Jonathan Troy, 1954
The Brave Cowboy: An Old Tale in a New Time, 1956
Fire on the Mountain, 1962
Black Sun, 1971
The Monkey Wrench Gang, 1975
Good News, 1980
The Fool’s Progress, 1988
Hayduke Lives!, 1990
Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, 1968
Appalachian Wilderness: The Great Smoky Mountains, 1970
Slickrock: Endangered Canyons of the Southwest, 1971
Cactus Country, 1973
The Journey Home: Some Words in Defense of the American West, 1977
Abbey’s Road, 1979
Down the River, 1982
Beyond the Wall: Essays from the Outside, 1984
Slumgullion Stew: An Edward Abbey Reader, 1984
One Life at a Time, Please, 1988
Confessions of a Barbarian: Selections from the Journals of Edward Abbey, 1951-1989, 1994
Edward Abbey’s work provokes an intensity of response that is unusual for a writer of the American West. He is best known for his iconoclastic attacks on the forces of twentieth century society that encroached on the remaining wilderness areas in the United States, in particular the deserts of the Southwest. His condemnation of the U.S. government’s support of greedy developers, mindless strip mining, and “industrial tourism” was vitriolic and impassioned. To his adherents, he was the voice of truth; to his detractors, he was a troublesome crank. The writer who stood at the center of the controversy was someone at once intensely private and painfully self-revelatory.
Abbey was born and educated in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania, where he graduated from high school in 1945. It was during the summer of 1944, while hitchhiking through the western United States, that Abbey became entranced with the desert country of the Southwest. He returned to the East and was drafted into the Army soon after completing high school. The years following his discharge found him caught between his roots in the East and his growing love for the open spaces of the West. It was during this period that Abbey began writing fiction. In his novel Jonathan Troy, published in 1954, the title character feels drawn away from the world he inhabits in the East; like Abbey, he finds that freedom of spirit is attainable only in untrammeled landscapes of the West.
After completing his B.A. at the University of New Mexico in 1951, Abbey spent two years as a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. Returning to the United States in 1953, he made a short-lived attempt to live as a graduate student of philosophy at Yale University. Within a few weeks, he returned to the University of New Mexico. In 1956, Abbey produced two works that delineate the central thematic concerns of his thinking: his Ph.D. thesis on anarchism and the morality of violence and the novel The Brave Cowboy, in which the anachronistic hero is pitted against the forces of bureaucratic brutality.
Jack Burns, the protagonist of The Brave Cowboy, loves the land of the Southwest and the freedom of his life as an itinerant sheepherder, but he is out of step with the times. He considers it unnecessary to carry identification because he knows who he is, and his principal mode of transportation is his spirited mare, Whisky, who has trouble sharing space with the newfangled horseless carriage. When Burns is drawn into a confrontation with law enforcement, he makes a heroic escape only to be run down on the highway by a truck carrying a load of bathroom fixtures. In the book, the encroachment of the urban environment into the physical and spiritual landscape of the West becomes a metaphor for the destruction of a way of life characterized by personal freedom, physical labor, and respect for the land. The polarity between the individual and bureaucratic establishment and that between the landscape of the wilderness and the contamination of urban life provide the thematic underpinning for Abbey’s work. These themes recur in Fire on the Mountain, where the protagonist perishes at the hands of the U.S. government in defense of his ranch, which is slated to become a weapons testing site. In this work, there is an urgency not present in The Brave Cowboy.
The publication of Desert Solitaire, a series of reflective essays centered on Abbey’s experiences as a park ranger at Arches National Monument, propelled Abbey into public attention. Here, Abbey’s prose ranges between lyrical paeans to the remaining unspoiled land of the Southwest and vituperative attacks on the forces he believed were participating in its destruction, that is, industrial and commercial development, aided and abetted by government bureaucracy. This work is the one for which he became best known.
In the next three works–Appalachian Wilderness, Slickrock, and Cactus Country–Abbey used popular landscape photographs in conjunction with his text. Although these books were intended to be presentational, Abbey’s message, though somewhat muted, remained clearly defined. In later fiction and nonfiction, Abbey began to go beyond merely bemoaning the destruction of his beloved Southwest, instead proposing solutions that bordered on sedition. In The Monkey Wrench Gang, four unlikely comrades roam about the land pulling up survey stakes, burning billboards, and planning the destruction of Glen Canyon Dam. The essays collected in The Journey Home and Abbey’s Road angrily urge action before it is too late. The 1980 novel Good News is set in a dark and grim future where both the land and individuals have fallen victim to the pervasive totalitarianism of power and greed. In The Fool’s Progress, the dying protagonist joins the danse macabre, unable to save himself, much less his beloved wilderness, from the blight of urban death.
Abbey’s frequently enraged stance notwithstanding, his concerns reflected a connection with his literary predecessors. Like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, Abbey found a spiritual appeal in nature. Unlike them, however, he had seen the continuing encroachment of commerce and industry into what little remained of wilderness land. Abbey’s response resembles that of Mary Austin, who alone spoke against the building of Boulder Dam at a conference of prominent Southwesterners in 1927. Her voice was prophetic, and Abbey echoed her cry against the sacrifice of the natural environment to the needs of a technological society. Abbey died in 1989 at the age of sixty-two.