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D A V I D C O P L A N D M O R R I S University of Washington-Tacoma Celebration and Irony:The Polyphonic Voice ofEdwardAbbey’sDesert Solitaire Edward Abbey resisted being called a nature writer, but it is under that label that his classic Desert Solitaireis shelved in the bookstores. He says, “Much as I admire the work of Thoreau, Muir, Leopold, Beston, Krutch, Eiseley and others, I have not tried to write in their tradition. I don’t know how. I’ve done plenty of plain living, out of necessity, but don’t know how to maintain a constant level of high thinking” (Journey Homevii). One suspects that Abbey’s fiercely independent soul feared being grouped with writers whose names carried connotations of ear­ nestness, reverence, and perhaps even piety: “Our nature writers are such a sober, solemn, misty-eyed lot. Rhapsody, except in minute doses, is always hard to swallow” (Introduction xi). His protestations notwithstanding, I believe that in Desert Solitaire Abbey is indeed a nature writer; in the final analysis he is earnest, even pious (in the non-self-righteous sense of the word) toward the over­ whelming, soul-filling source of value he finds in non-human nature. And he shares the nature writers’precious and triumphant resistance to the nihilism which pervades so much of modern life and literature. Thoreau asserts, “we are enabled to apprehend at all what is sublime and noble only by perpetually instilling and drenching of the reality which surrounds us” (399). And elsewhere he claims, “Be it life or death, we crave only reality” (400). Abbey echoes him: “I am here not only to evade for a while the clamor and filth and confusion of the cultural apparatus but also to confront, immediately and directly if it’s possible, the bare bones of existence, the elemental and fundamental, the bed­ rock that sustains us” (6). Beside sharing this outward-looking focus on the natural world, Abbey constructs, like most nature writers, a powerful critique of the anthropocentrism, or overweening human pride, which seems to be at the heart of the environmental crisis. 22 WesternAmerican Literature I would argue though, that while he is a genuine nature writer, he is perhaps unique among that species in subjecting the narrative voice which celebrates nature to a fortifying bath ofirony. Abbey gains author­ ity for his underlying celebratory vision of the western landscape by skillfully interweaving in DesertSolitairethe voice of the irreverent ironist with that of the celebrant. This ironical strain challenges the reverential vision by anticipating and expressing the secular doubt inherent in the postmodern cultural context in which Abbey and his readers find them­ selves. In exerting this pressure on reverence, the skeptical and ironic voice toughens and tempers the profession of celebratory faith in Desert Solitaire. Whether one looks back toward writers like Muir and Jeffers, or across to Lopez and Eiseley, or Dillard, one finds a reverential feeling for wild nature. But none of these writers satirizes or undercuts his or her own worshipful voice. To be sure, there is satire and wit in all of them, but none of them calls into question his or her own reverential tone. All of them approach their subjects with a nearly undiluted moral earnestness and a corresponding unity of tone. While all of them are extremely compelling writers, none has access to the comic energy that gives Desert Solitaire's environmentalism its special force. It might be helpful to place Abbey specifically (albeit impressionistically) within the context of these major literary stylists who share essential features of his environmentalist vision. Muir’s almost superhuman exuberance in the presence of wild nature never seems to flag, and he can be exhausting for the reader who finds him at times too insistent and unaware that other humans might be constructed of slightly different stuff than he. One thinks of Muir’s friend Jerome Fay, marooned with Muir one miserable and lonely night in an awesome snowstorm on Mt. Shasta. The experience was nearly fatal for both of them. Muir had overesti­ mated Fay’s mountaineering abilities in the same way perhaps he some­ times overestimated his reader’s ability...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 21-32
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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