A Brief Biography
Edward Abbey was born January 29, 1927 in the improbably named town of Indiana, Pennsylvania and lived most of his childhood in a nearby town with an almost-equally unusual name, Home. He grew up in the Depression in a family always on the verge of poverty. His father held a wide variety of jobs including lumberjack, farmer and school bus driver. His mother taught school and played the organ in church. Both his parents held outspoken, liberal views. His father was a dedicated socialist. His mother was an early proponent of ordination for homosexuals.
In high school he was a loner, and his literary talents were so well disguised (despite some writing for the school magazine) that he failed Journalism twice.
After graduation he joined the Army — just in time for the end of the war. He went to Italy and served largely as an MP, policing brothels in Naples. Following his discharge in 1948, he went to college, first at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and later at the University of New Mexico and, for a year, at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. His academic field was always Philosophy but his interest usually centered around social action, especially anarchism. His Masters Thesis was titled “Anarchism and the Morality of Violence.”
Despite this academic concentration, his true passion was for the American West, especially the desert. He first saw the west in the summer of 1948 when he hitch-hiked to Seattle, south to California and then, crossing into Nevada at Needles, he entered the region now indelibly stamped with his name. His writings of his love for the west and his passion to protect it from despoilation are among the most evocative and influential of all American environmental works.
His first two books were novels, Jonathan Troy (1954) and The Brave Cowboy (1956). In them, he began working out his take on the traditional western hero, derived from Cooper’s Natty Bumpo by way of Wister’s Virginian. In Abbey’s version, the hero retains the usual aura of social misfit, loner, attractive to women but generaly shunning them. But Abbey brings out the basic anarchism of the type. Jack Burns, the hero of The Brave Cowboy, (played by Kirk Douglas in the movie “Loney Are the Brave,” based on the book), refuses to carry identification, breaks into jail to free a friend, and ultimately is killed by a collision with a truck that leaves him buried in plumbing supplies.
The book that made his reputation was his first non-fiction work, Desert Solitaire (1968). In prose that is sometimes ironic, sometimes bitter, but often glowing with the colors of a summer sunset in Utah, he describes his two, six-month stints as seasonal ranger at Arches National Monument. (It’s now a National Park.) With one brief hiatus, it’s been in print for the past 30 years and seems likely to remain on the bookshelf of nature lovers and wilderness defenders for generations to come.
His success with Desert Solitaire was eclipsed seven years later when his riotous novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang came out. This is the book that guaranteed Abbey’s place here in the Ecology Hall of Fame. In it, he depicts a small gang of monkey wrenchers, a term he may have coined. Based on the saboteurs who threw wooden shoes (sabots) into the gears of early factory machines, the monkey wrenchers sabotage road builders and others who would develop the desert.
Abbey based his heros on real, though largely unidentified individuals who were, even then, trying to harass and delay those who were trying to develop the desert out of existence. Since the publication of The Monkey Wrench Gang, their numbers have grown, and most pay homage to George Hayduke and the other heros of Abbey’s imagination.
Like Abbey’s heros, most monkey wrenchers are non-violent (to people). Abbey took this as part of the foundation of his philosophy, drawing on his academic studies in anarchism.
Abbey himself may never have committed any major sabotage, though even in Desert Solitaire he mentions having pulled up surveyors’ stakes in a minor protest against a road planned for Arches. Such rebellious acts were part of his greatest creation, the public character Cactus Ed that he tried to create out of his own life. Personal accounts of those who knew him seem to belie much of this personna. He was, it seems, usually quiet, shy, and studious. His works are full of allusions to music (he compares Dr. Sarvis of The Monkey Wrench Gang to Sibelius), philosophy (his last book, A Voice Crying in the Wilderness has a refutation of Plato), and other major themes of Western Civilization.
Abbey married five times and was survived by his last wife, five children and his father. His death came at the end of a long, painful illness and only the actions of a friend kept him from a death he had previously scorned — connected to assorted tubes in a hospital bed. He was brought home and died there, then buried somewhere in the desert. It was an echo of what he had written in Desert Solitaire in his story of a tourist who wandered off and died under a tree near Grandview Point in Arches.
Looking out on this panorama of light, space, rock and silence, I am inclined to congratulate the dead man on his choice of jumping-off place; he had good taste. He had good luck — I envy him the manner of his going.