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P A U L T . B R Y A N T Radford University The Structure and Unity of Desert Solitaire Edward Abbey was often at pains to present himself as a blunt, straightforward, uncomplicated, unsophisticated writer who simply ex­ pressed things as he saw them. A careful reader will soon discover otherwise. Writing that reveals more with each successive reading, as does DesertSolitaire, is a mark of an important writer whose work will last because the careful reader is never “finished”with it. In this book new associations of images, new structural relationships, new patterns of ideas, new allusive associations, indeed significant new meanings may emerge with each new reading. Abbey in fact is quite sophisticated, both philosophically and artistically. He illustrates the Latin proverb, “Ars est celare artem, ”art lies in concealing art. I am reminded of Harold Ickes’comment, during the 1944 presidential campaign, when he saw news photographs ofWendell Wilkie wearing a straw hat and looking at a cow on an Indiana farm. He said Wilkie was ‘just a simple, barefoot Wall Street lawyer.”Ed Abbey is like that. Don’t let the jeans and muddy boots fool you. He can spin a good yarn and measure his mileage in six-packs, and this is a part both of his charm and of his authenticity, but he is doing a good deal more. Among other things, he is exploring his, and our, relationship with society and with nature, and he’s doing it in subtle and complex ways. He is also a skilled artist creating, within a literary tradition ofwhich he is quite conscious, well structured works in which some of his art lies in concealing his art. I hope to expose a little of that concealed art in Desert Solitaire. Like a mountain man who doesn’twant to be followed, or perhaps a writer who doesn’t want to be imitated, Abbey covers his tracks. In his “Author’s Introduction” to Desert Solitaire, he begins throwing us off the trail by telling us that “most of the substance of this book is drawn, 4 WesternAmerican Literature sometimes direct and unchanged, from the pages of thejournals I kept and filled through the undivided, seamless days of those marvelous summers” (xii). Perhaps, to some extent, but I suspect that even as he kept those journals he was consciously developing and shaping Desert Solitaire. Indeed, in the Introduction Abbey the conscious artist does for a moment admit he is creating art, not reportage: “Since you cannot get the desert into a book any more than a fisherman can haul up the sea with his nets, I have tried to create a world ofwords in which the desert figures more as a medium than as material. Not imitation but evocation has been the goal” (xii). This is a good start toward a definition of Abbey’s artistic project in this book, but it is only a start. On later occasions, Abbey again tried to brush out his tracks. For example, in the 1977 interviewwithJames Hepworth at the University of Arizona, he said, “When I’m writing an article or an essay, I tend to think it’s not very important, so I dash it off freestyle, more or less off the top of my head—or the bottom of my belly. I improvise,just dash along in any old manner that seems suitable to me” (35). Then later, “I never wanted to be an environmental crusader, an environmentaljournalist. I wanted to be a fiction writer, a novelist. Then I dashed off that Desert Solitaire thing because it was easy to do. All I did was copy out of some journals that I’d kept. . (39). In his introduction to TheJourney Home, Abbey saysDesertSolitaireis “personal history rather than natural history. . . . simple narrative accounts of travel and adventure” (xiii). I’m sure there is truth in these statements, but it is truth told slant, as Dickinson might say, or told with some “stretchers,”as Sam Clemens might suggest. Or perhaps we might say that Abbey reverses Marianne Moore’s dictum on poetry, and in his prose gives us real gardens (the desert) with at least partially imaginary toads in them. The book...


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