Edward Abbey

By: Anthony Miller
January 29, 2016


Although averse to being branded a “nature writer” and disparaging of his role as a sage, EDWARD ABBEY (1927–89) roused any reader who treasures the great outdoors. This irascible novelist, essayist, and citizen-conservationist’s scorn extended from strip miners, clear-cutters, and other natural-resource pirates to utopian communards blighting the landscape with “Fullerian foam fungus.” His writing overflowed with wonder and outrage, panegyric and jeremiad, comedy and melancholy. After his two-week stint as a philosophy grad student at Yale, Abbey told a friend, “When I hear the word ‘phenomenology,’ I reach for my revolver.” (Or was it a case of poison Ivy?) Abbey wrote his University of New Mexico master’s thesis on “Anarchism and the Morality of Violence” and continued his explorations of anarchy and sabotage throughout his work. He found inspiration in Thoreau and Joseph Wood Krutch but also expressed great esteem for ambitious exegeses of more contemporary techno-industrial worlds by Gaddis, Pynchon, and DeLillo. For many, Abbey’s finest book is his solo odyssey as a ruminant ranger in Utah’s Arches National Monument, Desert Solitaire (1968). Others favor the small-group excursion of The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), an ecologically minded Ocean’s 11, where a quartet of saboteurs set their sights on the scourge of Glen Canyon Dam. The novel introduced the rambunctious George Washington Hayduke, the environmentalist’s answer to Sebastian Dangerfield, and the phrase “monkey wrenching.” It also precipitated the creation of Earth First! The declarations of “Cactus Ed” could puncture like literary caltrops: “Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell.” In “A Writer’s Credo,” the author declared any worthy writer “must be a seer, a prophet, the defender of life, freedom, openness, always — always! — a critic of society.” Abbey was buried in a secret spot in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, a rock offering a terse epitaph: “No Comment.” Abbey’s powerfully reverberating voice still cries out in — and for — the American wilderness.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: W.C. Fields, Anton Chekhov.

READ MORE about members of the Postmodernist Generation (1924-33).