Anarchist With an Attitude : The granddaddy of monkeywrenching wanted to be taken seriously by the literary establishment he scorned. : EPITAPH FOR A DESERT ANARCHIST: The Life and Legacy of Edward Abbey, <i> By James Bishop Jr. (Atheneum: $22; 254 pp.)</i>
When I first looked at “Epitaph for a Desert Anarchist,” I was suspicious. Who the hell is James Bishop, Jr. and what has he written about Cactus Ed, author of several books that have inspired defenders of wilderness? We Friends of Ed (FOE’s) are protective and (let’s admit it) clannish. I know of four old Abbey pals who are completing books about him. But I didn’t know this James Bishop Jr.--who admits in his prologue that he “never knew (Abbey) personally.” How could a stranger accurately write about Abbey’s legacy?
Worse, he is a former reporter for Newsweek. A journalist! Abbey wrote in “Abbey’s Road,” “I too have been mistaken for a member of that squalid profession, journalism. . . . I am not and never will be a goddamned two-bit sycophantic journalist for Christ’s sake.”
Poor Bishop. Two strikes against him and I haven’t even started to read his book.
So, I read it and found that “The Life and Legacy of a Desert Anarchist” is that rare book, true to its title and honest in its intent and execution. Bishop tells us that it is “neither a definitive biography nor an academic study” but is “my attempt to record the impact of (Abbey’s) work on our times and on his admirers who, like him, like all of us, are struggling to exist in a shrinking natural world.”
The book is also a good comeuppance to the FOE. It reminds me that a person, to know Abbey, did not have to share cigars and a jug of wine around a campfire, float a desert river together or creep around after dark in shared conspiracy. I first knew Ed Abbey 10 years before I met him. In 1971, a pretty bartender in Albuquerque lent me a well-thumbed paperback of “Desert Solitaire,” a celebration of the desert and a forceful indictment of industrial tourism. I fell in love--with both the writer of the book and the bartender (different kinds of love). Bishop recounts a similar experience with “Desert Solitaire” (minus the bartender).
To get at Abbey’s legacy, Bishop considers reactions from two sources--literary critics and Abbey readers. While Abbey’s books were frequently praised by reviewers, Bishop concentrates on the critics. I find they fall into two camps: the Manhattan-centric literary elite who dismissed Abbey as a failed novelist or as a mere nature writer, and the Whine and PC Set who felt he embarrassed environmentalists and social justice activists.
Bishop brilliantly dismisses Abbey’s literary critics as coming from “European standards.” Touche, as Europeans would say.
But reading negative review after negative review, I am struck by the nastiness in so many of them. Bishop doesn’t specifically analyze the reason for the venom, but he touches on one reason--many people wanted Abbey to be what they wanted him to be, and were disappointed that he wouldn’t be that person. (If he had let them make him be what they wanted him to be, he really wouldn’t have been what they wanted him to be!) Bishop also lets real people, people with river silt between their toes, speak about the influence Abbey had on them, how his essays and novels inspired “several generations of citizens . . . to fight against the national passion of growth for growth’s sake.” This, of course, is his legacy. And this--that he wasn’t just someone who strung pretty words together--may be why academic snobs and the literary elite vilified him.
Funny thing, though. Abbey wanted his writing to be taken seriously as literature. Part of him chafed at being a hero and an inspiration to wilderness defenders. Bishop quotes him just before his death: “I never wanted to be anything but a writer, period. An author. A creator of fiction and essays.” Rebels want to be taken seriously by that which they rebel against. So, even Ed Abbey might not fully agree with what Bishop says about his legacy, or with what I say about what Bishop says.
There are ticklish eddy lines around one of Abbey’s books--”Desert Solitaire.” (“Good god. Did she really read all my other books? It’s not my favorite,” he huffs after being told by a fan that “Desert Solitaire” was her favorite book.) Here I put myself in peril. I will forever be nervous when a turkey vulture flies overhead. I’m sorry, Ed, but “Desert Solitaire” was your best book, your most important book. It awakened me to a life of defense of the wild, it spoke to a place in my soul that I thought was so hidden that no one would ever be able to intrude there. And I am not alone. Not by a long shot.
And so we come to Abbey’s message. It comes in four parts, and Bishop treats them all, even if he does not specifically identify them as four legs to a platform. Anarchism. Biocentrism. Koyaanisqatsi. Individual Action.
Two chapters of the book are given to Abbey’s youth in the Pennsylvania hills and his college education. Bishop uses this biography to trace the development of Abbey’s anarchist thought (Abbey wrote his master’s thesis in philosophy at the the University of New Mexico on anarchism and violence), and shows that what separates Abbey’s brand of anarchism from all others is wilderness.
Abbey’s theme, however, is not just the individual against the crushing state; wilderness is not just a refuge for the political outlaw. In the mainstream, there was Abbey, declaring where he stood: “All creatures have equal rights, so if diversity is to be preserved, the anthropocentric, or man-centered, order of things must shift to a more biocentric view.” Bishop also writes that “Abbey depicted (the Southwest) not as virgin country ripe with industrial potential, but as a holy place to be defended, where all living creatures, including scorpions, vultures and lions, are vested with equal rights.”
Bishop generally resists emphasizing anarchism over wilderness as Abbey’s overarching message, but misinterprets Abbey when he says that Abbey’s concern was “for human nature,” not “to save the planet,” which would ultimately “replenish itself.” In truth, Abbey deeply feared what we were doing to the diversity of life that exists now. When he wrote that we could not extinguish all life on Earth, he was correct, but he was trying, as he did in so many places, to laugh at our arrogance, not to diminish the importance of today’s beautiful living Earth.
The third part of Abbey’s message is Koyaanisqatsi--the Hopi term meaning “world out of balance.” Bishop tells us that “this young prophet (Abbey in the 1950s) anticipated whole movements in American society that didn’t become evident until the 1960s and ‘70s--most of them dramatizing life out of balance. . . .” Of course, Koyaanisqatsi leads to collapse of the industrial state, the basis for Abbey’s novel “Good News.”
It is the fourth part of Abbey’s message that Bishop finds is his true legacy: “The machine may seem omnipotent, but it is not. Human bodies and human wit, active here, there, everywhere, united in purpose, independent in action, can still face that machine and stop it and take it apart and reassemble it--if we wish--on lines entirely new.” So Abbey wrote and believed, and inspired others to believe.
Why is it that Edward Paul Abbey became a cult hero without wanting to be one? Why is it that all the pretty nature writers will be forgotten and Abbey will live forever in the hearts and souls and minds and actions of lovers of freedom and wilderness?
Bishop quotes David Quammen in Outside magazine: “A man wrote a book (“Desert Solitaire”), and lives were changed. That doesn’t happen often.”
And Bishop writes: “On many occasions, Abbey said that one brave deed was worth a thousand books.” He then quotes me at Abbey’s memorial service: “He was disparaging his own contribution. Every book of Ed Abbey’s, every essay, every story has launched a thousand brave deeds.”
Jim Bishop may have shaken hands with Ed Abbey only once, but he knew him and knows his legacy.
A Better Explanation
What is worse, political correctitude or equal opportunity offensiveness? Here, as a reminder that no hero is a saint, is an excerpt from “Confessions of a Barbarian: Selections From the Journals of Edward Abbey, 1951-1989,” with original drawings by Edward Abbey , edited and with an introduction by David Petersen (to be published by Little Brown in November). This is the last entry, dated Feb. 2, 1989. Abbey died on March 14, 1989.
Why book reviewers hate my books:
Because the books are really no good? Perhaps. But I think I’ve got a better explanation. Almost all reviewers, these days, are members of and adherents to some anxious particular sect or faction. I.e., they are lesbians or New-Agers or fem-libbers or (even worse) male fem-libbers or technophiles or self-hating white liberals or right-wing conservatives or Growth maniacs or Negroes or female Negroes or Third-World lesbian militant Negro poetesses or closet Marxists (Marxoids) or futurologists or academical specialists or Chicano ideologues or ballerinas or Kowboy Kultists or Kerouac Kultists or Henry James Minimalist Perfectionists or one-tenth Chippewa “Native American” Indians or at very least all-inclusive Official Chickens--Correct-Thinking Liberals etc. etc.
As such, any member of any one of those majority minorities is going to find for certain a few remarks in any of my books that will offend/enrage “s/he” to the marrow, leading invariably in turn, on the part of such sectarian book reviewers, to a denunciation not merely of the offending passage, but of the entire book , and not merely of the book, but of the author too.
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