Monday, July 03, 2006
Click to hear an interview with Edward Abbey, from wiredforbooks.com
A Voice in the Wilderness (1993), a video biography of Abbey, is available from the producer, Canyon Productions Biography
Abbey was born in the town of Indiana, Pennsylvania and grew up in nearby Home, Pennsylvania. In the summer of 1944 he headed west, and fell in love with the desert country of the Four Corners region. He wrote, "For the first time, I felt I was getting close to the West of my deepest imaginings, the place where the tangible and the mythical became the same." He received a Master's Degree in philosophy from the University of New Mexico and also studied at the University of Edinburgh. In the late 1950s Abbey worked as a seasonal ranger for the United States Park Service at Arches National Monument (now a national park), near the town of Moab, Utah, which was not then known for extreme sports but for its desolation and uranium mines. It was there that he penned the journals that would become one of his most famous works, 1968's Desert Solitaire, which Abbey described "...not [as] a travel guide, but a eulogy."
Desert Solitaire is regarded by many as one of the finest nature narratives in American literature. In it, Abbey vividly describes the physical landscapes of Southern Utah and delights in his isolation as a backcountry park ranger, recounting adventures in the nearby canyon country and mountains. He also attacks what he terms the "industrial tourism" and resulting development in the national parks ("national parking lots"), rails against the Glen Canyon Dam, and comments on various other subjects.
Abbey died in 1989 at the age of 62 at his home near Oracle, Arizona. A group of Abbey's friends, including writer Jack Loeffler relocated his body to an undisclosed location in the desert, in order to satisfy his desire to have his body fertilize a "cactus, a cliffrose, a sagebrush or a tree."
Abbey's abrasiveness, opposition to anthropocentrism (sometimes mischaracterized as misanthropy), and outspoken writings made him the object of much controversy. Conventional environmentalists from mainstream groups disliked his more radical "Keep America Beautiful...Burn a Billboard" style. Based on his writings and statements (and apparently in a few cases, actions), many believe that Abbey did advocate ecotage. The controversy intensified with the publication of Abbey's most famous work of fiction, The Monkey Wrench Gang. The novel centers on a small group of eco-warriors who travel the American West attempting to put the brakes on uncontrolled human expansion by committing acts of sabotage against industrial development projects. Abbey claimed the novel was written merely to "entertain and amuse," and was intended as symbolic satire. Others saw it as a how-to guide to non-violent ecotage--the main characters do not attack people. The novel inspired environmentalists frustrated with conventional methods of activism. Earth First! was formed as a result in 1981, advocating eco-sabotage or "monkeywrenching." Although Abbey never officially joined the group he became associated with many of its members, and occasionally wrote for the organization.
Sometimes called the "desert anarchist," Abbey was known to anger people of all political stripes (as well as environmentalists). In his essays the narrator describes throwing beer cans out of his car, claiming the highway had already littered the landscape. Abbey has been criticized by some for his comments on immigration and women. He differed from the stereotype of the 'environmentalist as politically-correct leftist', by disclaiming the counterculture and the "trendy campus people" and saying he didn't want them as his primary fans, and by supporting some conservative causes such as immigration reduction and the National Rifle Association. He devoted one chapter in his book Hayduke Lives to poking fun at left-green leader Murray Bookchin. However, he reserves his harshest criticism for what he calls the military-industrial complex, "welfare ranchers," energy companies, land developers and "Chambers of Commerce," all of which he believed were destroying the West's great landscapes. Abbey refused to be ideologically pigeon-holed by the left or the right; above all he was a staunch advocate for wilderness preservation and ecological protection. Abbey thrived on controversy and his popularity has proven to span generations.