Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

When Desert Solitaire first appeared in 1968, Edward Abbey was an established novelist. His second novel, The Brave Cowboy: An Old Tale in a New Time (1956), had been translated by Dalton Trumbo into a successful film, Lonely Are the Brave, in 1962, starring Kirk Douglas as Abbey’s anachronistic hero, Jack Burns. Burns, who loves the land and the freedom of his life as an itinerant sheepherder, finds that he is a man out of step with his time. The encroachment of the city upon the surrounding countryside, aided by technological progress, becomes a metaphor for the destruction of a way of life characterized by personal freedom, physical labor, and respect for the land. Abbey picks up these themes again in Fire on the Mountain (1962), in which John Vogelin battles the United States government to preserve his ranch, which has been earmarked for use as a missile test site.

There is an urgency in Fire on the Mountain that is not present in The Brave Cowboy. The evils of technology masquerading in the guise of civilization have become better organized and gained momentum; time is running out. Thus, Abbey feels compelled to address the reader directly, to convey his love of the land and his anger at its destruction. Desert Solitaire is at once a paean to the wondrous beauty of the land, an elegy for its death at the hands of what Abbey labels “Industrial Tourism,” and an angry indictment of those who would exploit it for pleasure or profit.

Such shifts in subject and mood make for radical shifts in style. Abbey’s prose moves from the lofty to the vulgar, from the reasoned argument to the vitriolic attack, with deliberate disregard for stylistic consistency. Thus, assigning...

(The entire section is 721 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Hepworth, James, and Gregory McNamee, eds. Resist Much, Obey Little: Some Notes on Edward Abbey, 1985.

Lyon, Thomas J. “The Nature Essay in the West,” in A Literary History of the American West, 1987. Edited by Max Westbrook et al.

McCann, Garth. Edward Abbey, 1977.

Ronald, Ann. The New West of Edward Abbey, 1982.

Standiford, Les. “Desert Places: An Exchange with Edward Abbey,” in Western Review. III (Winter, 1966), pp. 58-62.