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11 Jul 2016

Western Lit: Three New Books Look at Edward Abbey's Mixed Legacy on Environment, Gender and Immigration

Written by  Andrea Clark Mason

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, Penn., 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, N.J., 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 when 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.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

All the Wild that Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West

By David Gessner

W.W. Norton and Company

368 pages, $16.95

Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave

By Sean Prentiss

University of New Mexico

240 pages, $21.95

Abbey in America: A Philosopher’s Legacy in a New Century

Edited by John A. Murray

University of New Mexico

232 pages, $39.95

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