Edward Abbey: A Life by James M. Cahalan

I appreciated Calahan’s biography of Ed Abbey. I found it the perfect next step in my increasing fascination of the man’s work, which (for me at least) is also necessarily a fascination with the man. As I’ve mused before, there is too much of the man in the work for one to possibly extricate them. And this book was just the thing for me. I learned a lot about Abbey, some of which you can find in that earlier post. Calahan’s angle on Abbey, if you will, seems to be the contradictions of the man – an angle I’m always ready to appreciate. In this case, he (Calahan) speaks often to the public figure Abbey created for himself and the often distinct private, “real” Abbey. And then there are those controversial aspects…

Abbey’s stance on immigration, for example. The public maligned him for being a racist after he spoke (and wrote) against allowing immigrants in from Mexico, which was perhaps an understandable response, but an overly simplistic one. In a nutshell, Abbey conceived his anti-immigration stance as an issue of economics, not of race; he stressed that he was against immigration of any kind of people from anywhere, including the internal migrations within the United States (easterners moving into his beloved west), which he conceded he could do nothing about. He had lots of Hispanic, Mexican, and Native American friends, and liked to visit Mexico. He also, though, wrote and spoke of the unpleasantness of Mexico and Latin America and stated that he didn’t want to live there (and neither, he pointed out, did most Latin Americans – meaning those immigrated to the US). I understand this stance perfectly and see how it could be a position without consideration of race: more people are bad for these precious and shrinking wild open spaces, regardless of their race. But it’s easy to see where he got beat up for this position, too, especially considering his reluctance to back down from controversy, to apologize or restate his position. Rather, he was inclined to bait his critics by making farcically backwards remarks.

Similarly, Abbey’s relationship with women was a complicated one. He repeatedly stated that they were the “better” sex, that he respected women and certainly that he loved them (as evidenced, in some sense, by his five wives and many extramarital relationships!). But there was that ludicrous letter he wrote to “Mizz” magazine, and all the cheating he did on his wives. He was supportive and helpful in the professional writing careers of a number of serious women (Terry Tempest Williams comes to mind, as I recently read her most recent work – the review should be out any time now). But even in his fifth and by far most successful marriage, he was firm in his wish for his wife to be a full-time mother to their children. Misogynist? Ah, I don’t quite think so; but his relationship with women was complicated.

And another example: Abbey repeatedly denied that he was a naturalist. I’ll let Cahalan himself speak here.

It is true that Abbey was not a naturalist in the scientific way that Rachel Carson or even Annie Dillard was qualified to be; he got mediocre grades in subjects such as zoology. Wendell Berry was right (and Nancy Abbey agreed) that Abbey’s real subject was himself – that as an author he was primarily an “autobiographer” more than an “environmentalist.” Yet Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang activated more than a generation’s worth of activists toward a radical new brand of direct action in defense of wilderness. While telling the story of himself and his friends, Abbey managed to change the world.

I share these observations on Abbey just to share some of what I’m learning about him. But back to the book review:

I like that Cahalan has a coherent approach to Abbey’s life here: the contradictory man, the public vs. private figure, the questions his life raises. Cahalan muses on these questions without authoritatively answering them, which is appropriate. These are questions without definitive answers. It is a sensitive biography, appears well-researched, and gave me just what I was looking for. I leave it thoughtful and curious about still more Abbey, but thoroughly satisfied (for now) in terms of biography. I recommend this work, and I still recommend all the Abbey you can find!

Rating: 7 women younger than the last.

2 Responses

  1. […] I fear it is entirely realistic even today. Knowing just a little about Abbey (one biography, check), it is painfully obvious that Doc (and Hayduke, and Seldom Seen) live out various forms of […]

  2. […] Edward Abbey: A Life is a biography of EA by James Cahalan, and I found it well-done, on top of the obvious attraction of its subject being totally engrossing. […]

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