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T O M P I L K I N G T O N Tarleton State University Edward Abbey: Western Philosopher, or How to be a "Happy Hopi Hippie” Will Gatlin and Art Ballantine, characters in Edward Abbey’s Black Sun, are conversing earnestly.1 Ballantine, who cannot understand why Gatlin has retired to the splendid isolation of a forest ranger’s watch tower, speaks first: “What in God’s name do you think you’re doing here? What do you really want to do anyway?” “Really want to do,” Gatlin repeats softly, still gazing out over the forest. Toward the desert. A pause. “Stare at the sun,” he says. “What?” “Stare it down.” Ballantine sighs. “Will, you’re crazy.” “Stare it out,” says Gatlin smiling. “Stand on this tower and stare at the sun until it goes . . . black.”2 In a later conversation, between Gatlin and a Hopi Indian acquaintance, the sun is again a main topic of discussion. “The sun will eat the earth,” says the Indian. “No,” says Gatlin. “Because we shall eat the sun.” “You white men,” replies the Indian incredulously. “You’ll eat any­ thing.”3 How does one stare the sun black or eat it? And what is accomplished if one manages to do these things? Edward Abbey has set himself the difficult task of posing such riddles and then — partially at least — solving them, a magician’s performance that well deserves our amazed attention. 1A shortened version of this paper was read at the eighth annual meeting of the Western Literature Association, held at Austin, Texas, October, 1973. I want to thank members of my graduate seminar in the “Western American Novel” (con­ ducted during spring semester, 1973, at Tarleton State University, Stephenville, Texas), among whom and with whose help many of the ideas in this essay were first developed. I am grateful in particular to Mr. George Mingus, a member of the class, who wrote a stimulating and perceptive paper on Abbey’s novels. 2Black Sun (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971), pp. 29-30. 3I b i d p. 56. 18 Western American Literature Abbey is, without question, one of the most controversial and challenging of contemporary writers from the American West. Nearly a decade ago, when I was but a naive and callow youth, I published a hasty and ill-considered essay on Abbey and his books. At the time I had only a couple of early novels — The Brave Cowboy (1956) and Fire on the Mountain (1962) — on which to base a judgment con­ cerning the author’s achievement. I did not hesitate, however, to make such a judgment. Though I praised Abbey’s talent for constructing fast-paced and exciting narratives, I was sharply critical of what appeared to me to be his philosophical incoherence — an incoherence that seemed inappropriate in the writings of an ex-professor of philosophy (in the early 1950s Abbey taught philosophy at the University of New Mexico). I accused the writer of espousing the rankest and most implausibly romantic variety of anarchism. I advised him, in effect, to grow up and cast off his willfully prolonged adolescence. The last sentence of the piece reads as follows: “Abbey’s works are as good as any that have been written by a Southwesterner in recent years, but they still have a way to go before they attain maturity, much less greatness.”4 I am pleased to report that I now detect evidence in Abbey’s most recent books of that late blossoming of maturity that I so brashly demanded long years ago. (I claim no credit, incidentally, for the author’s development, since I am certain that all this time he has remained happily ignorant of my stern criticisms, those criticisms having been published in one of the littlest of little mags.) I shall attempt to demonstrate in this paper, in any case, that the controlling subjects and themes of Abbey’s books have progressed over the years from a rather simplistic protest in his early fiction against the outrages and encroach­ ments on personal liberty often perpetrated by modern society, to a consideration in his later works of the most complex of philosophical questions. In...


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