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Edward Abbey: A Life. By James M. Cahalan. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2001. Pp. xv+357. $27.95.
James Cahalan's overarching purpose in his biography of writer-activist Edward Abbey is to dispel the mythology surrounding one of the most controversial figures in American literary, environmental, and technological history. He traces Abbey's life from his birth and childhood in western Pennsylvania through his adulthood in the deserts of the Southwest. Abbey's literary career began in earnest with the completion of his undergraduate education at the University of New Mexico in 1951, after which he settled into a semiperipatetic routine of writing and teaching that was punctuated by seasonal work as a ranger in the region's spectacular national parks, monuments, and forests. Historians of technology will be particularly interested in Cahalan's discussion of Abbey's scathing, if frequently humorous, essays and novels documenting the ravaging of these pristine wilderness areas—especially the damming of rivers, the spread of suburban development, and the opening of public lands to economic exploitation and automobile tourism.
Abbey's controversial reputation stemmed largely from his distinctive style of activism, and Cahalan, a professor of English, is at his best in tracing the connections between that activism and Abbey's writings. Abbey laid out his particular brand of activism in his 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, which focuses on a group of four disgruntled wilderness advocates (one of whom is partly modeled on Abbey himself) engaged in various acts of "ecotage" that culminate in the unsuccessful bombing of the hated Glen Canyon Dam. This novel quickly became a cult classic among a handful of real-life wilderness advocates disillusioned by the inability of an increasingly professionalized mainstream environmental movement (and a Byzantine federal conservation policy) to halt an escalating corporate assault on the country's few remaining wilderness areas. Inspired by Abbey's novel, these wilderness advocates created Earth First! in 1980 and thereby unleashed a surge of direct action within the environmental movement. Abbey himself became a devoted, if peripheral, member of the organization, donating substantial sums of money, contributing frequently to Earth First! Journal, and speaking at various Earth First! events.
The controversy surrounding Abbey had a great deal to do with his [End Page 167] enduring commitment to Earth First!, an organization that drew sharp criticism for its misanthropic propensities. Early Earth Firsters certainly invited this sort of attack by issuing neo-Malthusian broadsides embracing epidemic disease and immigration restriction as acceptable means of population control. To what extent Abbey himself embraced these views remains unclear. Cahalan argues that while Abbey did indeed argue for immigration restriction as a means of population control (despite having fathered five children), he did so without prejudice toward any particular group and was ultimately more interested in fighting for the right to speak freely about the matter, without fear of liberal censorship. Yet Abbey's role in formulating the self-proclaimed "redneck" style of Earth First's "old guard" makes one wish that Cahalan had pursued this subject further.
Cahalan might also have provided more background on the debate between "deep" and "social" ecologists, which gave rise to an acrimonious exchange in which social ecologist Murray Bookchin accused Abbey and Earth First! founder Dave Foreman of "eco-fascism," "eco-racism," and "eco-brutality." Cahalan mishandles this revealing moment in the evolution of radical environmentalism, first by characterizing Bookchin as a socialist (he is actually an anarchist, as was Abbey), and more importantly by accepting Abbey's defensive account of the exchange at face value.
In challenging Abbey's reputation as a misogynist, Cahalan's account once again leaves the record clouded. He notes that Abbey was committed to equal rights, that he intended his inflammatory remarks to Gloria Steinem and other feminists as jokes, and that he struck up several enduring friendships with major women writers. But he also points out that Abbey clung to an essentialist perspective which led him to conclude that women belong in the home.
While Cahalan's prodigious research yields a wealth...