edward abbey old man
BURNED-OVER DISTRICT, NY–Edward Abbey died twenty years ago today. A product of the perfectly named Home, Pennsylvania, son of the conjugation of a Woman’s Christian Temperance Unionist and a Wobbly farmer, Abbey was a hillbilly intellectual park ranger and fire lookout who wrote novels suffused with high spirits and sweet anarchy (The Brave Cowboy, The Monkey Wrench Gang, The Fool’s Progress) and a stark, beautiful, angry book about the despoiling of the Southwest, Desert Solitaire.

He was one of American lit’s great iconoclasts. At Abbey’s raucous wake in Utah’s Arches National Park, Wendell Berry spoke of him as an intransigent patriot, an authentic American hero. Said Berry, “Patriotism is not the love of air conditioning or the interstate highway system or the government or the flag or power or money or munitions. It is the love of country.”

Or as Ed Abbey used to say, “America: Love it or Leave it Alone.” (He also remarked that if a man can’t piss off his own front porch he’s living too close to town, so you all might want to back up a bit.)

In “A Writer’s Credo,” Abbey declared, “I write to entertain my friends and to exasperate our enemies. To oppose, resist, and sabotage the contemporary drift toward a global technocratic police state, whatever its ideological coloration…I write for the joy and exultation of writing itself. To tell my story.” Words to scrawl across the top of a porch, I’d say.

P.S. Some Abbey apothegms from A Voice Crying in the Wilderness:

–Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.

–A true conservative must necessarily be a conservationist.

–One day in Dipstick, Nebraska, or Landfill, Oklahoma, is worth more to me than an eternity in Dante’s plastic Paradiso, or Yeats’s gold-plated Byzantium.

–Government: If you refuse to pay unjust taxes, your property will be confiscated. If you attempt to defend your property, you will be arrested. If you resist arrest, you will be clubbed. If you defend yourself against clubbing, you will be shot dead. These procedures are known as the Rule of Law.

–Our “neoconservatives” are neither new nor conservative, but old as Babylon and evil as Hell.

–The distrust of wit is the beginning of tyranny.

And while we’re at it…Check out Tom Russell’s “The Ballad of Edward Abbey” on his album “Indians, Cowboys, Horses, Dogs” (2004). Thanks to Brian Frizzell for introducing me to Russell, among the best American singer-songwriters.

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  1. Awwwwwwww ole Ed, the bittersweet heart-cracked anarch. The fact that the Monkeywrench Gang, tailor made for a Hollywood Extravaganza has never been committed to celluloid is telling. Hollywood likes anti-heros but only those anti-heros who would not blow up the infrastructure on purpose. Financial backers are a tad put off one supposes. The swells are suspicious of people who refer to buzzards as “Philosopher Birds”.

    As to Vox Clamantis in Deserto, a tome that should go next to Mr. Bierces “Devils Dictionary” on every porch library…the summary statement, something that should be carved in blood over the Chicken Little Brigades screaming about Businesses Too big to fail:

    “When the situation is hopeless (or is it desperate?) there’s nothing to worry about”

    An Anthem for the future viewed from the collective porch.

  2. Ed Abbey also said that when a country’s rivers are too polluted to drink from, it’s time to get a new country (paraphrased from _Desert Solitaire_). It’s good to think that Abbey would approve of the FPR.

  3. All right, I’m laughing!

    I gotta read Abbey and check out Tom Russell. However, it’ll be hard to beat ole John Prine.

    Bill, just found this site, lost you email in a computer meltdown, great group of bloggers, send new book for review.

  4. In confess to being somewhat uncomfortable with Abbey, brilliant writer and thinker though he was. Perhaps it’s because I initially read him while in a context of reading and listening to many other convinced environmentalists and defenders of the Red Rock Country of southern Utah who had a decidedly mystical bent to their thought (Terry Tempest Williams, etc.). I seemed to me that Abbey’s crankiness and bone-deep and very literal conservatism led him on occasion into outright misanthropy and contempt for his own species, preferring some sort of pantheism…though, clearly, there are worse things.

  5. On Abbey and the movies: The best-known film of an Abbey novel is Lonely are the Brave (1962), which the communist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo adapted from The Brave Cowboy. Trumbo gutlessly changed Paul Bondi’s crime from draft resistance to harboring an adorable family of illegal immigrants. As William Eastlake said, “Ed was broke when they paid a Hollywood scriptwriter a fortune and shot the film outside of Albuquerque and generously gave Ed a job as an extra.”
    I have not seen Fire on the Mountain (1981), taken from the fine Abbey novel of a New Mexico rancher who refuses to sell his land to the military for a missile range. It starred the radical duo of Buddy Ebsen and Ron Howard and aired on NBC and was probably ten times more subversive of the military-industrial complex than Trumbo’s product.
    As for Cactus Ed and mystical nature writing (which I confess to liking), Abbey said, “I sat on a rock in New Mexico once, trying to have a vision. The only vision I had was of backed chicken.”

  6. Russel: If you’ve ever been to redrock country during tourist season and seen the tourists in their RVs cruising up to snap a few pictures of their families standing in front of scenery before roaring noisily off again, you might start to agree with Abbey’s misanthropy – I know I have, at times.

    His conservationist ideas (like keeping cars out of the national parks, for instance) may be a bit extreme by chained-to-the-steering-wheel American standards, but I personally think measures like that would do wonders both for protecting our parks as well as for giving a more genuine experience of the American wilderness to park visitors. Zion has already done something like that (with a shuttle system), and it’s done wonders. As Abbey says in Desert Solitaire, “In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk.”

  7. Russell,
    One could just as easily dismiss the lovely Ms. Tempest Williams as being overly indulgent toward her fellow species…..without benefit of comprehensive empirical evidence. To me, ole Ed and Ms. Tempest-Williams represent a beneficial polarity of sorts, one of them nicely embracing the species despite its petulant thugishness and the other, throwing a gnawed ox shank at Homo sapiens not-quite-so-sapiens-no-mo. I find Ed’s prose more directly related to the slickrock sidewalks because it is aridly unforgiving. He was at his best when he was shaking a crooked arm at the vast defacto conspiracy of dunderheadedness regarding the West . Like Bennie DeVoto, unfortunately now-obscure Ogden Curmudgeon, Ed pointed out the ribald irony of Western Sagebrush Rebellion partisans railing on about the evil machinations of the Eastern Pencilneck while taking long draughts at the Federal Teat and gleefully handing off mineral interests to everyone from New Yawk industrialists to Canadian Mining Conglomerates.

    Ed’s novels, like DeVoto’s were generally outdone by his polemics, travelogues and Journalistic Spits-in-yer-eye. Ed was a sentimental man…in the better sense of that word….who became overtly cranky as a result of repeated disappointments. His defiance found a ready home in a human-averse country where thousand year old corncobs and potsherds lie undisturbed in testimony to the hardships of inhabiting a place of such gargantuan harsh beauty. Everybody in the lapsed-republic should read him…and Bennie. DeVoto, of course, offering to debate J.Edgar Hoover “anytime, anywhere”. Hoover dared not overturn that Horned Toad of a rock. Ms. Tempest-Williams might generously… and to her credit…. offer to hug and forgive the various reprobates who have had and continue to have their way with us ….against the individual and on behalf of the so called “greater good”…. while Ed would likely choose to get right to the point, douse them in Tequila and strike a match to them while dancing around, wrapped in his Gadsden Flag. Ed was only a misanthrope because he saw all too clearly that those who proclaim to know what’s best for us are the first to crap in our socks and piss in the canteen.

  8. I like Abbey, but from a certain perspective he’s too anti, and not enough pro: he knows what he hates, but he does not offer alternatives except “not this” to current foolishness.

    That said, I’ve read most of his novels over many times, most recently “A Fool’s Progress” (?) which deals with imminent death without any transcendent belief system. It’s a powerful book, though probably less known than his anarchic Monkey Wrench stuff; I recommend it.

  9. I’m new to the site as well, though I’m familiar with a few of the writers. I hope this succeeds!

    I read Desert Solitaire last summer. It ranks pretty high on my “books that changed my life” list. In my opinion, it is a far greater book than Walden. Though I am a conservative, both Thoreau and Abbey are great exemplars of the old liberalism that is all but defunct these days. I expect both books to be banned in the next 20 years.

  10. For a real “Ed-in-your-head” treat, check out a radio show known as The Risky Biscuit Hayseed Hoot broadcast on KTHX in Reno, NV. The host, Dondo, does an annual Ed Abbey Memorial show around the date that Ed died in 1989. This year, the show fell on Saturday, March 14, twenty years to the day of Ed’s passing.

    It was the 19th annual version of the show this year. Dondo always plays Ed reading passages of his work, mixed with some really good thematic tunes. (Including the Tom Russell tune mentioned above.)
    You can check out a podcast of the show at:


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