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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

Twenty-five years after its initial publication, some 700,000 paperback copies of "The Monkey Wrench Gang" have been sold, even though Abbey made The New Yorker and Paris Review crowds uncomfortable. He called the revered Tom Wolfe a "faggoty fascist fop" and the sainted John Updike a boring armchair purveyor of "suburban soap operas," yet his die-hard fans included such well-known writers as Joan Didion, Wendell Berry, Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, Dillard, Hunter S. Thompson, McMurtry and Thomas McGuane. The late Wallace Stegner, in fact, proclaimed that Abbey presented the "stinger of a scorpion" and was the "most effective publicist of the West's curious desire to rape itself since Bernard DeVoto."

The American Southwest has produced other fine writers--Mary Austin, Oliver LaFarge and Barbara Kingsolver come to mind--but none has piqued readers' imaginations to the same extent as Edward Abbey. And in his 20th and last book--"Hayduke Lives!," a posthumous sequel to "The Monkey Wrench Gang"--Abbey has the last word: "Anyone who takes this book seriously will be shot. Anyone who does not take it seriously will be buried alive by a Mitsubishi bulldozer."

In "Epitaph for a Desert Anarchist: The Life and Legacy of Edward Abbey," journalist James Bishop Jr. recounts a letter that William Butler Yeats wrote to Oscar Wilde stating that he "envied those men who become mythological while still living." "The Monkey Wrench Gang" transformed Abbey from exquisite chronicler of Utah's Canyonlands to full-fledged folk figure, the literary equivalent of a "green" Jesse James. Even in death, mystery surrounded Abbey, and in radical environmental circles, many believe he is still alive. Scrawled on bathroom walls and campground bulletin boards throughout the West, the phrase "Abbey Lives!" abounds.

I predict that in the coming years the legends of Edward Abbey and "The Monkey Wrench Gang" will grow in popularity as the environmental movement swells in numbers, Detroit auto makers launch a "clean revolution" by phasing out the internal combustion engine in favor of hydrogen fuel cells, and the U.S. government tears down dams like Glen Canyon that should never have been built. Like Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," Abbey's notorious novel will be savored because of its proactive defense of nature in an era of dangerous hyper-industrialism.

To Abbey, "The Monkey Wrench Gang," however, was more in line with Tom Paine's "Common Sense." It was written to be read in sawdust taverns and isolated cabins, hiking trails and humming factories. Abbey never cared whether it was deemed a work of art by the New York Times or Alfred Kazin; it was made to jar the soul, and even his most severe critics must grant that, at least in that regard, "The Monkey Wrench Gang" was a whopping success.

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