Three years before the publication of Edward Abbey’s masterpiece Desert Solitaire, Bob Dylan was already the iconic controversial figure that his literary cousin would eventually become. Barely in his mid-20s, Dylan was, in just a few short years, a household name around the world. In America, devoted fans and critics alike clung to every word he uttered. Every gesture was sure to have meaning. They called him brilliant, a voice for his generation, a prophet. The man born Robert Zimmerman found it all bewildering.
At a press conference in Los Angeles in 1965, Dylan faced the press. One young reporter asked about the meaning of the T-shirt he wore for an album cover. Dylan said he couldn’t recall what shirt he was referring to. Another asked if he considered himself to be predominantly a composer or a performer. Dylan said he was “a song and dance man.”
Finally, a stiff middle-aged reporter with a mellifluous voice and a need to know asked about his role as a “protest singer.” He put it like this:
“How many people who labor in the same musical vineyard that you toil in are protest singers? That is, people who use their music and songs to protest the social state in which we live today, be it crime or war or whatever it might be.”
Dylan stared blankly at the reporter and seemed to give the matter some thought. “How many?…I think there are about 136.”
Just a trace of a smirk crossed his face. The reporter sought a better answer.
“Do you mean about 136? Or exactly 136?
“I think it’s either 136 or 142.”
Reporters muttered and talked amongst themselves. A few got it. Many were still seeking further clarification. Dylan smiled his cryptic smile.
Years later, at a book signing, a fan approached Ed Abbey with her copy of Fool’s Progress. As the author scribbled his name across the title page, the woman exclaimed, “You know Mr. Abbey, I’m a novelist too!”
“Really,” Ed smiled (or was it a grimace?)
“Yes,” she boasted excitedly, “and I’ve been wanting to ask you a question. How many pages should a novel be?”
Ed stared at the woman a moment, his famous brow furrowed into a serious frown and he said without a hint of humor, “It should be 306 pages.”
The woman sighed in relief. “Thank God then…I’m almost done.”
This adoration and even deification of the Chosen Few is not a recent phenomenon and those rare recipients of the golden crown have, over the years and centuries, handled their celebrity and fame (or infamy) in a variety of ways and with erratic degrees of success. Some have wallowed in the Glory—it killed Truman Capote. Others like J.D Salinger fled–vanished from the public scene altogether, and still more, like Dylan and Abbey accepted their notoriety with reluctance and amused tolerance.
Ed Abbey would come to know exactly how Dylan felt. His legions of devotees have been as intensely and unshakably loyal as any rock idol could hope for. I should know; I’ve been one of them—by degrees— for 35 years, though over the years, my respect for Abbey came to be centered on his humanity, flaws and all, not on an edited or distilled or politically corrected version.
Posthumously his reputation as the ultimate provocateur continued to grow. At his memorial service near Arches National Park in 1989, Earth First! Founder Dave Foreman called Abbey “the mudhead kachina of the environmental movement and of social change…the trickster farting in polite company.” True enough.
But has Abbey’s myth, almost a quarter century after his passing, become something distorted and disconnected from the real man and the life he lived? Have we selectively picked and chosen and subsequently disregarded his own words when they failed to reveal what we wanted him to be? Part of the confusion may have been his ability to willingly and unflinchingly, and even with great humor, contradict himself. It gave us the option of choosing which Abbey we preferred. Complexities and contradictions can be found in almost any point of view and Abbey often offered both sides, though he didn’t always acknowledge the dichotomy. But more often, it was his readers who, instead of weighing the conflicting points of view, preferred to edit and even sanitize their favorite author. Who IS the real Ed Abbey? It depends on who you ask.
From the beginning, Abbey loved the art of provocation. He wasn’t just a trickster–he was a quipster. It was his passion, his entertainment, and his escape. At a time when straightforward, unvarnished–and especially earthy—opinions were hard to find, his candor was a welcome breeze, even when it turned into a maelstrom.
Watching Abbey take target practice was a delight to some and withering to others…he mocked politicians and political parties, religions, businesses big and small, tourists, developers…he spared no one.
Some of the most scathing satire ever penned about the Mormon Church came from Abbey, particularly in his portrayals of the novel’s antagonist, Bishop Love, and other rural Utahns in The Monkey Wrench Gang. Whether he meant to or not, Abbey created, or at least embellished, a stereotype about Mormons that warms the hearts of the anti-Mormon community in Utah to this very day. (Read Amy Irvine’s Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land )
But while Ed mocked the culture and the religion and their sacred underwear and called them “Latterday Shitheads” from time to time, his other ruminations on the church might be disappointing to some of the church’s fiercest critics.
In Desert Solitaire, he came to the defense of his Mormon friends. “Leaving aside the comical aspects of their creed, “ Abbey wrote, “one can argue that the Mormons in practice achieved a way of life in which there is much to admire, much worth saving.”
He noted the peculiarities of other sects, “the Baptists with their insistence on total immersion…or the Jews with their prepuce-collecting Yahweh…or the Hindus with their sanctified ritual for nasal emunction.”
He even held to account, “the small town atheist, with his Little Blue Books and sneering jokes at ancient and venerable institutions.”
Bishop Love, the fictional San Juan County Commissioner/developer that the Money Wrench Gang squared off against was based, more or less, on the real-life, flesh and blood Calvin Black, familiar face and controversial politician from Blanding, Utah. I’d never heard of Black until he was revealed to be THE Bishop Dudley Love. Even Cal got a chuckle out of the notoriety. And while Cal Black became synonymous with environmental destruction and avarice and greed to Abbey’s many readers, Abbey couldn’t seem to hold a grudge. From Postcards from Ed, Abbey wrote to a young man in Blanding:
“Old Cal Black is not a bad guy. I’ve met him a couple times and I like and respect him as a person, as an individual. Of course, his dedication to industrial development, whatever the cost to other values, sticks in my craw. There we disagree—but not—I hope—violently.”
Sometimes Abbey seemed to disconnect his public utterances from the effect they might have on his friends. It’s as if it never occurred to him that his broader strokes might affect the individual. In 1985, for example, he went after the myth of the American cowboy: “Western cattlemen are no more than welfare parasites,” he railed. “They’ve been getting a free ride on public lands for more than a century, and I think it’s time we phased it out. I’m in favor of putting livestock grazers out of business.”
“They’ve had their free ride,” he added. “It’s time they learned to support themselves.”
But word came to Abbey the next year that some rancher friends of his had been offended. Ed was quick to contact them. “It would do no good to apologize for what I said about cowboys and ranchers…and it would be false on my part, because I really meant what I said.”
But he noted that he’d acknowledged exceptions to his otherwise all encompassing cowboy condemnation and hoped they realized he was referring to them.
“I have always admired and respected you people—all of you, the whole family—and hope we can continue to be friends.”
He once wrote that “there is nothing smaller than a small businessman,” but some of his lifelong friends ran small businesses. Ken Sleight—Seldom Seen— was the quintessential small businessman, with his pack trips and bookstores. Ed harangued the National Park Service and its lazy loafing bureaucrat/rangers. We, many of his loyal flock, were those rangers.
And in the last year of his life, Abbey wandered into a fashionable professionals-type bar on a hot Friday afternoon and gazed through an air conditioned haze at the sea of suits and ties that filled the room.
“Damn!” he exclaimed. “It smells like lawyers in here.” Yet one of his good friends was Bill Benge, a Moab attorney and his “legal consultant” when he wrote the last chapters of The Monkey Wrench Gang.
He rarely meant to insult anyone, and in most cases, he didn’t. But he sometimes failed to connect the dots that traveled from his rhetoric to real life.
Some have suggested that Abbey fell back on his own self-label of “entertainer” to explain away his brash and sometimes shoot-from-the-lip outspokenness. One Abbey critic/friend of mine complained to me recently about both Abbey and Bob Dylan and their fans. He wrote,
“The acolytes want to take every asinine utterance of Abbey’s (and he has lots of them) discuss them as if they were filled with deep insight. What I disrespect most about both Dylan and Abbey is their laziness in wanting to have it both ways. Both at times used the “I’m just an entertainer” defense when trying to rationalize their lesser works. But they both damn well wanted to be taken seriously. And it’s this sort of apologist attitude that just gets me …. excusing sloppy thinking and lazy work with the …. “Oh Ed’s just being a clown or a provocateur”. At the end of the day this is more a complaint about Abbey’s followers than Abbey himself (although he carries some of the weight as far as I’m concerned).”
His complaints about those “acolytes” are on the mark, from where I stand. Their often mindless devotion to Ed at his wise-crackiest would have offended him. But while Abbey the Quipster was often prone to embrace the fast line and the stinging remark, when it came to the matters he cared most about, he took his time and he stood stubbornly and defiantly behind the weight of his convictions. He rarely, if ever, fled a point of view that really mattered to him, like his controversial views on immigration and population. Not only did he defend himself, he’d climb over the Alamo wall, looking for somebody to argue with, regardless of the consequence. For those who knew Abbey in those final years as his views on immigration generated accusations of xenophobia and racism, they know the consequences he endured.
So Ed Abbey was not one to cower. But he picked the fights that mattered and laughed off the ones that didn’t. Who can be painfully earnest 24 hours a day?
If Abbey’s words challenged or confused or caused consternation for his readers when he was alive, the posthumous Ed Abbey left many of his fans ducking for cover. Five years after his death, a volume of his journals, Confessions of a Barbarian, edited by his friend David Peterson, was published.
According to Peterson, the idea that the general public might be interested in his papers seemed far-fetched to Abbey when the University of Arizona first sought to include them in its Special Collections Library in the 1970s. But he reluctantly agreed and over the years, according to Peterson, he would visit the collection occasionally, “lining out entries or writing second-thought notes here and there.” Years later, a second volume, Postcards from Ed, a collection of his letters and cards to friends and foes and fans was published, again edited by Peterson.
One thing is certain, Ed Abbey knew that someday, perhaps years after his death, many of his most intimate, heart-felt, unvarnished words and opinions, expressed over 35 years in those journals, would become the subject of even more debate and dialogue. And maybe that was his last hope and aspiration—to generate one more good, hotly argued, albeit posthumous, controversy.
It was like Abbey speaking from the grave:
Okay, you’ve been trying to ‘interpret’ me for a quarter century. Now..here I am, open to the bone. The real Edward Abbey. Now, who do you think I am?
Devoted readers raced for their blinders. Was this Abbey’s last joke? And was it on us?
The books were revelatory and expansive. But it made his fans…uncomfortable. His subject matter filled the spectrum…
In a 1988 journal entry, Abbey asked himself, “Am I a racist?”
His self-evaluation was complicated. “My notion of a superior race,” he observed, “if such a thing is plausible, would be harmlessness: which group has done the least harm to the earth…by that standard, the only superior races would be the Aborigines of Australia, the Bushmen of Africa, maybe the Hopis of Arizona.”
But later he noted, “I really do think that European-American civilization, rotten though it be, is far better than anything available in the cruel, squalid, corrupt, overcrowded and miserable nations of Asia, Africa, Latin America.” (Note: pulling excerpts does Abbey a disservice. Find the book and read it in its entirety.)
He wrote to the NY Review of Books about the immigration issue and the Mexican border:
“Except for the far-scattered towns and cities, most of the border could be easily ‘sealed;’ a force of 20,000, or ten men per mile, properly armed and equipped, would have no difficulty—short of a military attack—in keeping out unwelcome intruders.” 12/17/81
He wrote frequently about the subject closest to his heart and loins–his sex life. He offered these guidelines for finding the perfect female (from Confessions, Sept 14, 1966)
What does feminine beauty consist of?
1) YOUTH; between 15 and 30—ideal childbearing age, and most normally found in conjunction with…
2) GOOD HEALTH; bright eyes, glossy hair, clear skin, sweet breath, full and normal body development, strength, agility, sexual appetite, good disposition and attractive figure…and…
3) GENETIC FITNESS: a corollary of the second, above, usually implying straight and regular features (at least in the European races), intelligence, good health, shapely (meaning healthy) limbs, absence of any physical or mental deformities
Taken altogether, these three attributes make up the sexual attractiveness of the human female.
For those women who loathe being stared at by their male counterparts, Abbey had this to say, to the Arizona Daily Star::
Men enjoy looking at beautiful women—always have enjoyed it and always will. What of it? Most women enjoy being admired by men….This form of sexism is as normal, natural and wholesome as sex itself. 6/15/83
In 1966, he offered in his journal “A Modest Proposal…that honorific prostitution should be viewed as a plausible stepping-stone toward the ideal utopian society of free love, liberty, personal fulfillment and the most human, humane world now imaginable.”
He proposed, in part, “apprenticeships for young girls—professional training in the finest arts of love…all fees paid directly to the girls…and most important of all: that ‘whore’ becomes a laudable, respectable, honorific term, equivalent to courtesan, geisha, mistress, artist.”
While Ed loved to talk about sex, he devoted a fair amount of his journal entries to the rest of the world. In 1972, he wrote, “I am utterly disgusted with this country, with this fat smug brutal people. I hope and pray that the wrath of God, if there is a God, will destroy this nation soon. We deserve it, just as the Germans deserved it..”
That’s the kind of comment that would bring much of his fan base to its feet, because the assumption was always that he’s talking about somebody else. He must be talking about conservative Republicans. But as he approached the last years of his life, Abbey expanded his aim.
He was often quoted for saying, “The only thing worse than a kneejerk liberal is a kneepad conservative.” But in 1988 he devoted a page in his journal to “Yuppie Liberalism.” In part he noted:
They love Negroes, Mexicans and Indians (our official minorities), but prefer not to live near them or send their children to their schools.
They support feminist fantasies but ignore discrimination against young white working class males (affirmative action).
They support civil rights but seem unaware of or indifferent to the concentration of wealth and power in America (i.e. one percent of the population controls thirty-four percent of the country’s wealth, while ten percent controls sixty-eight percent) as a threat to democracy. (NOTE: Abbey wrote that 24 years ago!)
They promote economic Growth while ignoring the effects of Growth upon our air, water, soil, wildlife, open space, wilderness, etc.
Neo-racism, yupster liberalism, New Age liberalism.
And just two months before his death, when his last novel, Fool’s Progress, was reviewed unfavorably in the National Review, Abbey wrote in his journal,
Never thought I’d be attacked in the National Review from the point of view of the most standard, doctrinaire, conventional chickenshit liberalism–but this is it. Exactly the kind of cant and sham and hypocrisy, intellectual dishonesty and moral cowardice, that has turned me finally against ‘liberalism’ in general.
His last salvo. Two months later, Abbey was gone. In the almost 20 years since their publication, it’s rare to see any of these “Abbey at his most Candid” quotes appear anywhere in the social media or in any popular reviews of his work. For those who think it’s somehow disrespectful to include Abbey comments that fail to mesh with the PC image that’s been created for him, or that cause the reader to feel uncomfortable, keep in mind it was Abbey himself who allowed his journals and letters to be published. He wanted them to be read and discussed. He did not want them sanitized. That’s who Edward Abbey was.
In the second decade of the 21st Century, Abbey Lives.
He lives in his books. He lives on YouTube and on Facebook. His fans adore him, or who they think he is. But is this the world and the West that he cherished and loved? Is the New West compatible with his vision of wilderness and wide open spaces?
In Desert Solitaire, Abbey offered a unique reason for establishing wilderness. “We may need wilderness someday,” he proposed, “not only as a refuge from excessive industrialism but also as a refuge from authoritarian government, from political oppression. He warned that “technology adds a new dimension to the process,” and believed (then) that the wilderness would provide escape from those kinds of Big Brother controls. For Abbey, wilderness was meant to be the one vast “blank spot on the map,” as Aldo Leopold longed for.
He also wrote, “A man could be a lover and defender of the wilderness without ever in his lifetime leaving the boundaries of asphalt, powerlines, and right-angled surfaces. We need wilderness whether or not we ever set foot in it. We need a refuge even though we may never need to set foot in it.”
In 2012, he would not recognize the wilderness he sought to protect (though in his journals, in 1987, he had already complained, “Too many tourists in the backcountry now.”)
Environmental groups, once dedicated to saving the wilderness that Abbey envisioned, now look at wilderness as a commodity to be marketed. What is the economic value of wilderness? Environmentalists promote the notion of a swarming tourist economy. They’ve taken a favorite Abbey line: “The idea of wilderness needs no defense; it needs more defenders,” and turned it into a Chamber of Commerce promo….the more money that can be made from the product, the greater the chance, in their estimation, of passing wilderness legislation. Nevermind what gets destroyed in the process.
Even grassroots groups, who once worked for the protection of the land and the satisfaction that they were honest participants in “the good fight,” now parse their battle cries and make a $100K a year. Their boards of directors are filled with wealthy fat cat industrialists that would have had Abbey deported if they could have found a way. Together, they support a massive recreation/amenities economy that brings millions of tourists to the once remote rural West and with it, untold quantities of money and environmental devastation.
Adrenaline junkies from the far corners of the planet descend on the canyon country to string slacklines, and rock climb and ride bikes off cliffs and BASE jump and ‘do’ the river..
Abbey used to talk about “a loveliness and quiet exultation.” Nowadays exultation makes a lot of noise.
When Abbey talked about seeking wilderness, he admonished us, “to walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe.” When he talked about riding bicycles, he imagined them as a replacement for cars, not feet. He did not envision luxury “adventure tours” and hand-held guided hikes to “remote locations,” barely a mile from their cars.
Abbey wrote, “We don’t go into the wilderness to exhibit our skills at gourmet cooking. We go into the wilderness to get away from the kind of people who think gourmet cooking is important.”
And he didn’t envision a wilderness experience that included cell phones, smart phones, GPS units, or daily uploads to Facebook (“Here’s what our sunset looked like tonight! Here in the WILDERNESS!” —–126 ‘LIKES’)
Yet, many of these recreationists convince themselves they are the latter day disciples of a man they know practically nothing about, or bother to know.
About a year ago, an essay appeared in High Country News called, “What Would Edward Abbey Do?” The author and a group of friends had come across a huge boulder, perched on the rim of a mountain valley. Michael Branch felt an urge to knock the rock from its resting place and send it flying from its rim-side perch to the tranquil scene below. It was an absurd notion and the damage it would cause was incalculable. But one member of the group spoke up.
“Whenever I am uncertain,” replied Francois in a thick French accent so utterly authentic that it sounded hilariously fake, “I abide by this principle: WWEAD.” When he had finished pronouncing each letter with meticulous emphasis, the three of us looked at him quizzically. “What would Edward Abbey do?” he explained coolly.
What would Edward Abbey do? Based on that rhetorical question and, I guess, the vague recollection that Abbey claimed he rolled something into the Grand Canyon—an old tire—more than 50 years ago, the guys decided it was a good idea. Branch exclaimed, “I was Sisyphus unbound, and I had a Frenchman’s love of Cactus Ed to thank for it.”
I doubt Abbey would have felt comfortable being an accomplice from the grave, but he shouldn’t have felt responsible either for their vandalism. Clearly, they’d learned nothing at all from Cactus Ed.
What Abbey always hoped we’d take away from his writing and from his life was a sense of ourselves as individuals, as men and women who could take control of our own lives and our own destinies. Abbey spoke of a “nation of bleeting sheep and braying jackasses.” He longed for a people with dignity and courage and he loathed the mindless “bleeting” that he found even in his own readers.
He once said, “ If America could be, once again, a nation of self-reliant farmers, craftsmen, hunters, ranchers and artists, then the rich would have little power to dominate others. Neither to serve nor to rule. That was the American Dream.” Most New Westerners love Ed Abbey and have no idea what that means. They’ve read all his books and they follow and “LIKE” his quotes on Facebook, but they understand far less than they realize.
Recently, I saw a string of comments about Abbey on the Facebook page devoted to his life.
A debate broke out of sorts—another one of those tedious comment threads— as to whether Abbey would have liked the internet. One man was sure he’d have nothing to do with it; another wrote, “He would have found much to admire in the expression of democracy it affords.” That was a fair point.
What Ed would have loathed is the idea that his most loyal fans might spend their days in front of a laptop computer, week after week, clicking the “like” button each time one of his EA crowd-pleaser quotes got posted, when they could be outside, chopping down a billboard or taking a good long walk, or just watching a nice sunset.
Abbey may have hoped, when he left this world, that his time and effort here might make a small difference, might alter the future for the better in some way. But probably not. More than likely, he saw all this coming, just as he predicted so much that has already, sadly, come to pass.
But whether the world really does go to hell or not, or whether it’s already there, for godsake remember who Ed Abbey was. Who he REALLY was. And don’t just sit there, staring at your screen.
As Cactus Ed pleaded, “Throw a rock at something big and glassy..what have you got to lose?”
For more on Ed Abbey, from this issue, read “Reflecting on Ed Abbey & Desert Solitaire” by Lloyd Pierson.