Edward Abbey Abbey, Edward - Essay


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 from a Secret Journal, 1990

Confessions of a Barbarian: Selections from the Journals of Edward Abbey, 1951-1989 [edited by David Petersen] (journal) 1994

Earth Apples = (Pommes des terre): The Poetry of Edward Abbey [edited by Petersen] (poetry) 1994

The Serpents of Paradise: A Reader [edited by John Macrae] (fiction and nonfiction) 1995

Paul T. Bryant (essay date spring 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 with the public image of a bold iconoclast” (65). Indeed, in an interview with James Hepworth, Abbey himself confirmed this view: “Oh, I'm dimly aware of some sort of mythical Edward Abbey, but I don't take him seriously, don't attempt to live up to it. … The real Edward Abbey—whoever the hell that is—is a real shy, timid fellow, but the character I create in my journalism is perhaps a person I would like to be: bold, brash, daring. I created this character, and I gave him my name. I guess some people mistake the creation of the author, but that's their problem” (42).

My thesis here is that such a personality, and such a vision, lie at the bottom of the aggregate of Edward Abbey's writing. This idea is hardly new, of course. Other critics, such as Garth McCann, Ann Ronald, and Jerry Herndon, have found a balanced, eminently rational environmental moderate in Abbey's non-fiction nature writing, despite his more extreme statements,1 and despite popular emphasis on some of his more extreme fictional characters. I would like to demonstrate the soundness of that thesis, and to explore the complex ways this moderation beneath the surface of extremism has been stated outright in Abbey's non-fiction and has evolved as a definitive counterpoint to the more colorful extremism in his fiction.

Abbey's readers have long recognized his habit of using similar names for similar characters from one work of fiction to another, such as Vogelin as Jack Burns's grandfather's name and as the name of the embattled rancher in Fire on the Mountain, and Desalius for the military man in both of those novels. And of course there is the return of Jack Burns in Good News, with the suggestion that the “lone ranger” in The Monkey Wrench Gang was Burns. Abbey has said that this repetition of names “began as chance but became a design following the evolutionary principle” (Balian 60).

This continuity and development from work to work extends not only to characters but also to themes and relationships. Through such continuity, Abbey's works as a group present a pattern of meaning, a “figure in the carpet,” that supports the image of moderation at levels deeper than the direct statement found in the non-fiction.

First, however, let us consider the direct statements, particularly in his non-fiction nature writing. His position is clearly stated in Desert Solitaire. Early in that book Abbey observes not, as readers of his fiction might expect, that wilderness is the desirable alternative to civilization, but rather that “wilderness is a necessary part of civilization.” No Luddite, he can make use of the genuine benefits of civilization. The refrigerator, for example, is a useful machine for producing ice for his drinks: “Once the drink is mixed, however, I always go outside, out in the light and the air and the space and the breeze, to enjoy it. Making the best of both worlds, that's the thing” (Desert Solitaire 110).2 Despite his often stated enjoyment of solitude, Abbey in Desert Solitaire also denies that he is misanthropic. The one thing better than solitude, he says, is society, not of crowds but of friends (111). What he objects to, he insists, is what he calls anthropocentricity, not science, but science and technology misapplied (274). “Balance,” he concludes, “that's the secret. Moderate extremism. The best of both worlds …” (298).

The same theme arises in The Journey Home. There Abbey denies that technology and industry are inherently evil, but insists that they must be kept under control, “to prevent them from ever again becoming the self-perpetuating, ever-expanding monsters we have allowed them to become” (46-47). “Optimum industrialism, neither too much nor too little,” a moderate level of technology, is what he urges (47).

Consistent with this Hellenic moderation is Abbey's praise of objective realism and rationality. Again in The Journey Home he says that the poet of our age must begin with the scientific view of the world. There is, he says, “more charm in one ‘mere’ fact, confirmed by test and observation, linked to other facts through coherent theory into a rational system, than in a whole brainful of fancy and fantasy” (87). In short, Abbey does not display the romanticism or the sentimentality so often associated with extreme environmentalism. His vision is that of the moderate realist. As he says in Abbey's Road, he wishes “to stand apart, alone if need be, and hold up the ragged flag of reason. Reason with a capital R—sweet Reason, the newest and rarest thing in human life, the most delicate child of human history” (127).

Thus the Abbey of his non-fiction takes moderate views, yet the colorful extremists of his fiction continue to attract the attention and usually the sympathy of Abbey's readers. Are they the true representative of Abbey's environmentalism? Once his imagination has left the realistic constraints of non-fiction, does it give us Abbey's deepest beliefs? And do these creations of Abbey's imagination contradict or somehow give the lie to his more restrained and rational essays? No, they do not. Examined with care, and as part of the larger pattern of Abbey's work, these characters fit his vision of realistic rationality, not contradicting it but only keeping it open-ended and still available to the...

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Paul T. Bryant (essay date February 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Don Scheese (essay date spring 1991)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Paul T. Bryant (essay date spring 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jack Loeffler (essay date spring 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Scott Slovic (essay date spring-summer 1993)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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John R. Knott (essay date winter 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Knott, John R. “Edward Abbey and the Romance of Wilderness.1Western 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”...

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Fred Metting (essay date spring 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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James M. Cahalan (essay date fall 1996)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Mark Mossman (essay date winter 1997)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Edward S. Twining (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Steve Norwick (essay date 1998)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Donn Rawlings (essay date winter 1999)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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


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Russell Burrows (essay date fall 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Susan M. Lucas (essay date 2000)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 328 words.)