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P A U L T . B R Y A N T Radford University Edward Abbey and Environmental Quixoticism When Edward Abbey visited my campus some years ago, I was curious to know what he was like. His public lecture was in the tone one might expect from his writing—a mixture of Jack Burns and George Washington Hayduke. But I was interested in the person behind the public image. At a reception at a colleague’s house, after the lecture, I hoped to meet that person. Before many people had arrived, Abbey was quiet, affable, relaxed. As the number of people increased to a loud, milling mob, he became visibly less comfortable. Finally, he retreated as unobtrusively as possible to the kitchen. I was already there, having made a similar retreat a few minutes earlier. We had a quiet conversation that ended only when others found where he had fled. From that brief acquaintance, I got the strong sense that Edward Abbeywas not the sharp-tongued, outrageous anarchist so manybelieve him to have been (see, for example, Gregory McNamee, 24), but rather a quiet, shy, thoughtful man who created a far different persona for public con­ sumption. Confirmation has since come from others. Barry Lopez, for example, writes of Abbey’s “ingenuous shyness, so at odds with the public image of a bold iconoclast” (65). Indeed, in an interview with James Hepworth, Abbey himself confirmed this view: “Oh, I’m dimly aware of some sort of mythical Edward Abbey, but I don’t take him seriously, don’t attempt to live up to it. . . . The real Edward Abbey—whoever the hell that is—is a real shy, timid fellow, but the character I create in my journalism is perhaps a person I would like to be: bold, brash, daring. I created this character, and I gave him my name. I guess some people mistake the creation of the author, but that’s their problem” (42). My thesis here is that such a personality, and such a vision, lie at the bottom of the aggregate of Edward Abbey’s writing. This idea is hardly 38 Western American Literature new, of course. Other critics, such as Garth McCann, Ann Ronald, and Jerry Herndon, have found a balanced, eminently rational environmental moderate in Abbey’s non-fiction nature writing, despite his more extreme statements,1 and despite popular emphasis on some of his more extreme fictional characters. I would like to demonstrate the soundness ofthat thesis, and to explore the complex ways this moderation beneath the surface of extremism has been stated outright in Abbey’s non-fiction and has evolved as a definitive counterpoint to the more colorful extremism in his fiction. Abbey’s readers have long recognized his habit of using similar names for similar characters from one work of fiction to another, such as Vogelin as Jack Bums’s grandfather’s name and as the name of the embattled rancher in Fire on the Mountain, and Desalius for the military man in both of those novels. And of course there is the return of Jack Bums in Good News, with the suggestion that the “lone ranger” in The Monkey Wrench Gang was Burns. Abbey has said that this repetition of names “began as chance but became a design following the evolutionary principle” (Balian 60). This continuity and development from work to work extends not only to characters but also to themes and relationships. Through such continuity, Abbey’s works as a group present a pattern of meaning, a “figure in the carpet,” that supports the image of moderation at levels deeper than the direct statement found in the non-fiction. First, however, let us consider the direct statements, particularly in his non-fiction nature writing. His position is clearly stated in Desert Solitaire. Early in that book Abbey observes not, as readers ofhis fiction might expect, that wilderness is the desirable alternative to civilization, but rather that “wilderness is a necessary part of civilization.” No Luddite, he can make use of the genuine benefits of civilization. The refrigerator, for example, is a useful machine for producing ice for his drinks: “Once the drink is mixed, however, I always go outside...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 37-43
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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