Sunday, January 29, 2017

Birthday: “A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government.”


Edward Paul Abbey (1927-1989)
Author, Activist

Ed Abbey is the less enthusiastically-remembered famous son of Indiana, Pennsylvania. The actor James Stewart, born a generation earlier, cleaned up better.

Abbey’s parents were the remarkable combination of an anarcho-socialist atheist father and a mother who taught school and was a church organist at the weekend. Eight months before his 18th birthday- and certain draft into World War II, Abbey hit the road to explore the Southwest. He fell in love with the Four Corners Country, the big empty at the intersection of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona popularized, among others, by the late crime writer Tony Hillerman. He fell in love with the area and swore to return.

He spent two years as an MP in Italy. He was smart enough to get promoted twice, and stroppy enough to get demoted twice, and he was honorably discharged as a private. The experience confirmed his view of government, which oscillated, the rest of his life, between loathing and revolution. He was barely out of the military before the FBI opened a file on him for anti military comments. He was on its watch list for the rest of his life.

He enrolled at the University of New Mexico on the GI Bill. When his discharge papers came in the mail, he marked the envelope “Return to Sender” and put it back in the mailbox.

As editor of the university student paper, he penned an editorial that, while he attributed it to Louisa May Alcott, contained the unmistakably Abbeyan line,

"Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest."

The university administration seized and destroyed the entire press run, and removed Abbey as editor. He was too smart to burn all his bridges, though, and in 1951 graduated with a BA in English and philosophy and a Fulbright Grant in his pocket. He married a classmate and they moved to Scotland, where he did his Fulbright year at the university in Edinburg and split up with his wife.

Abbey started an affair with his next wife in Scotland, and married her in 1952. Back at UNM, he published his first novel in 1954, and got his MA in philosophy in 1956. His thesis was on anarchism and the moral use of force.

He won a Wallace Stegner Writing Fellowship to Stanford, in 1957, after a year as a park ranger at Arches National Monument. After Stanford, he returned to the Park Service, serving as a ranger or fire lookout in several Southwestern parks and monuments, the Everglades and Alaska.

Abbey’s second novel, The Brave Cowboy, came out in 1956, and Kirk Douglas bought the film rights, hiring the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo to write the screenplay. When Abbey visited the film set in the Four Corners country, Douglas found him to look and sound uncannily like Gary Cooper; 25 years later- perhaps because of Abbey’s post-meeting notoriety, Douglas said he’d never met the man. Lonely Are the Brave, the movie, came out in 1962.

By 1965, Abbey had divorced and remarried. While he worked in Alaska, his wife pursued her MA at the University of Arizona. The marriage was strained by distance and her knowledge of his serial affairs, though Abbey was genuinely distraught when she died of leukemia in 1970. He dedicated his next book- a novel based on an affair he had in 1963- to her.

Desert Solitaire, Abbey’s first nonfiction book, was a hit from its publication in 1968, earning comparisons to Thoreau, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and Aldo Leopold’s Sand Country Almanac in its portrayal of the landscapes of the Southwest. As the environmental movement of the 1970s blossomed, Abbey became its Peck’s Bad Boy. He published increasingly provocative essays and article espousing views that were uniquely nonpartisan at the same time they were universally irritating to the mainstream. He took to things like littering from his car, arguing that the highway he was on had already ruined the landscape. He rejected the term “nature writer”, saying he couldn’t understand why so many wanted to read about the, outdoors rather than be in it. He took stands Donald trump would have loved, calling for a complete ban on immigration, and denounced those crossing the southern US border as bringing with them the “corruption, squalor and criminality of Latin America.”

He married and divorced his fourth wife in the Seventies, and married the fifth in 1982. His 1975 novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang, portrayed a group of eco-terrorists; it led to the formation of the group Earth First! in 1979, which called for direct action against anti environmental activities, public and private. Abbey never formally joined, but was loosely allied with them, and did not criticize their adoption of the term “monkeywrenching” for their more anarchic projects. By 1987, though, the group had moved well beyond even Abbey’s views, its members heckling him at some events. By the 1990s it went international, its US activities concentrated in the Pacific Northwest. They blocked logging of old growth timber by tree-sitting, and, in some instances, driving metal spikes into the trees to shatter chain saws; they were accused of a number of ski resort arsons and attempts to damage research facilities and nuclear power plants.

He produced 28 books in 35 years, and died of vascular failure and a laryngeal hemorrhage in 1989. He was, at his instruction, buried in a sleeping bag at an undisclosed site in the Arizona desert. His official last words, he said, were to be “No comment.”

#LiteraryBirthdays #HenryBemisBooks #EdwardAbbey

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