In the West, few names elicit as much veneration or revilement as that of Edward Abbey. But those of us who weren't around during Abbey's heyday, or never got to meet him, can only turn to books.
Thirteen years after Abbey's death, two new books add depth to the story of Cactus Ed. James Cahalan's new biography, Edward Abbey: A Life, gives us the larger-than-life Abbey, the cantankerous sagebrush patriot who rolled old tires into the Grand Canyon, made the famous pistol-waving speech against public-lands ranching, and was introduced at his last public appearance (a 1989 Earth First! rally), "by a woman who later turned out to be an FBI plant."
But Cahalan also works hard to separate the threads of Abbey's life as a serious writer from those of his more politicized public persona. Cahalan tells us how Abbey cobbled together book advances and seasonal fire-lookout jobs to keep his writing afloat, and delves into the constant conflict Abbey felt between writing his fictional "fat masterpiece" (which would later become the not particularly widely read The Fool's Progress) and the essays that won him wider acclaim. "Despite his self-cultivated, Hemingway-esque image as a rough-and-ready type who lived his adventures and then simply typed them up," writes Cahalan, Abbey labored to polish his work.
For Cahalan, the relevant comparison is Hemingway, or Mark Twain. But for Abbey's longtime friend, Santa Fe ethnomusicologist and radio producer Jack Loeffler, the relevant comparison is 19th century anarchist philosopher Mikhail Bakunin. Loeffler's recently released memoir, Adventures with Ed: A Portrait of Abbey, is a more personal recollection of Abbey's life. It presents an intimate - if at times stilted - picture of Abbey, including numerous reconstructed conversations. But when Loeffler writes that Abbey was "unconsciously carving his own niche in the distinguished heritage of anarchist thinkers," the assertion rings a little hollow. The Monkey Wrench Gang may be, in the right hands, an anarchist field manual of sorts, but it's not a hardcore political treatise - nor is anything Abbey wrote.
Abbey's strengths lay elsewhere: His elegant reflections on the desert Southwest did as much to rouse a new era of environmental activism as his storm-the-ramparts fulmination against the system.
Cahalan reminds us to look for that other Abbey. "When all the shouting is done about the man himself and his various causes," he writes, "readers will return more quietly to Abbey's writings, discovering artistry and delight."
After spending six years in a cardboard box in my parents' garage, Abbey's books are back on the shelf by my bed.
Edward Abbey: A Life, by James M. Cahalan. University of Arizona Press, 2001. Hardcover: $27.95. 357 pages, 30 black-and-white photographs.
Adventures with Ed: A Portrait of Abbey, by Jack Loeffler. University of New Mexico Press, 2002. Hardcover: $24.95. 308 pages, 44 black-and-white photographs.
Matt Jenkins is assistant editor for High Country News.
Listen to a Radio High County News interview with James Cahalan online at www.hcn.org/radio/