Hits and missives from Cactus Ed

  • Edward Abbey in 1978

    Postcards from Ed: Dispatches and Salvos from an American Iconoclast
  • Postcards from Ed: Dispatches and Salvos from an American Iconoclast

    edited by David Petersen, 270 pages, softcover: $24.95. Milkweed Editions, 2006
  • postcard from Ed Abbey, one of the last he wrote before his death in 1989

  • Watercolor taken from Ed Abbey's journal


Writers today: When they’re not updating their blogs or prepping for that tell-all Oprah interview, they’re indecently exposé-ing themselves in another provocative, tragicomic memoir. But there was a time when insight into the person-behind-the-pages was hard to come by, when peering into an author’s inner narrative meant waiting until some enterprising scholar published the author’s journals, private poetry, or collected correspondence.

So it was for that old semi-recluse Ed Abbey. Sure, Abbey could be an intensely personal writer. In his shoot-from-the-gut essays and one marginally autobiographical novel, he provided at least an impression of transparency. But critical readers have wondered whether there wasn’t more to Cactus Ed than the somewhat caricaturized self-portrait Abbey painted.

Since Abbey’s death in 1989, these readers have looked to David Petersen. Abbey’s friend and fellow natural historian has turned the periodic release of fresh Abbey archive material into something of a cottage industry. In 1994, he released both Earth Apples, a collection of Abbey’s unpublished poetry, and the essential Confessions of a Barbarian: Selections from the Journals of Edward Abbey. This month, Petersen completes the trifecta with Postcards from Ed: Dispatches and Salvos from an American Iconoclast, a collection of over 45 years of personal correspondence from the Western writer, conservationist, and social provocateur.

Postcards contains some thought-provoking glimpses of the gap between Abbey as he lived and Abbey as a character in his own work. For example, the book offers a straightforward look at Abbey’s complex feelings towards his critics. He frequently roasts the "literal-minded androgynes" of the "old NYC literary corral," and, addressing particularly offensive reviewers, feigns sardonic nonchalance. "I just never have been able to keep up with all the twists and turns of literary fashion," he shrugs in response to one New Republic review. But for someone indifferent to critical response, Abbey broaches the subject with suspicious regularity. In letters to his agent and fellow writers, he’s not above whining. "Why can’t I be reviewed by my peers sometime?" he writes. "Did I go to the wrong school? Live in the wrong town?" One gets the sense of a proud and slightly conflicted man, more concerned about how he’s received than he’s prone to letting on.

Elsewhere, Postcards reveals an author torn between his natural inclination to write and a social conscience prodding him toward activism. Abbey frequently considers whether his efforts might be better spent alongside the generation of activists he helped to inspire. "I despise the role of guru, or leader, or remote philosopher," reads one letter, "earning easy money writing the right thing while the ‘troops’ … actually stand before the bulldozers. …" Similar passages from later correspondence suggest the regret of a man who wishes he’d spent less time on the sidelines and more on the field.

These insights, however, are atypical in what is essentially a rehash of previously published ideas. Postcards covers little topical ground that Abbey hasn’t explored elsewhere in greater depth, and like any good philosopher or humorist, he has a tendency to recycle his best lines. While it’s telling to find Abbey’s casual correspondence so reflective of his literary output, regular readers should expect frequent déjà vu.

Postcards suffers most, not from what it contains, but from what’s been left out. At a relatively slim 270 pages — compared to the smaller-print, 350-page paperback edition of Confessions of a Barbarian — the anthology lacks several components that might have conferred greater depth. Petersen limits his editorial comments to a few short lines preceding each chapter — a tactic that worked in Confessions, but here leaves readers guessing at Abbey’s relationship with his correspondents, suspicious that this word or that phrase might possess hidden significance.

The grossest omission, however, is of Abbey’s letters to his many wives and lovers. For this, Petersen offers a brief apology, noting in the introduction that many were "chary to share their own private Ed." This is understandable, but after all, it’s precisely the private Ed that one expects from a volume like Postcards. Instead, these letters are something of a tease, suggesting fissures in Abbey’s public persona, but failing to plumb their depths.

Nonetheless, Postcards is an entertaining read, a dose of Abbey at his most eloquent and acerbic. Plentiful letters-to-the-editor read like miniaturized versions of Abbey’s best essays. In editorial-page screeds and notes to friends and colleagues, Abbey discusses conservation, solitude, immigration, technology and literature with the blossoming prose and thistles of black humor for which he’s known. The volume wouldn’t make a half-bad intro for those just discovering the Abbey canon.

Brian Kevin is a freelance writer and a graduate student at the University of Montana.

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