house, after the lecture, I hoped to meet that person.
Before many people had arrived, Abbey was quiet, affable, relaxed. As the number of people increased to a loud, milling mob, he became visibly less comfortable. Finally, he retreated as unobtrusively as possible to the kitchen. I was already there, having made a similar retreat a few minutes earlier. We had a quiet conversation that ended only when others found where he had fled.
From that brief acquaintance, I got the strong sense that Edward Abbey was not the sharp-tongued, outrageous anarchist so many believe him to have been (see, for example, Gregory McNamee, 24), but rather a quiet, shy, thoughtful man who created a far different persona for public consumption. Confirmation has since come from others. Barry Lopez, for example, writes of Abbey's “ingenuous shyness, so at odds...
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SOURCE: Bryant, Paul T. “Echoes, Allusions, and ‘Reality’ in Hayduke Lives!” Western American Literature 25, no. 4 (February 1991): 311-22.
[In the following essay, Bryant traces Abbey's numerous literary allusions in Hayduke Lives!]
Hayduke Lives!, Edward Abbey's last novel, is an apparently simple but actually complex amalgam of social satire, environmental protest, antic language, ironic ambiguities, and playful fantasy. Outrage is mixed with absurdity; profound archetypes are intertwined with the most trivially comic; idealism and cynicism travel arm in arm; soaring poetic language crashes repeatedly into the rubble of egregious puns; the most absolute conviction in belief and behavior is constantly undermined by the ever-present narrative voice of an authorial figure who may be sympathetic but remains detached, an observer who is always interested, sometimes fascinated, but never totally committed.
Every character in the novel, every group, every viewpoint, every idea carries within itself the deliberately planted seeds of its own deconstruction. Everything except nature itself is called into question.
Constantly the text reminds the reader that it is text—language—a verbal construct drawn from and resting on a long, well established, always self-conscious literary tradition. By clearly stating, from the title itself onward, that this...
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SOURCE: Scheese, Don. “Desert Solitaire: Counter-Friction to the Machine in the Garden.” North Dakota Quarterly 59, no. 2 (spring 1991): 211-27.
[In the following essay, Scheese identifies Abbey primarily as a cultural and social critic in the same vein as Henry David Thoreau.]
Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.
—Henry David Thoreau, “Resistance to Civil Government”
I first encountered the work of Edward Abbey during a cross-continental train trip in December 1977. To help me endure the wintry, interminable monotones of the Great Plains, a friend suggested a few books to take along. I can recall but one of them now: Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire.
“How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book,” Thoreau wrote in Walden (107). After reading Desert Solitaire a new era began in my life: I made it my vocation both to study the nature writing tradition and devote a significant portion of time to living in the wild. I took up Abbey's suggestions in the introduction to Abbey's Road on whom to read—Edward Hoagland, Joseph Wood Krutch, Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, John McPhee, Ann Zwinger, and Peter Matthiessen (xx)—and followed his example of inhabiting the wilderness: for the past ten summers I have worked as a...
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SOURCE: Bryant, Paul T. “The Structure and Unity of Desert Solitaire.” Western American Literature 28, no. 1 (spring 1993): 3-19.
[In the following essay, Bryant examines the complex structure of Desert Solitaire.]
Edward Abbey was often at pains to present himself as a blunt, straightforward, uncomplicated, unsophisticated writer who simply expressed things as he saw them. A careful reader will soon discover otherwise. Writing that reveals more with each successive reading, as does Desert Solitaire, is a mark of an important writer whose work will last because the careful reader is never “finished” with it. In this book new associations of images, new structural relationships, new patterns of ideas, new allusive associations, indeed significant new meanings may emerge with each new reading.
Abbey in fact is quite sophisticated, both philosophically and artistically. He illustrates the Latin proverb, “Ars est celare artem,” art lies in concealing art. I am reminded of Harold Ickes' comment, during the 1944 presidential campaign, when he saw news photographs of Wendell Wilkie wearing a straw hat and looking at a cow on an Indiana farm. He said Wilkie was “just a simple, barefoot Wall Street lawyer.” Ed Abbey is like that. Don't let the jeans and muddy boots fool you. He can spin a good yarn and measure his mileage in six-packs, and this is a part both...
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SOURCE: Loeffler, Jack. “Edward Abbey, Anarchism and the Environment.” Western American Literature 28, no. 1 (spring 1993): 43-49.
[In the following essay, Loeffler offers a personal remembrance of Abbey's contribution to literature and environmentalism.]
One time, Ed Abbey and I were talking about an upcoming election. Ed said to me, “I'm a registered anarchist.”
I asked him, “How long have you been a registered anarchist?”
Ed said “Oh, about 5000 years. In the realm of ideal politics, I'm some sort of an agrarian, barefoot wilderness eco-freak anarchist. One of my favorite thinkers is Prince Kropotkin. Another is Henry Thoreau.”
Professionally, Abbey's greatest wish was to be regarded as a fine writer, a literary man. Many's the time Abbey confided that he felt that New York publishers thought he'd been born on the wrong side of the Hudson. But after due consideration, he concluded that the wrong side was actually the right side—and that New York writers were a boring lot, in the main. Most of them were “toadies” and “sycophants,” “brown-nosers” and “ass-kissers.” What most of them write about has little to do with reality. Rather, they spread a patina of anthropomorphism across the fabric of their lives in the dim hope that something might register as meaningful. Sez Ed, “How can you get excited about someone...
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SOURCE: Slovic, Scott. “Aestheticism and Awareness: The Psychology of Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang.” The CEA Critic 55, no. 3 (spring-summer 1993): 54-68.
[In the following essay, Slovic finds the search for self-awareness to be the main theme of The Monkey Wrench Gang.]
[W]ith five published novels and three volumes, including this one, of personal history to my credit—or discredit if you prefer—why am I still classified by librarians and tagged by reviewers as a “nature writer”?
—Edward Abbey, Abbey's Road
Wilderness is above all an opportunity to heighten one's awareness, to locate the self against the nonself. It is a springboard for introspection. And the greatest words, those which illumine life as it is centrally lived and felt, intensify that process.
—Bruce Berger, The Telling Distance: Conversations with the American Desert
I. “A VOICE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS, FOR THE WILDERNESS”?
Sharon Cameron has suggested that “to write about nature is to write about how the mind sees nature, and sometimes about how the mind sees itself” (44). I believe this statement holds true not only for Thoreau, to whom Cameron is referring, but also for many of Thoreau's followers in the...
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SOURCE: Knott, John R. “Edward Abbey and the Romance of Wilderness.1” Western American Literature 30, no. 4 (winter 1996): 331-51.
[In the following essay, Knott examines the tension in Abbey's writing between his efforts to maintain a rational and concrete voice and his romanticism.]
At the end of his introduction to The Journey Home, Edward Abbey comments that if he sounds intransigent it is not just because he loves an argument, and likes to provoke people, but because he is an extremist, “one who lives and loves by choice far out on the very verge of things, on the edge of the abyss, where this world falls off into the depths of another” (JH, xiv). The image, drawn from the canyon country Abbey made his own, is a particularly revealing one. Anyone who knows Abbey's writing will recognize one kind of extremism in his assaults on proprieties of any kind he can imagine and his fantasies of subverting the ranchers, developers, dam builders and other enemies of wilderness whose ways he never tired of ridiculing. Yet the image also suggests another kind of extremism that Abbey recognized in himself, his attraction to another, more elusive world that he found in the desert landscape, a “world beyond” as he often calls it. Abbey represents this world as mysterious, boundless, ultimately unknowable, immensely alluring and at the same time dangerous. I am interested...
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SOURCE: Metting, Fred. “Edward Abbey's Unique Road.” South Dakota Review 34, no. 1 (spring 1996): 85-102.
[In the following essay, Metting examines the ways in which Abbey differs from earlier generations of American nature writers.]
On the title page of Edward Abbey's 1979 collection of essays Abbey's Road there is a drawing of a street sign for Abbey's Road with the command to the reader to “take the other.” Edward Abbey does indeed travel his desired solitary road in American nature writing. In both his nonfiction and his fiction he breaks cleanly from the strong, 150 year-old legacy of the American transcendentalists and their approach to nature. In addition, Abbey formulates a unique and radical rationale for wilderness preservation which differs from earlier calls for conservation in our nature writing. Abbey's personal history essays, his novels, and his recently published journals reveal his iconoclastic stance on both nature's reality and wilderness preservation as well as the intimate connection between these two unique positions.
American nature writing has been profoundly influenced by transcendentalism since the 1830s. Transcendentalism is a seminal movement in our intellectual history and has had many definitions. Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of its chief practitioners, said in 1840: “They have various definitions of the word current here. One man … in good...
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SOURCE: Cahalan, James M. “Edward Abbey, Appalachian Easterner.” Western American Literature 31, no. 3 (fall 1996): 233-53.
[In the following essay, Cahalan discusses how Abbey's Eastern roots—including his experiences in Appalachia—contributed to his identity as a Western writer.]
Edward Abbey is part of a long tradition of western writers from the East.1 By focusing on Abbey's Appalachian roots, I want to extend his status—already well established in western literature—and emphasize the very real links between his eastern heritage and his achievements in writing memorably about the Southwest as well as his native western Pennsylvania. I outline the facts about his Appalachian experience and his earliest writings, and then focus on Appalachian Wilderness, Jonathan Troy, and The Fool's Progress in the light of these key contexts.
As Kentucky novelist Gurney Norman tells me, “I don't think that it's ultimately fruitful to try to set up an opposition between the Appalachian region of Abbey's boyhood and the far West of his later life. It isn't that there is a contest. There is no split; it's just that the linkages have not been made manifest.” A writer who grew up in Appalachia, lived in the West for a number of years, and then returned home to write about such experiences, Norman articulates a vision that connects Appalachia and the...
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SOURCE: Mossman, Mark. “The Rhetoric of a Nature Writer: Subversion, Persuasion, and Ambiguity in the Writings of Edward Abbey.” Journal of American Culture 20, no. 4 (winter 1997): 79-85.
[In the following essay, Mossman identifies principal traits of the American nature writing genre and places Abbey with this tradition.]
The genre of nature writing in American literature is rich in tradition and cultural significance. It has produced such canonical figures and texts as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau's Walden, and is now, with the many environmental pressures of these last years of the twentieth century, becoming one of the most frequented avenues for literary expression by the artists of our time. Indeed, with the recent rise in the genre's popularity, galvanized by such writers as Annie Dillard and Barry Lopez, some scholars are claiming that nature writing is “arguably the major genre in American literature” (Murray 73). The rhetorical intricacies of this essay-driven, advocacy-focused genre are elaborate in the least. The work of Edward Abbey in particular, Abbey being one of the most significant of modern nature writers, demonstrates the real rhetorical and theoretical complexity embedded within the genre.
In order to locate Edward Abbey in the intellectual and philosophical tradition of nature writing, certain key concepts which exist in the...
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SOURCE: Twining, Edward S. “The Roots of Abbey's Social Critique.” In Coyote in the Maze: Tracking Edward Abbey in a World of Words, edited by Peter Quigley, pp. 19-32. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, Twining explores the deeper, often critically neglected, philosophical complexity of Abbey's works.]
As time goes on, it's becoming clearer that Edward Abbey's novels and essays have greater heft than criticism of them has so far shown itself able to acknowledge. Popular since the publication of The Brave Cowboy in 1956, Abbey became a dynamic personal presence in the public drama over ecological conflicts after Desert Solitaire, published in 1968. In short, Abbey became a prominent voice in a centrally important American political struggle, still ongoing. That is more than enough for many people. As time goes on, though, and we look deeper into what has seemed Abbey's open and easy books, the Abbey we thought we knew fits less and less well into the seemingly obvious categories we have wanted to contain him in. He keeps spilling over them, running away.
The first problem is that this easy-voiced humorous populist—this lover of the common man (and woman) who spoke so fluent and natural a colloquial American English—more and more reveals himself as a master stylist whose surfaces have gulled us into believing his mind is as...
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SOURCE: Norwick, Steve. “Nietzschean Themes in the Works of Edward Abbey.” In Coyote in the Maze: Tracking Edward Abbey in a World of Words, edited by Peter Quigley, pp. 184-205. Salt Lake City: The University of Utah Press, 1998.
[In the following essay, Norwick explores Abbey's understanding of Friedrich Nietzsche's thought in his works.]
Most readers find many of Edward Abbey's images and statements interesting but puzzling, troubling, challenging, and even nonsensical. I believe that most of these confusing, and bold, passages are Nietzschean. The influence is pervasive, evidenced by numerous quotes and several Nietzschean themes in his novels and essays. The purpose of this chapter is: (1) to shed light on the Nietzschean quality of Abbey's thought, and (2) to give a few examples of how understanding his brand of Nietzscheanism sheds light on his artistic and political motives.
There is no doubt that Abbey was familiar with Nietzsche, whom he had certainly read as a philosophy student. There are direct quotations from Nietzsche in many of Abbey's books, including ironic references to professional outdoorsmen and -women as “Ubermenchen” (1984, 170), though Abbey did not actually use the concept. Several times he repeated Nietzsche's call to be “True to the earth” (Nietzsche 1964 11:7). At the Grand Canyon, Abbey quoted Nietzsche's admonition, “Gaze not too long into...
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SOURCE: Rawlings, Donn. “Coyote in the Maze: Eighteen Critics Track Edward Abbey.” Western American Literature 33, no. 4 (winter 1999): 404-16.
[In the following essay, Rawlings surveys the essays in Coyote in the Maze, finding that the poststructuralist character of the pieces supports rather than undermines Abbey's work.]
Alone, we are close to nothing. … Through the art of language, most inevitable of arts—for what is more basic to our humanity than language?—we communicate to others what would be intolerable to bear alone.
—Edward Abbey, Abbey's Road
Peter Quigley, editor of a new collection of critical essays on Abbey, says that it “was inspired by the wholesale dismissal of Edward Abbey in the arena of ‘serious’ scholarship.” At conferences, he finds, Abbey is talked about “in corridors more so than on panels” (1). Clearly, Quigley's Coyote in the Maze: Tracking Edward Abbey in a World of Words will take a lot of flak from confirmed (corridor) Abbey readers who feel no need for critical commentary on the rugged and resonant voice that gave so many of us our most trusted legend of the Southwest, a legend full of loneliness, anger, and joy. What need of abstruse theory! (Theory, as Mark Twain would have huffed—theory that is not American, not even English, but...
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SOURCE: Burrows, Russell. “Ontology vs. Epistemology: The Philosophical Dynamic Driving Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire.” Western American Literature 35, no. 3 (fall 2000): 284-97.
[In the following essay, Burrows applies Abbey's background in philosophy to his treatise Desert Solitaire.]
Desert Solitaire (1968), Edward Abbey's most important piece of exposition, has usually been approached from perspectives that are either rhetorical/literary or more specifically ecological. But Abbey's remarkable book is seldom studied in what would seem a natural context: philosophy. The tendency has been to skip Abbey's considerable background in philosophy as an incidental to his career as a nature essayist and an econovelist.1 One of Abbey's famous personality quirks was his ambivalence for academics, and yet he had been enough of a philosophy/English major at the University of New Mexico to have won a Fulbright scholarship to Edinburgh, Scotland, and, on returning to Albuquerque, to have completed “Anarchism and the Morality of Violence” (1956) for the master's requirement (McCann 7). The premise of my essay is that Abbey made excellent use of his formal training and that he wrote Desert Solitaire by steering off the philosophical polestars of ontology and epistemology. These primary branches of philosophy manifest themselves in complementary, back-and-forth exchanges (they...
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SOURCE: Lucas, Susan M. “Counter Frictions: Writing and Activism in the Work of Abbey and Thoreau.” In Thoreau's Sense of Place: Essays in American Environmental Writing, edited by Richard J. Schneider, pp. 266-79. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000.
[In the following essay, Lucas argues that the popular images of Abbey and Henry David Thoreau distort their importance as protest writers.]
Words on a page do not accomplish anything by themselves; but words taken to heart, words carried in mind, may lead to action.
—Alison Hawthorne Deming, Richard Nelson, Scott Russell Sanders, “Letter to Orion Readers”
In American nature writing, two of the most vehement, influential voices to inspire environmental activism belong to Henry David Thoreau and Edward Abbey. Though writing a century apart and about different regions, Abbey and Thoreau openly advocate individual resistance to institutional oppression through jeremiadic rhetoric and acts of civil disobedience. Environmental groups have adopted them as ideological leaders or figureheads for their organizations and have used their words as indictments against land developers, miners, politicians, and others who would injure the environment. The images of Thoreau as hermit of Walden Pond and of Abbey as ecoranger of Arches National Monument continue to dominate their...
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Berry, Wendell. “A Few Words in Favor of Edward Abbey.” In Earthly Words: Essays on Contemporary American Nature and Environmental Writers, edited by John Cooley, pp. 19-34. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994.
Argues against prevailing critical and popular interpretations of Abbey and his work.
Levin, Jonathan. “Coordinates and Connections: Self, Language, and World in Edward Abbey and William Least Heat-Moon.” Contemporary Literature 41, no. 2 (2000): 214-51.
Explores differences in the approaches of Abbey and William Least Heat-Moon to discover “the irreducibly human, experiential perspective of any ecocentric sensitivity.”
McClintock, James I. “Edward Abbey's ‘Antidotes to Despair.’” Critique 31, no. 1 (fall 1989): 41-54.
Distances Abbey from the genre of nature writing and places him instead among writers such as Jack London and Robinson Jeffers who have a more ambiguous relationship with nature.
———. “Edward Abbey: An ‘Earthiest.’” In Nature's Kindred Spirits: Aldo Leopold, Joseph Wood Krutch, Edward Abbey, Annie Dillard, and Gary Snyder, pp. 65-87. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.
Addresses the spiritualism behind Abbey's realism.
Morris, David Copland....
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