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Anarchist With an Attitude : The granddaddy of monkeywrenching wanted to be taken seriously by the literary establishment he scorned. : EPITAPH FOR A DESERT ANARCHIST: The Life and Legacy of Edward Abbey, By James Bishop Jr. (Atheneum: $22; 254 pp.)

July 17, 1994|Dave Forman | Dave Forman is the author of "Confessions of an Eco-Warrior" and "The Big Outside."

When I first looked at "Epitaph for a Desert Anarchist," I was suspicious. Who the hell is James Bishop, Jr. and what has he written about Cactus Ed, author of several books that have inspired defenders of wilderness? We Friends of Ed (FOE's) are protective and (let's admit it) clannish. I know of four old Abbey pals who are completing books about him. But I didn't know this James Bishop Jr.--who admits in his prologue that he "never knew (Abbey) personally." How could a stranger accurately write about Abbey's legacy?

Worse, he is a former reporter for Newsweek. A journalist! Abbey wrote in "Abbey's Road," "I too have been mistaken for a member of that squalid profession, journalism. . . . I am not and never will be a goddamned two-bit sycophantic journalist for Christ's sake."

Poor Bishop. Two strikes against him and I haven't even started to read his book.

So, I read it and found that "The Life and Legacy of a Desert Anarchist" is that rare book, true to its title and honest in its intent and execution. Bishop tells us that it is "neither a definitive biography nor an academic study" but is "my attempt to record the impact of (Abbey's) work on our times and on his admirers who, like him, like all of us, are struggling to exist in a shrinking natural world."

The book is also a good comeuppance to the FOE. It reminds me that a person, to know Abbey, did not have to share cigars and a jug of wine around a campfire, float a desert river together or creep around after dark in shared conspiracy. I first knew Ed Abbey 10 years before I met him. In 1971, a pretty bartender in Albuquerque lent me a well-thumbed paperback of "Desert Solitaire," a celebration of the desert and a forceful indictment of industrial tourism. I fell in love--with both the writer of the book and the bartender (different kinds of love). Bishop recounts a similar experience with "Desert Solitaire" (minus the bartender).

To get at Abbey's legacy, Bishop considers reactions from two sources--literary critics and Abbey readers. While Abbey's books were frequently praised by reviewers, Bishop concentrates on the critics. I find they fall into two camps: the Manhattan-centric literary elite who dismissed Abbey as a failed novelist or as a mere nature writer, and the Whine and PC Set who felt he embarrassed environmentalists and social justice activists.

Bishop brilliantly dismisses Abbey's literary critics as coming from "European standards." Touche, as Europeans would say.

But reading negative review after negative review, I am struck by the nastiness in so many of them. Bishop doesn't specifically analyze the reason for the venom, but he touches on one reason--many people wanted Abbey to be what they wanted him to be, and were disappointed that he wouldn't be that person. (If he had let them make him be what they wanted him to be, he really wouldn't have been what they wanted him to be!) Bishop also lets real people, people with river silt between their toes, speak about the influence Abbey had on them, how his essays and novels inspired "several generations of citizens . . . to fight against the national passion of growth for growth's sake." This, of course, is his legacy. And this--that he wasn't just someone who strung pretty words together--may be why academic snobs and the literary elite vilified him.

Funny thing, though. Abbey wanted his writing to be taken seriously as literature. Part of him chafed at being a hero and an inspiration to wilderness defenders. Bishop quotes him just before his death: "I never wanted to be anything but a writer, period. An author. A creator of fiction and essays." Rebels want to be taken seriously by that which they rebel against. So, even Ed Abbey might not fully agree with what Bishop says about his legacy, or with what I say about what Bishop says.

There are ticklish eddy lines around one of Abbey's books--"Desert Solitaire." ("Good god. Did she really read all my other books? It's not my favorite," he huffs after being told by a fan that "Desert Solitaire" was her favorite book.) Here I put myself in peril. I will forever be nervous when a turkey vulture flies overhead. I'm sorry, Ed, but "Desert Solitaire" was your best book, your most important book. It awakened me to a life of defense of the wild, it spoke to a place in my soul that I thought was so hidden that no one would ever be able to intrude there. And I am not alone. Not by a long shot.

And so we come to Abbey's message. It comes in four parts, and Bishop treats them all, even if he does not specifically identify them as four legs to a platform. Anarchism. Biocentrism. Koyaanisqatsi. Individual Action.

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