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Edward Abbey: Critic and Crusader

January 23, 2000|DOUGLAS BRINKLEY | Douglas Brinkley is director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies and professor of history at the University of New Orleans. His essay will be the introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of "The Monkey Wrench Gang" to be published by HarperPerennial this spring

The glories of the American West captivated the young Abbey. He stopped transfixed before the salmon-pink range lands of Navajo Country spreading out in front of him at sundown from various vistas: primordial sandstone cliffs, slickrock canyons, creosote bushes, hungry javelinas, Hopi arroyos, dusty cantinas, ash-throated flycatchers, turkey buzzards, loping coyotes, worn-edged arrowheads and all the wonders of the surreal region others mistook for barren. To Abbey, the Sonoran Desert and Death Valley were equally gorgeous dream lands where an unrelenting vermilion sun bleached the bones of dead cattle to a blinding white.

"There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount," Abbey would write later, "a perfect ratio of water to rock, of water to sand, ensuring that wide, free, open, generous spacing among plants and animals, homes and towns and cities, which makes the arid West so different from any other part of the nation. There is no lack of water here, unless you try to establish a city where no city should be." In this forsaken, naked paradise, Abbey felt at peace. When he saw the great Colorado River tracing its ancient path near Needles, Calif., bringing its life-sustaining waters to the driest desert, Abbey 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."

Shortly thereafter, the wanderer of the canyons was drafted into the U.S. Army; he spent the last year of World War II serving in Italy. Upon returning home, he headed straight for the Land of Enchantment, to the University of New Mexico, where he earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy in 1951 and a master's in 1956, the latter on a thesis titled "Anarchy and Morality of Violence," in which he concluded that anarchism wasn't really about military might, as the Bolshevik Revolution had been, but about opposition to, as Leo Tolstoy had put it, "the organized violence of the state."

A self-styled flute-playing bum wandering his way through coffeehouses and university circles, Abbey was winked at as Albuquerque's version of the ancient Greek cynic Diogenes, who allegedly abandoned all his possessions to live in a barrel and beg for his keep. Along the same lines, Abbey took to passionately denouncing the spoilers of the West: greedy developers, cattle ranchers, strip-mining outfits and the federal Bureau of Land Management. In response, the FBI began monitoring Abbey for possible communist activities and continued its surveillance of him for the next 37 years, eventually concluding that he was just a particularly stubborn and individualistic pacifist.

In 1954, Abbey published his first novel, "Jonathan Troy," the story of a 19-year-old anarchist who alienates everyone he encounters while building the narrative theme that machines were ruining America. Over the next 10 years Abbey published six more books, including "The Brave Cowboy" (1956)--the tale of a barbed-wire-cutting maverick engaged in his own war with the U.S. government's livestock grazing policy, which was made into the 1962 Kirk Douglas movie "Lonely Are the Brave"--and "Desert Solitaire" (1968), a first-person meditation based on the two seasons Abbey spent as a ranger at Utah's Arches National Monument that the New York Times called "a passionately felt, deeply poetic book." Abbey, in fact, wrote these volumes while working on and off for the U.S. Forest Service and Park Service over nearly two decades. "For most of these years," he recalled, "I was living right around the official poverty line--I pounded in survey stakes before I ever got the notion to pull them out."

Like Cervantes' Don Quixote tilting at windmills, Abbey became notorious in the American Southwest for ransacking construction sites, denouncing ranchers as "welfare parasites" and shocking Easterners with his harsh conservationist prose. Unlike more conventional advocates of the burgeoning environmental movement of the early 1970s, however, the mischievous Abbey also flaunted his wildly contradictory impulses, such as roaring through the streets of Tucson in a vintage red Cadillac convertible with a plastic geranium stuck in the hood ornament and the radio blaring Mozart, Brahms or Waylon Jennings. As a professional nose tweaker, Abbey has a reason for his anti-growth prose and outlaw posture: to rage against the machine, to become the most ferocious defender of the American West since John Muir.

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