To call Edward Abbey simply an "environmentalist" would be inaccurate. Although his writing focused primarily on environmental issues, Abbey seemed to be constantly critiquing the culture that surrounded him. His works ranged from fiction writing to blunt, and sometimes slighting, essays. Much of his writing was so controversial that even some groups of environmentalists rebuked his stance. Abbey was known to throw beer cans from his car because the highway he was traveling had already ruined the landscape surrounding it. He wrote essays degrading western farming and ranching methods and yet he was a proponent of the National Rifle Association. His writing suggests he wasn't comfortable with environmental activists or activism as a whole. Abbey wasn't concerned with keeping either a liberal or conservative point of view; his views were directed by nature and his love of the American West.
Originally an easterner from Home, Pennsylvania, Abbey spent the majority of his life in the southwestern part of the United States. His parents, Paul and Mildred Abbey, were considered liberal for their views on homosexuality and avocation of socialism. There were five Abbey children, with Edward being the oldest. Abbey grew up during the Depression era and moved with his family around the east; they spent time at small campsites around Pennsylvania and lived in New Jersey. Abbey often wrote about his parents, and through this writing it is obvious they had shaped the man that he would become. Abbey's first notions of the West were from his father, a love that they would both share.
His spirit of freedom led him down many paths, first hitchhiking around the Southwest at age 17, and then spending two years (1945-1947) in the military where he received two promotions and two demotions (for refusing to salute). He used much of his experiences working as a park ranger, for nearly 15 years, in his later writing (in the 1950's). He returned to the West to study Philosophy at the University of New Mexico (as well as the Indiana University of Pennsylvania and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland). Abbey finished with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Philosophy (received 1951) and a Master of Arts degree in Philosophy (1956). His thesis was titled "Anarchism and the Morality of Violence." This title proved to be indicative of the type of movement Abbey would start in the environmental community.
Abbey's first novel, Jonathon Troy, (published 1956) has been called almost autobiographical. The main character is a loner and a societal outcast, traits that are also held by the protagonist in Abbey's second work of fiction. This novel, The Brave Cowboy, would eventually be turned into a screenplay in 1962, entitled "Lonely Are the Brave." It is after these first two novels that Abbey wrote a piece of non-fiction work, Desert Solitaire. In this novel, he writes about the beauty of the Southwest (mainly Utah, where he worked as a ranger) in an embittered tone and calls the finished work a "eulogy." Desert Solitaire became a cult classic (a work that may not gain mainstream popularity, but has a deep and solid base of fans) almost immediately. However, his next novel would prove to cause the most well-known controversy. The Monkey Wrench Gang actually launched an entirely new offshoot of the environmental movement: sabotage (not violence) as a means of protest. Abbey once stated "If wilderness is outlawed, only outlaws can save wilderness."
This idea of sabotage was well-received by some conservationists, illustrated by the group EarthFirst! When asked about the sabotage, Abbey responded:
"Well I'm not going to advocate sabotage publicly on the federal airwaves here. But I think there probably will be more of it if the conflict between conservation and development becomes more intense, and if the politicians fail to follow the popular will on the matter. I think a lot of people are going to become very angry and they're going to resort to illegal methods to try to slow down the destruction of our national resources, our wilderness, our forests, mountains, deserts. What that will lead to I hate to think. If the conflict becomes violent and physical then I'm pretty sure the environmentalists will mostly end up in prison or shot dead in their tracks. So I hope we can save what's left of Arizona and the United States by legal, political means and I still think we can. I still vote in elections...even though there doesn't seem to be much to vote for or against, when there's not much choice. I think if enough people get sufficiently concerned, why we can still make changes...needed changes in this country by political methods...God, I hope so.
(From a KAET-TV [Phoenix, Arizona] interview, given in December of 1982.)
EarthFirst! was a non-governmental organization formed in 1979, and though Abbey was never a formal member of the association he was well known by the group. Some of the policies EarthFirst! proposed were taken directly from Abbey's writing, most notably The Monkey Wrench Gang. Even today the EarthFirst website uses the term "monkeywrenchers" stating, "While there is broad diversity within Earth First! from animal rights vegans to wilderness hunting guides, from monkeywrenchers to careful followers of Gandhi, from whiskey-drinking backwoods riffraff to thoughtful philosophers, from misanthropes to humanists, there is agreement on one thing, the need for action!" Abbey was accused of monkeywrenching crimes, but no evidence of such crimes has ever been produced.
Abbey was not a loud advocate for monkeywrenching and his involvement with the movement seemed to have been merely as the initiator of a simple idea. Other more mainstream environmental groups have not embraced the type of gonzo environmentalism some of Abbey's fans relied upon so heavily. Green Peace makes no mention of Abbey in their archives, and a May 1st, 1982 article in "The Nation" by Dennis Drabelle lists Abbey's writing as arrogant and elitist, saying the "immense popularity among environmentalists [of Abbey] is puzzling." Abbey was truly a man loved or hated by those who knew him and his work; he kept his supporters and his cynics speculating on his next move, which was often a move no one expected. His fan base is and was sturdy and unyielding, including a strong base of women. Details concerning the number and intimate nature of Abbey's relationships with such women were typically a matter of conjecture.
Abbey was married and divorced several times, and it is suggested in the book "Edward Abbey: A Life" (Cahalans, 2001) that Abbey was something of a lady's man. He fathered five children during his lifetime, supporting himself and his offspring through a plethora of jobs, holding titles of caseworker (1960), teacher (1956, 1962 and 1970), bus driver (1966 and 1967), and technical writer (1962). A great number of Abbey's jobs reflected his passion: the outdoors. Abbey was a ranger at the Arches (now a national park) from 1956-1957, Casa Grande from 1958-1959, Canyonlands in 1965, the Everglades from 1965-1966, Lee's Ferry in 1967, and Araviapa from 1972-1974. He was also a fire lookout on the North Rim, Numa Ridge and Aztec Peaks in Arizona, where the trail that climbs to the top of the peak is called Abbey's Way Trail, number 151. Abbey's love for the West is demonstrated in many of his books, journals and interviews but no thought sums up Abbey's approach as much as this quote, from when he originally discovered the West: "For the first time, I felt I was getting close to the West of my deepest imaginings, the place where the tangible and the mythical became the same."
While Abbey strived to be close to the West in life, he also desired to be close to the West, the desert and nature, in death. On March 14th, 1989, Abbey passed away due to what was determined to be an esophageal hemorrhage. He was 62 years old. He died in his own home, Fort Llatikcuf (named by Abbey) and was survived by his last wife, five children and his father. All five of his children are still living. It is believed Abbey's final resting place is in the southern Arizona desert. The accounts of his burial vary greatly, but the common thread that connects all the myths is a headstone that is believed to read Abbey's name, dates of birth and death and a simple sentence: "No Comment."
The myth of Edward Abbey is carried on in one account of his burial and final resting place. It is said he wished not be embalmed, but to be transported (post mortem) in the bed of a pickup truck to his grave, wrapped in only a sleeping bag, and buried without concern for the laws concerning burial. He supposedly left a note that stated his final wish was to fertilize the growth of a tree, bush or other desert plant. With the knowledge we have of Abbey, this account is easy to believe and may even satisfy a need for a rambunctious end to his colored life. The man and the myth; they both contributed to the name of Edward Abbey, but which was more lively remains a question.
- Jonathan Troy (1954)
- The Brave Cowboy (1956)
- Fire on the Mountain (1962)
- Black Sun (1971)
- The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975)
- Good News (1980)
- Fool's Progress (1988)
- Hayduke Lives! (1990)
- Desert Solitaire (1968)
- The Journey Home (1977)
- Abbey's Road (1979)
- Down the River (1982)
- In Praise of Mountain Lions (1984)
- Beyond the Wall (1984)
- The Best of Edward Abbey / Slumgullion Stew (1984)
- One Life at a Time, Please (1988)
- Vox Clamantis in Deserto (1989)
- Confessions of a Barbarian (1994)
- The other Confessions of a Barbarian, Earth Apples: The Poetry of Edward Abbey (1994)
- The Serpents of Paradise (1995)
Abbey, Edward. Personal interview. December 1982. Interview by Eric Temple of KAET-TV of Arizona.
James M. Cahalan, Edward Abbey: A Life. 2001, University of Arizona Press
Peacock, Doug. Chasing Abbey. Outside Magazine, August 1997.
Hepworth, James R., The Life and Legend of Edward Abbey, from the Bloomsbury Review. Volume 22, #3 2002.