This year marks the 40th anniversary of Edward Abbey’s influential novel “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” an often-cited book for the start of the Earth First! movement and catalyst for many people pursuing environmental justice.
Both “Monkey Wrench” — which circles its story around eco-saboteurs and a plot to blow up Glen Canyon Dam — and Abbey have entered into the realm of Southwest mythos. So, it’s no surprise that recent months have brought the releases of some new titles about the firebrand author — who is also known for his Walden-esque “Desert Solitaire” and other novels such as “The Fool’s Progress.”
Countless times Abbey has been named an influence for Western writers and, more than 25 years after his death, he remains a potent presence.
Here is a roundup of three Abbey books out this year and some thoughts on what each book shares about the guy known as Cactus Ed and his legacy in the Southwest.
“Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave” by Sean Prentiss (University of New Mexico Press). One of two notable biographical treatments of Abbey that came out this year is Sean Prentiss’s “Finding Abbey.” Prentiss gives the reader the dual feeling of having both a reverence for his subject and a nagging curiosity about his contradictions. This ultimately is the tension that drives “Finding Abbey” and keeps it readable.
However, the premise of the author in search for Abbey’s secret grave is unsettling given that old Cactus Ed likely would not have wanted to be found. Prentiss does make the journey interesting, even if the destination doesn’t always feel right.
What helps “Finding Abbey” gain its footing are the conversations and interactions Prentiss has with the real people who inspired Abbey’s characters. He also takes a hard look at Abbey’s darker edges, such as his racist views, which help color the complexity of the man.
Prentiss strikes some insightful notes toward the end of the memoir-like biography, particularly when he crosses paths with Doug Peacock, the real-life inspiration for Abbey’s most popular character, George Hayduke. He is one of the four monkey-wrenchers in the famous novel.
The Prentiss isn’t afraid to note Peacock’s initial animosity toward him and his idea to look for the grave, while the perceptions Peacock ultimately give here probably come as close to the mark as any have about Abbey’s persona.
“All The Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West” by David Gessner (W.W. Norton). Also released this year about Abbey is “All the Wild That Remains” by David Gessner, although with an important notation that the book is actually a biography of both Abbey and Wallace Stegner.
Abbey is the wandering barbarian and Stegner is the steady and disciplined scholar and witness — or so it first appears. At one point in the book, Terry Tempest Williams presents a contradictory view of this idea to the author that leads him to wrangle with a reversed notion of his two subjects.
Gessner’s premise and open-minded approach ultimately allows him to compare the two literary giants with striking effect. He also hangs some ideas on the climate crisis and arrives to the West in the devastating 2012 wildfire season.
Both Gessner and Prentiss struggle with their ability to say something new about Abbey, but it feels like Gessner is digging into some fresher ideas on Stegner’s legacy.
Occasionally, though, the author’s focus on his hanging-out time in places such as Salt Lake City feels a little too slack to be interesting.
Luckily, Gessner’s curiosity about all aspects of the two men draws him down some other interesting avenues that help “All the Wild” feel like a robust dual biography, and one that also becomes a tribute to place.
“Abbey in America: A Philosopher’s Legacy in a New Century” (University of New Mexico Press). For the Abbey or Southwestern literary completest, the University of New Mexico Press also has released “Abbey in America,” a collection of writings about Abbey that makes for a great additional reader.
The best of the collection include “Desert Solitaire Revisited” by the aforementioned Peacock and another by a close Abbey friend, Jack Loeffler, called “Abbey Following his Own Truth.” The late Charles Bowden also offers sharp insight in his piece, “On the Edge with Edward Abbey, Charles Ives, and the Outlaws.”
What ultimately holds all three books together on the Abbey front is that the man was paradoxical in ways that make him a great literary topic — and his words and ideas continue to inspire and provoke.