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D e s e r t S o l it a ir e a n d t h e L i t e r a r y M em ory o f a n Imagined P l a c e J a r e d F a r m e r “In another generation or two,” notes Bruce Berger, sadly, “no one alive will have a personal memory of Glen Canyon. The once pulsing lifeline at the heart of the canyon country, its dim and soaring side canyons, its native American ruins and pungent shores will exist only in books, photographs, and journals, phantasmal as Troy or the passenger pigeon” (61). Berger would know: he’s one of the lucky ones who floated down this section of the Colorado River before Lake Powell replaced it in 1963. He wrote about his experience in an essay. His is a kind of history, although different from that produced by historians. Personal memories have independent validity; they require no outside corroboration or documentation. But when private memories become public—when people publish memoirs— they enter contested ground. How true are personal recollections? Is Berger’s recollected Glen Canyon— a place that seems too perfect to be real— the “real thing”? The same question applies to Desert Solitaire (1968). The book’s longest and most moving chapter, “Down the River,” recounts Edward Abbey’s one and only trip through Glen Canyon. Ann Ronald calls it “almost a synopsis of the author at his best” (76). Even better, Abbey’s public memory (his book) can be compared with an earlier, private memory (his journal). Discrepancies exist. This has significance beyond scholars and aficionados interested in “Cactus Ed,” the author’s literary persona. With the appearance of James Cahalan’s careful biography, Edward Abbey: A Life (2001), there’s hardly more need for myth-busting for its own sake. Instead of questioning further what readers have been led to believe about Abbey, it may be better to ask what they have been led to believe about “Abbey’s Country,” especially the canyonlands of the Colorado Plateau. There among the red rocks, Desert Solitaire has produced something of a socioenvironmental impact. It may be impossible to measure the influence of this or any book, but in terms of sales, no other work on the canyon country comes close. (A distant competitor is W. L. Rusho’s Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty [1983]— which features an afterword by Abbey.) Paperback editions of Desert Solitaire have stayed in print continuously since the early 1970s. The book has, it seems fair to surmise, converted tens of thousands, most of whom maintain some connection to the canyon 156 WAL 3 8 .2 SUMMER 2 0 0 3 country— by living there, by visiting regularly, by donating to the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and so forth. The “Coyote Clan” celebrated by Terry Tempest Williams in Coyote’s Canyon (1989) might as well be the Abbey Clan. In my travels around the Colorado Plateau, I have met dozens of people who speak of their first reading of Desert Solitaire as revelation. Unlike most great literary works, this one directly changes lives. As David Quammen has observed, Trees go to pulp mills every day, paper gets made, presses roll constantly, and we bob along on a Noachian flood of printed words, a great tepid and oily deluge of discourse, nearly all of which is as dispensable as sewage effluent. But this particular book was not dispensable. This book, by some miraculous convergence of honesty and insight and wit and good timing, struck firmly upon hearts and brains; it fastened. It mattered. ... [P]eople discovered this new, odd, cranky book; they found it on their own, by happy accident or hearsay, without benefit of official hype, and they mailed paperback copies to each other with peremptory notes in the vein of “Here. Trust me. Just read this thing.” (25) Jim Stiles remembers, “[A] friend of my father gave me my first copy of Desert Solitaire. I was just out of college, unemployed, confused; I read the book, and found myself saying, yes, that’s what I felt, but could not express. I read it...


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pp. 155-170
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