What are some reaccuring themes in Edward Abbey's works and quotations from his books to support them?

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thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Edward Abbey`s works consist of both creative non-fiction and fiction. His major interest as a writer was the western wilderness, especially the experience of being alone in the desert. His descriptions of the desert are especially beautiful and love for the western wilderness is one of his major themes. Another of his major themes is how greed is destroying the western wilderness. He debunks the myths of the independent westerners, constantly returning to the fact that ranchers and miners and loggers in the west are highly subsidized by the US federal government. He regards the damming of the Colorado and formation of Lake Powell as a major tragedy and returns to that theme frequently.

Guns don't kill people; people kill people. Of course, people with guns kill more people. But that's only natural. It's hard. But it's fair.
Abbey's Road in In Defense of the Redneck (1979), p. 168.

We're all undesirable elements from somebody's point of view.
Abbey's Road (1979)

All living things on earth are kindred.
"Serpents of Paradise", p. 22

Growth for the sake of growth is a cancerous madness.
"Water", p. 114

We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may not ever need to go there.
"The Heart of Noon", p. 116

My job is to save the fucking wilderness. I don't know anything else worth saving.
George Hayduke, Monkeywrench Gang, p. 200

prcizmadia | Student

A major element of Edward Abbey's work, from his graduate school work through his final works of fiction, is a faith in the goodness and judgment of the individual. The individual, particularly one that lives and works in close proximity to the land, as opposed to far-away bureaucrats and businessmen, will inherently be more self-sufficient, less inclined to judge and dominate others, and be a responsible member of a small community.

“If it's knowledge and wisdom you want, then seek out the company of those who do real work for an honest purpose.” 

“In the land of bleating sheep and braying jackasses, one brave and honest man is bound to create a scandal.” 

In multiple works, the struggle against the mass systems of communism and capitalism were placed in equal standing. Abbey drew significant parallels between the American capitalist system, which used the power of capital and industry to dominate workers and landscapes, particularly in the West, with the Soviet system and its well-known expansionist and aggressive stance. Both of these systems, he felt, took the individual and sublimated their needs to the greater national project of their respective country. Instead, Abbey declared his allegiance to the land and its inhabitants:

“The tragedy of modern war is that the young men die fighting each other - instead of their real enemies back home in the capitals. ” 

“My loyalties will not be bound by national borders, or confined in time by one nation's history, or limited in the spiritual dimension by one language and culture. I pledge my allegiance to the damned human race, and my everlasting love to the green hills of Earth, and my intimations of glory to the singing stars, to the very end of space and time.” 

“When the cities are gone and all the ruckus has died away. when sunflowers push up through the concrete and asphalt of the forgotten interstate freeways. when the Kremlin & the Pentagon are turned into nursing homes for generals, presidents, & other such shit heads. when the glass-aluminum sky scraper tombs of Phoenix, AZ barely show above the sand dunes. why then, by God, maybe free men & wild women on horses can roam the sagebrush canyonlands in freedom...and dance all night to the music of fiddles! banjos! steel guitars! by the light of a reborn moon!” 

If we take these disparate threads into account, in order to seek a coherent whole, we see that Abbey was someone that valued the American ethos of hard work, sacrifice and self sufficiency, so much so that he refused the effort of business to subvert these ethos in service of capital. Any kind of philosophy that dominates man was Abbey's mortal enemy. He believed that free men and women were at their best in small communities where they were reliant on themselves and their fellows. Perhaps this quote best sums up this attitude:

“If America could be, once again, a nation of self-reliant farmers, craftsmen, hunters, ranchers, and artists, then the rich would have little power to dominate others. Neither to serve nor to rule: That was the American dream.” 

Abbey's work seeks to reinforce and champion this dream, and start a conversation looking at freedom and the land from a ground-based, individual perspective, as opposed to one that centers official state power. As such, this centering of the individual may be a more effective way to support the innate American desire for freedom and self-reliance.


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