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J O H N A. M U R R A Y University of Denver The Hill Beyond the City: Elements of the Jeremiad in Edward Abbey’s “Down the River with Henry Thoreau” While Edward Abbey, the author of such popular works as Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang, is often considered a nature essayist, or a writer of political novels, he has not been widely discussed or appreciated as an author whose work might fruitfully be examined in a religious context. This inquiry will consider the extent to which elements of the jeremiad are present in a representative selection of the author’s prose: “Down the River with Henry Thoreau,” from Abbey’s 1982 collection Down the River, using the three distinct characteristics of the seventeenthcentury American jeremiad (scriptural reference, denunciation, and pro­ phetic vision) stipulated by Sacvan Bercovitch (Bercovitch, 16). On a river-rafting trip down the Green River in southeast Utah, Abbey has with him not a Bible for scriptural reference, but another form of American sacred work, Thoreau’s Walden: I carry a worn and greasy paperback copy of a book called Walden or Life in the Woods. Not for thirty years have I looked inside this book;now for the first time since my school days I shall (Abbey, 36). Like the family Bible, the book has a history to it; Abbey’s copy is “beerstained , grease-spotted” (Abbey, 36) and came from the “thirty-third print­ ing” (Abbey, 36). Walden has, as the author notes, “been published abroad in every country where English can be read” (Abbey, 36), as well as in countries such as the Soviet Union. The work is, in short, as indispensable and ubiquitous as the Bible. Abbey writes that Thoreau’s mind has been “haunting” him for most of his life (Abbey, 13). He describes Thoreau, as Abbey himself has been characterized in some quarters, as the “arrogant, insolent crank,” a “crusty character,” an “unpeeled man,” a “man with the bark on him” (Abbey, 45). Reflecting on the two daugerreotypes of Thoreau, Abbey observes that the Concordian showed “an elementary 302 Western American Literature melancholy. A resigned sadness . . . a certain weariness . . . [but not] the faintest hint of any desperation” (Abbey, 42). In descriptions like these, together with constant references to Walden, Abbey establishes Thoreau as someone who has suffered and meditated sufficiently to receive and transmit wisdom, creating through his labors the sacred work or scriptural text of Walden. By the sixth paragraph Abbey has launched into his first attack on the moral backsliding of America: Year by year the institutions that dominate our lives grow ever big­ ger, more complicated, massive, impersonal, and powerful. Whether governmental, corporate, military, or technological—and how can any one of these be disentangled from the others?—they weigh on society as the pyramids of Egypt weighed on the backs of those who were conscripted to build them (Abbey, 14). The inference is that materialism—a contemporary expression for what the Puritans would call avariciousness—has led people astray, for what are the institutions but a mirror of the society that creates them? After this outburst, Abbey notes that Thoreau made the same sort of observation in Walden: “As for the Pyramids, there is nothing to wonder at in them so much as the fact that so many men could be found degraded enough to spend their lives constructing a tomb for some ambitious booby” (Thoreau, quoted in Abbey, 15). For both authors the Egyptian pyramids are a potent symbol of the futility of a collective or communal life that has established for itself an unworthy agenda or set of objectives. Like Thoreau, whose Walden Bercovitch has described as a jeremiad, Abbey is trying to call the masses back from their lives of “quiet desperation.” After several pages of very fine natural description, Abbey again picks up his theme: We Americans cannot save the world. Even Christ failed at that. We Americans have our hands full in trying to save ourselves .. . . The Peace Corps was a lovely idea .. . [but] it was an act of cultural arrogance. A piece of insolence . . . [the third world] is a common peneplain of overcrowding, squalor, misery, oppression, torture...


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pp. 301-306
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