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J O H N R. K N O T T University ofMichigan Edward Abbey and the Romance of Wilderness1 At the end of his introduction to TheJourney Home, Edward Abbey comments that if he sounds intransigent it is notjust because he loves an argument, and likes to provoke people, but because he is an extremist, “one who lives and loves by choice far out on the very verge of things, on the edge of the abyss, where this world falls off into the depths of another” (JH, xiv). The image, drawn from the canyon country Abbey made his own, is a particularly revealing one. Anyone who knows Abbey’s writing will recognize one kind of extremism in his assaults on proprieties of any kind he can imagine and his fantasies of subverting the ranchers, developers, dam builders and other enemies ofwilderness whose ways he never tired of ridiculing. Yet the image also suggests another kind of extremism that Abbey recognized in himself, his attrac­ tion to another, more elusive world that he found in the desert land­ scape, a “world beyond”as he often calls it. Abbey represents this world as mysterious, boundless, ultimately unknowable, immensely alluring and at the same time dangerous. I am interested primarily in this kind of extremism and its implications for his writing. As others have observed, Abbey was a romantic despite himself.2 His complicated efforts to deal with what he describes in Desert Solitaireas “that last gallant infirmity of the soul called romance” (273) give his prose a tension and unpredictability that keep his readers off balance and alert.3Abbey frequently suggests the allure and power ofwilderness by appealing to the non-rational and the mysterious, yet he typically undercuts such appeals by offering an ironic gesture or returning abruptly to the concrete, physical world in which he locates himself. One can see the wary self-consciousness that generates this tension in Abbey’s habit of calling his romantic impulses sick, even as he indulges 332 Western American Literature them, as if he can authorize such indulgence only by showing that it is an aberration from the tough rationality with which he confronts the world. When Abbey allowed himself to become more lyrical and intro­ spective in describing his experiences of wilderness, he found ways to signal his awareness of the limitations of his language.4 The most re­ markable thing about Abbey’s portrayal of wilderness, however, is the way he continued to pursue its elusive and undefinable qualities while constructing defenses against the romantic tendencies he recognized in himself, relying upon irony, irreverence, and assertions of fact or ratio­ nality. The most revealing of Abbey’s many reasons for celebrating and defending wilderness, and the most relevant to a discussion of his romanticism, have to do in some waywith transcending limitations. Not all of these reflect the kind of tension I have described. Abbey unproblematically praises wilderness as a place of liberty, both an ex­ hilarating sense of personal freedom of the sort that he experiences as he and Newcomb begin the float through Glen Canyon described in Desert Solitaire and the political freedom his outlaw heroes (Jack Burns, Hayduke) seek and sometimes find there. He embraces the desert as a place that offers possibilities for physical trial and for vision, although he finds seeking visions more problematic than testing himself against the harshness of the country. Abbey can find Eden in this wilderness, in an unspoiled Glen Canyon, and he can imagine a post-urban world in which sand dunes will have buried the cities of the desert Southwest. Both environments offer release from the constraints and oppressions of industrial society and the opportunity to live a more primal kind of existence consistent with what Abbey calls in Down the River “our basic heritage of a million years of hunting, gathering, wandering” (120). Perhaps the deepest appeal of the desert for Abbey was as a place where boundaries are dissolved, those of time as well as those of space. The sense of mystery that he found there had to do with the spare and haunting beauty he perceived but even more with the way the desert seemed to open out...


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pp. 331-351
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