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BOOK REVIEW S 3 8 9 Though bipolar disorder has only recently become recognized as a mental illness that can be talked about, the family pain it causes is ancient and univer­ sal. These Westerners are toughing it out together yet still seek professional help for their caroming daughter and sister. Scenes of heartbreak snowball, and in their emotional truth, Fromm is utterly convincing. A parent for almost two decades, I’m particularly moved by Fromm’s portrait of the parents in his strong first novel. Edward Abbey: A Life. By James M. Cahalan. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2002. 360 pages, $27.95. Reviewed by Owen Grumbling University of N ew England, Biddeford, M aine Edward Abbey’s novel Brave Cowboy was discussed in the inaugural issue of WesternAmerican Literature, and in 1978 the Association presented Abbey with its lifetime achievement award. He is one of our most significant western writ­ ers, yet that label, as James Cahalan demonstrates in his new biography, is inad­ equate to describe a complex canon and even more complex life. The personae Abbey created, in his fiction, personal essays, and even his correspondence, often confound attempts to understand his work. For the many who share Abbey’s love ofwesternwilderness (and wilderness per se), Abbey’s art provides a special kind of inspiration, a sense of authentic camaraderie based upon deeply shared values. This camaraderie persists for many despite serious charges of racism, misogyny, contempt for diversity, machismo. A student of Abbey’s once wrote, “Sometimes one’s persona can embrace contra­ dictions that in others would be screamingly hypocritical” (198). Cahalan’s new biography helps Abbey’s readers understand some of those contradictions by avoiding adulation (though a tad overdefensive) and by attempting to distinguish fact from legend, especially the legends embedded in Abbey’s own “creative nonfiction.” Early on, Cahalan sets the tone by debunk­ ing Abbey’s home addresses at both “Home, PA,’’and “Oracle, AZ,” in the process providing insight into Abbey’s self-image. The biographer keeps his eye hard upon the facts of Abbey’s actions and words, mercifully avoiding impene­ trable theoretical baggage. Instead his plan is to provide a useful and unobtrusive context: “the connections of a writer’s life to particulars of history, politics,” and the general culture surrounding his life (xv). We see the complications ofAbbey’s character as Cahalan peels offsuccessive layers ofinfluence: a socialist, iconoclasticfather raising a family inAppalachia dur­ ing the Great Depression; the Western in cinema; an Appalachian marriage between a working-class husband and a middle-class wife; Beat generation culture; the antiwar and antinuclear movements; years ofphilosophic study in the academy. Though Cahalan well documents Abbey’s love of western landscape, scrupulously listing wilderness expeditions, he makes an especially valuable (and 3 9 0 WAL 3 7 .3 F a l l 2 0 0 2 no doubt controversial) acknowledgment that in many respects the East remained significant in Abbey’s life and work. Cahalan teaches at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania very near Abbey’s principal childhood home; per­ haps his firsthand perception of the beauty of the Allegheny mountains, repeat­ edly celebrated in Abbey’s letters and journals, encourages Cahalan to explore the sustained influence of Appalachian landscape on Abbey’s life. In fact, I would have thought it proper to spend more words on exploring the enormous influence of Abbey’s mother on his boyhood appreciation of nature. But Cahalan’s work was constrained by his editor’s “strict page limita­ tion” (xv). The consequent biography is a brief (276 text pages), dense, highly readable biography that nonetheless remains rich in detail. Those who have perused the seemingly infinitecrannies ofthe Abbey collection at the University of Arizona will appreciate the challenge of including in a brief biography so many fine, crucial details. Some samples: the bitter unhappiness of Abbey’s mother when her husband moved them away from the family homestead; the emendation of The Brave Cowboy’s final paragraph, permitting a subsequent resurrection ofJack Bums; the Colorado speech on Desert Solitaire that outraged the audience when it turned into a protest of the Vietnam War; the chronology of Desert Solitaire, indicating that the “rabbit...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 389-390
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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