Edward Abbey

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, October 1997

Edward Abbey
He loved to be in our face. Still does, no doubt.

By Terry Tempest Williams

With a pen in his right hand and a monkey wrench in his left, this native son of an Allegheny farmer named Paul Revere Abbey torqued and turned phrases that deepened and radicalized the environmental consciousness of the country. He was the Mark Twain of the American desert; he was bad behavior and big-hearted ideas. "I am ù really am ù an extremist," he declared, "one who lives and loves by choice far out on the very verge of things, on the edge of the abyss, where this world falls off into the depths of another. That's the way I like it."

There was never any doubt about what Edward Abbey liked and what he did not ù his voice as a writer, philosopher, and full-time agitator is hardly subtle. Through his work we see a passionate and paradoxical soul "fueled in equal parts by anger and love," as he wrote. "How feel one without the other?"

Abbey's love and anger fill the pages of books that span the four decades he lived in the Southwest, his adopted homeland. He began with the novels Jonathan Troy and The Brave Cowboy in the fifties; put Moab, Utah, on the literary map in 1968 with Desert Solitaire; rose to subversive heights in the seventies with The Monkey Wrench Gang, bringing "eco-sabotage" into our vocabulary; and concluded, in the eighties, with a fervent outpouring of essays and novels such as The Fool's Progress. He remained true to his credo: "I write to entertain my friends and to exasperate our enemies.... I write to make a difference.... To honor life and to praise the divine beauty of the natural world."

W. H. Auden tells us that when a writer dies he becomes his readers. If this is true, then Edward Abbey has had an exceptionally spirited afterlife. He has become the redrock activists of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, who pledge allegiance to the Colorado Plateau. He is the Wildlands Project and the Wildlife Damage Review and the myriad voices defending ecological justice on behalf of landscape and animals. He persists as the sane wit who challenges the consensus-driven bureaucrats of the New West and the thoughtless powers behind industrial tourism. He is the fuel and fire for yet another generation falling in love with the desert. He survives as the hot-tempered muse jarring us out of complacency, reminding us that "sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul." Edward Abbey has become our sacred rage.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Open a World of Adventure

Our Dispatch email delivers the stories you can’t afford to miss.

Thank you!