What can we still learn from Edward Abbey, 25 years after his death?

A trio of new books take a look at Abbey’s mixed legacy on environment, gender and immigration.

 

It’s hard to believe that more than 25 years have passed since Western writer and fierce conservationist Edward Abbey died on March 14, 1989.  Several recent books take a clear look at his legacy, and though all three emphasize the continued relevance of Abbey’s environmental ideas, none of them shy away from acknowledging his difficult views on other topics, particularly women and minorities.

All the Wild that Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West, by essayist David Gessner, is an effective combination of travelogue, biography and memoir.  The author examines the work of these two influential writers in an attempt to imagine what they might have to say to Westerners today, when fracking, fire and climate change increasingly pose risks to the landscapes they loved.  Gessner drives from his own home in North Carolina to places that were formative to both authors’ lives – from Home, Pennsylvania, where Abbey was raised, and Arches National Park, where he worked a season as a ranger, to Stegner’s childhood home in Canada and his father’s grave in Utah.  Gessner concludes that Stegner’s realism and concern for sharing resources are even more important today, while Abbey’s influence continues to endure: “Because Abbey is no longer just a writer whose books you read; he is a literary cult figure who has followers.”  Abbey’s monkey-wrenching philosophy still inspires environmental activists, and Gessner suggests that if the author were alive today, he’d likely be in jail for ecoterrorism.    

Sean Prentiss’ debut, Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and his hidden Desert Grave, is the most personal of the three books. Although all of them seek to decipher the man and the icon, Prentiss’ memoir looks to Abbey’s life and writings for posthumous advice, not just on how to save the environment, but on how to find a life that is wild and meaningful.  Prentiss begins the book in a personal slump, stuck in a town and a job that don’t suit him, and he spends the next two years visiting locations where Abbey lived, from Hoboken, New Jersey, to Moab, Utah. Prentiss doesn’t shield us from Abbey’s controversial opinions on immigration, but contends that Abbey was chiefly concerned with population growth and today might take a more global perspective on the issue.  Like Gessner, he interviews several of Abbey’s friends, including Doug Peacock, the inspiration for George Washington Hayduke, and Ken Sleight, the model for the character Seldom Seen Smith. He questions them as to whether Abbey was an alcoholic.  They say no, but the doctors Prentiss interviews conclude that the writer’s drinking likely hastened his death, given his symptoms. The book culminates with Prentiss’ quest to find Abbey’s hidden desert grave, and his success provides one of the book’s most poignant passages.  When they find it, the friend who accompanies him says, “This is the grave of someone’s Daddy.  It’s almost too powerful to bear. …”  Prentiss depicts an author and personality of “conflicting absolutes” and ultimately decides that Abbey would urge him to move back to the mountains, to a place that feels like home.    

Abbey in America: A Philosopher’s Legacy in a New Century, an anthology of pieces by a variety of essayists, conservationists and friends, also considers Abbey’s writing and life and the way his ideas intersect with contemporary issues like terrorism and immigration. John A. Murray’s recollection of storytelling with Hunter S. Thompson in a bar in Aspen and Charles Bowden’s essay on immigration are perhaps the most vivid essays, but many of them reveal Abbey’s most intimate moments by letting us in on the details of his death and burial or showing us aspects of the man not disclosed in his writing.  In “Abbey’s Secret,” the author talks to Mark Klett, the photographer who accompanied Abbey on an assignment for Condé Nast Traveler. Klett reveals an Abbey who was more reserved than his authorial persona would indicate: “In Grand Gulch, Klett got to know this more moderate, three-dimensional man behind the brash rhetoric and the Cactus Ed caricature.” 

In an age where climate change is growing ever more severe while corporate interests gain increasing power, Abbey’s activist spirit and his vision of a land untouched by development remain vital. These books prove that, for all the writer’s human flaws, his legacy will endure.

All the Wild that Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West
David Gessner
368 pages, softcover: $16.95.
W.W. Norton and Company 2016.

Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave
Sean Prentiss
240 pages, softcover: $21.95.
University of New Mexico Press, 2015.

Abbey in America: A Philosopher’s Legacy in a New Century
John A. Murray, editor
232 pages, hardcover: $39.95.
University of New Mexico Press, 2015.

High Country News Classifieds
  • SEASONAL SAN JUAN RANGERS
    Seeking experienced crew members to patrol Colorado's most iconic mountain wilderness.
  • ENDANGERED SPECIES STAFF SCIENTIST
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a staff scientist to advocate for the conservation of endangered species. General position overview: The position will involve working...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY - ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH PROGRAM
    The Center for Biological Diversity - a national nonprofit organization dedicated to the protection of imperiled plants, animals and wild places - seeks a dynamic...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a Staff Attorney to join our team of attorneys, scientists, campaigners who are working to protect America's public lands...
  • SOUTHWEST CONSERVATION ADVOCATE
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a Southwest Conservation Advocate to join our team of attorneys, scientists and campaigners who are working to protect America's...
  • OCEANS PROGRAM CAMPAIGNER
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks an experienced campaigner for its oceans program. The aim of the position is to campaign for the protection of...
  • CLIMATE LAW INSTITUTE ATTORNEY
    The Center for Biological Diversity's Climate Law Institute is looking to add an attorney to its team and will consider applicants at both staff attorney...
  • FULL-TIME CAMPAIGN DIRECTOR
    The Center for Biological Diversity seeks a full-time Campaign Director in our Climate Law Institute to join our campaign for progressive, urgent government action to...
  • WESTERN WATER PROJECT MANAGER
    National Wildlife Federation is hiring NM-based position focused on riparian corridors, watershed health. Learn more and apply online: https://www.nwf.org/about-us/careers
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Associate Program Director Location: New Mexico; flexible in state Position reports to: Senior Program Director Position Closes: March 13, 2020 GENERAL DESCRIPTION: The...
  • DEAN, W. A. FRANKE COLLEGE OF FORESTRY AND CONSERVATION, UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA
    Dean, W. A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, apply http://bit.ly/2548umjobs. AA/EEO/ADA/Veterans Preference Employer
  • GRAPHIC DESIGNER
    Western Resource Advocates (WRA) seeks a creative and driven graphic design professional to design high quality print and digital collateral. The Graphic Designer will bring...
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • CAMPAIGN REPRESENTATIVE
    Sierra Club's Beyond Dirty Fuels Campaign is hiring an experienced campaigner to lead our work challenging the oil and fracked gas industry on the Gulf...
  • AG LANDS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Oregon Agricultural Trust (OAT) seeks passionate relationship builder experienced in coordinating agricultural conservation easement transactions.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • FINANCE DIRECTOR
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Coms/Engagmnt Mngr; Dev/Engagmnt Dir; Americorps vol
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND ENGAGEMENT MANAGER
    Mountain Studies Inst (MSI) is hiring 4+ positions: Finance Director; Dev/Engagement Dir; Coms/Engagement Mngr; & Americorps volunteer
  • SEASONAL TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    Lead the nation's premier volunteer-based trail crew programs on the spectacular Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. This is a great career-building opportunity for rising professionals....
  • ORGANIZING AND TRAINING COORDINATOR
    Is this your dream job? Are you looking to join a nationally recognized organizing network, live in a spectacular part of the West, and work...