I’ve been thinking a lot about Edward Abbey recently, as you know. I’m currently reading his Down the River, a collection of essays, as well as Cahalan’s biography, Edward Abbey: A Life, so I’m a little immersed. My fascination with him is recent, and I have a long way to go in studying him, but that’s the exciting thing about discovering an author you love, especially when that author was prolific enough to keep you busy for a while, which Abbey was. (I guess it would be even better if he were alive and still writing.) I’ve read only four (Down the River makes five) of his 25 books (I’m using this bibliography), and I’m already holding a second book about him, his friend Peacock’s memoir Walking It Off. It’s exciting to know there’s that much more to read by and about him. Heck, I haven’t read everything I want to read by and about Hemingway yet, and I’ve spent years studying him.
I’m contemplating why I’m so interested in him. I love his writing, of course. But there are other authors whose writing I admire whom I fail to get interested in as individuals. Authors of fiction often are able to stay separated from their work, of course, unless their fiction becomes very autobiographical – which was true of both Abbey and Hemingway. The fact that he writes nonfiction, and autobiographical fiction, makes Abbey the man play a significant role in my reading of him, obviously. And Abbey is fascinating because he’s sympathetic, yes – meaning I agree with many of his politics and values and emotional reactions to the world – but he’s also fascinating because he’s nuanced, complex, contradictory, and not 100% sympathetic. The most fascinating figures, to me, are those that we cannot wholeheartedly and completely endorse. Hemingway, Hefner, Harry Hughes (I haven’t read it yet, but one of my favorite library patrons has been raving about the apparently fascinating and weird biography of Hughes we have here), Lillian Hellman whose new biography by Alice Kessler-Harris I found so wonderful, and my oldest, best friend, are all complex personalities, very different from one another, but somehow similar in their contradictions.
Of course, the more I read about Abbey, the more I see how similar he is to my longtime favorite, Ernest Hemingway. They were married four and fives times, respectively. Hemingway left each of his first three wives for the next; the fourth he left in death. Abbey left wives 1, 2 and 4 for 2, 3 and 5; his third wife died, and he left the fifth in death. Both were serially unfaithful. Both authors were aware that they had a gift, struggled with their writing which they took very seriously, rewriting repeatedly, working very hard on their craft; and both struggled with some form of depression and angst in the process. As perhaps is evidenced by their plentiful relations with the opposite sex, both were very charismatic men. Their writing styles bear a resemblance, as do their outward projections of themselves as masculine, hearty, strong, skilled with their hands. The biggest difference, the one that glares off the page at me as I read Abbey’s biography (which I’m not finished with yet, so take me with salt!) is the circumstances of their deaths. According to Wikipedia – since I’m not jumping ahead in my book – Abbey died from “complications from surgery; he suffered four days of esophageal hemorrhaging, due to esophageal varices, a recurrent problem with one group of veins.” This is a far cry from Hemingway’s demise, from a self-inflicted double-barreled shotgun blast to the forehead. I can’t tell you how relieved I am to be focused on a literary hero whose life, for all its tragedies, excludes the unique tragedy of suicide.
I’m very much enjoying getting immersed in the life of this prickly, unique, humorous and passionate man whose work I very much admire. And I’m struck by the fact that all those adjectives could apply to my first literary obsession, Papa. Who have you been stuck on lately, and why?