Edward Abbey Biography


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Edward Abbey was at once intensely private and self-revelatory. The facts of his intellectual and professional life are accessible; those of his private life remain mostly unknown. He was born and educated in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania. In the summer of 1944, registration for the World War II draft loomed large on the horizon for American males about to turn eighteen, so the seventeen-year-old Abbey opted for a trip by thumb across the United States before graduating from high school and being swallowed up by the draft. He hitchhiked from Pennsylvania to Seattle, passing through Chicago and Yellowstone National Park. From Seattle, he traveled south through California as far as Bakersfield, then journeyed home by way of Barstow, California; Flagstaff, Arizona; and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

He recounts this rite of passage into adulthood in “Hallelujah on the Bum” (1977), an essay filled with the warmth, wonder, and enthusiasm of youthful adventure. The vision of this Western land and its people marked Abbey in an inescapable way. Of his first sight of the Rocky Mountains, he wrote:On to Wyoming, where near Greybull I saw for the first time something I had dreamed of seeing for ten years. There on the western horizon, under a hot clear sky, sixty miles away, crowned with snow (in July), was a magical vision, a legend come true: the front range of the Rocky Mountains. An impossible beauty, like a boy’s first sight of an un-dressed girl, the image of those mountains struck a fundamental chord in my imagination that has sounded ever since.

Perhaps nothing that Abbey has written so perfectly captures the intensity and passion of his love for the landscapes of the West. Thus, it is not surprising that the focus of his life and work has been on the preservation of this vision.

Soon after completing high school, Abbey was drafted into the Army. The years following his discharge found him yearning to return to the open spaces of the West. During this period he began to write, publishing his first novel, Jonathan Troy, in 1954. Like Abbey, the title character is caught between two worlds, the confining one of the East which he inhabits and the vision of the West, where personal freedom is only attainable in the open spaces of an untrammeled landscape.

Troy’s escape to the West reflects Abbey’s own break with his roots upon moving to New Mexico, where he attended the state university, completing his B.A. in 1951. Abbey then won a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Edinburgh to study philosophy. Upon returning to the United States, he made an unsuccessful attempt to undertake graduate studies at Yale University. Abbey, feeling that he was not meant to live and work in the East, returned to the University of New Mexico to pursue his M.A.

In 1956, he published his master’s thesis, titled “Anarchism and the Morality of Violence,” and his second novel,...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The most frequent criticisms of Desert Solitaire are that it is contradictory, inconsistent, excessive, and angry—charges that are largely true. Such criticism, however, misses the point on two scores. Abbey’s work reflects the complexities of the human condition, which is filled with contradiction, inconsistency, folly, and anger more often than not. Moreover, such criticism fails to see that Abbey’s work is deliberately provocative. If he resorts to invective, he provokes response. When he reviles human behavior, it is to save humanity from itself. In the posthumously published volume A Voice Crying in the Wilderness, Abbey writes that “love implies anger. The man who is angered by nothing cares about nothing.”


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Edward Abbey is one of the most outspoken nature writers and defenders of the West. His writing, whether fiction, nonfiction, or essays, is angry, blunt, and without apologies. He is not afraid to criticize those whom he feels have damaged or destroyed the country he loves, and in his writing he attacks organizations, such as the government and big business, and individuals, including lazy, thoughtless tourists and greedy landowners. This attitude has earned him critics and followers. Many environmentalists, in fact, consider Abbey a hero, a spiritual adviser who is not afraid to say what needs to be said.

A transplanted Easterner, Abbey lived in the West from age twenty-one until his death. He received two degrees from the University of New Mexico and worked fifteen years in western national parks. His profession was writing; his subject matter was almost always the Western United States.

One of Abbey’s political messages is defined in his popular novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. In this book an unruly gang consisting of three men and one woman destroy man-made structures that they feel are ruining the West. At the book’s end they blow up a bridge spanning the Colorado River. The point of the book is that violence and destruction are warranted if they stop harmful development. Abbey’s nonfiction, especially Desert Solitaire and Abbey’s Road, places Abbey in the American literary tradition of nature writing, a tradition begun by Henry David Thoreau. In his essays and longer works of nonfiction, Abbey’s political anger is often muted and replaced with quick, impressionistic descriptions of the natural world molded from figurative language and literary allusion. This technique makes the natural places about which Abbey writes come alive in his writing and reveals his love for a world that he thought was worth defending.