Edward Abbey’s work provokes an intensity of response that is unusual for a writer of the American West. He is best known for his iconoclastic attacks on the forces of twentieth century society that encroached on the remaining wilderness areas in the United States, in particular the deserts of the Southwest. His condemnation of the U.S. government’s support of greedy developers, mindless strip mining, and “industrial tourism” was vitriolic and impassioned. To his adherents, he was the voice of truth; to his detractors, he was a troublesome crank. The writer who stood at the center of the controversy was someone at once intensely private and painfully self-revelatory.
Abbey was born and educated in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania, where he graduated from high school in 1945. It was during the summer of 1944, while hitchhiking through the western United States, that Abbey became entranced with the desert country of the Southwest. He returned to the East and was drafted into the Army soon after completing high school. The years following his discharge found him caught between his roots in the East and his growing love for the open spaces of the West. It was during this period that Abbey began writing fiction. In his novel Jonathan Troy, published in 1954, the title character feels drawn away from the world he inhabits in the East; like Abbey, he finds that freedom of spirit is attainable only in untrammeled landscapes of the West.
After completing his B.A. at the University of New Mexico in 1951, Abbey spent two years as a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. Returning to the United States in 1953, he made a short-lived attempt to live as a graduate student of philosophy at Yale University. Within a few weeks, he returned to the University of New Mexico. In 1956, Abbey produced two works that delineate the central thematic concerns of his thinking: his Ph.D. thesis on anarchism and the morality of violence and the novel The Brave Cowboy, in which the anachronistic hero is pitted against the forces of bureaucratic brutality.
Jack Burns, the protagonist of The Brave Cowboy, loves the land of the Southwest and the freedom of his life as...
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