Edward Abbey was one of the most important and most explicitly political American nature writers of the second half of the twentieth century. He, however, disliked the phrase "nature writing"; he preferred to think of himself as a novelist who wrote nonfiction pieces--which he termed "personal histories"--on the side. Few people have written with so much affection for freedom and wilderness, especially as represented by the desert Southwest, and with so much anger for the forces working against freedom and wilderness.
In a review of Desert Solitaire for the New York Times Book Review, Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Edwin Way Teale noted that Abbey's work as a park ranger brought him to the wilderness before the invasion of "the parked trailers, their windows blue tinged at night while the inmates, instead of watching the desert stars, watch TV and listen to the canned laughter of Hollywood." Calling the book "a voice crying in the wilderness, for the wilderness," Teale warned that it is also "rough, tough and combative.
The author is a rebel, an eloquent loner. In his introduction, he gives fair warning that the reader may find his pages `coarse, rude, bad-tempered, violently prejudiced.' But if they are all these, they are many things besides. His is a passionately felt, deeply poetic book. It has philosophy. It has humor. It has sincerity and conviction. It has its share of nerve tingling adventure in what he describes as a land of surprises, some of them terrible. Rather than a balanced book, judicially examining in turn all sides, it is a forceful presentation of one side. And that side needs presenting. It is a side too rarely presented. There will always be others to voice the other side, the side of pressure and power and profit."
While it never made the bestseller lists, Desert Solitaire is credited as being a key source of inspiration for the environmental movement that was growing in the late 1960s. Abbey's no-holds-barred book awakened many readers to just how much damage was being done by government and business interests to so-called "public" lands, as did the many other essay collections he published throughout his career.
But an even greater influence may have come from his 1975 novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang. Receiving virtually no promotion, it nonetheless became an underground classic, selling half a million copies. Within the comic story, which follows the misadventures of four environmentalist terrorists, is a serious message: peaceful protest is inadequate; the ecology movement must become radicalized. The ultimate goal of the Monkey Wrench Gang--blowing up the immense Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River--is one Abbey seemed to endorse, and his book provides fairly explicit instructions to anyone daring enough to carry it out. The novel is said to have inspired the formation of the real-life environmental group Earth First!, which impedes the progress of developers and loggers by sabotaging bulldozers and booby-trapping trees with chainsaw-destroying spikes. Their term for such tactics: monkeywrenching.
Abbey recognized in its tranquility and diversity of life why the Indians had taken it as their sacred place. Abbey regarded it as his sacred place, as well, and about a decade later he redressed the violation of the canyon--albeit imaginatively--by sending his cast of characters to test the possibilities of blowing up the dam.
So compelling has this fictional scenario proven that many have read The Monkey Wrench Gang less as a novel than as a terrorist's tract. The Earth Firsters as a group have fallen into the myopic, literalist fallacy of acting out the characters' antiheroic roles. As a consequence, Abbey found himself promoted to the head of a counterculture that would, given leadership, revolt from industrialized life. But Abbey was never willing to lead. When a television interviewer once pressed him to declare himself, Abbey diffidently said that he would not use the broadcast to advocate the destruction of property.
When a group of college students tried to draw him out, he replied that he would not bomb the dam, but he added, with a characteristic touch of humor, ". . . if someone else wanted to do it, I'd be there holding a flashlight." But he might not have, for Abbey--at least the serious side of him--had won a Guggenheim Fellowship on 21 March 1975. He often said that The Monkey Wrench Gang had simply been one of his novels, and shortly before he died, he attempted a final word on this problematic work, explaining that he had written out of an "indulgence of spleen and anger from a position of safety behind my typewriter. But that was a tertiary motive. Mainly I wanted to entertain and amuse." Perhaps, then, the best that could follow any such "amusement" would be this conclusion: the novel takes its readers on an intellectual and emotional adventure the real-world consequences of which none should actually want to shoulder. But the premise of the story, if gathered and focused into a political resolve, might well result in some effective and also lawful means of defending nature.
So much did The Monkey Wrench Gang establish a reputation for Abbey in what is called eco-fiction that now The Bear Essential magazine of Portland, Oregon, annually awards "The Abbey" for work in this new and popular genre
Abbey's dam-busting idea simply will not die. In recent years, however, it has taken the milder form of a referendum that calls for draining Lake Powell, not blowing up its dam. Nevertheless, this possibility of returning the Colorado once more to a free and wild river continues to come around every two or three years. Each time, the proposition stirs deep wells of hatred in the region. It has also tempted Hollywood producers, who have speculated on the potential of the original story for an action-packed movie.
Be prepare to answer these questions in class:
Which novel is said to have inspired the formation of the real-life environmental group Earth First!,
What is eco fiction?
What are things some that we can admire about Edward Abbey?
What are some things about Edward Abbey that most of us would disapprove of?