Thinking: Abbey, Straight Up

The new collection of letters from incendiary environmentalist Edward Abbey is a jigger of the real stuff

By Brian Kevin

Postcards from Ed: Dispatches and Salvos from an American Iconoclast. By Edward Abbey. Milkweed Editions, $24.95

Dispatches and Salvos from an American Iconoclast

MILKWEED EDITIONS, $24.95 THE ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT boasts a strange pantheon. On this slapdash Olympus, Julia Butterfly Hill rubs shoulders with Al Gore, and Rachel Carson is quoted alongside John Denver. Green crusaders wisely gather their heroes where they may, but all that inclusivity can sometimes evoke the apologist’s tendency to gloss over disagreeable behavior and less-than-sustainable habits.

Consider the wilderness defender and social provocateur Edward Abbey. Between the 1968 publication of his Walden-esque breakthrough, Desert Solitaire, and his death in 1989, the semi-reclusive Southwesterner published over twenty books. In most, Abbey uses his polemical flair and wry humor to promote wilderness and protest industrial expansion—as in The Monkey Wrench Gang, his infamous 1975 tale about a crew of unlikely construction-site saboteurs. Abbey was lambasted by the right for his outspoken aversion to the “techno-industrial-commercial slime-mold” of urban development, but often snubbed by the left for his perceived misogyny, tacit approval of eco-sabotage, and (yes) tendency to toss empty beer cans out the windows of his speeding truck.

Yet Abbey’s popular legacy, rather than addressing these complexities, too often paints him simply as a loveable curmudgeon— environmentalism’s cheeky granddad, sparring with the cacti and howling at the moon. So it’s refreshing whenever a new Abbey collection emerges to reestablish the author’s not-always-good name.

Postcards from Ed does exactly that, recalling Abbey’s passion and peculiarities through 45 years of collected correspondence, curated by friend and fellow Western scribe David Petersen. A goodly number of eloquently caustic letters-to-the-editor showcase the powerful prose and righteous indignation for which “Cactus Ed” was known. With characteristic candor, Abbey discusses his disdain for engineers (“the worst vermin in modern society”), airs his seemingly reactionary views on immigration (“the Latino invasion of our country”), and scoffs at mankind’s faith in scientific progress (“the grossest superstition of this gross decade”). He waxes philosophical on solitude, women, literature, and guns. Of course, bits of black humor drift through the dispatches like desert tumbleweeds. Discussing industry and overpopulation, Abbey writes to a Utah magazine editor, “If we must have more industry in southern Utah, I would suggest…light manufacturing: let’s say, a nice, clean, well-lighted condom factory.”

Petersen disappointingly omits correspondence between Abbey and his many lovers, and aside from some noteworthy glimpses of the author at work, Abbey acolytes should expect few profound new insights here. Some may be discouraged to find the often-effusive writer limited to the confines of short correspondence. But Postcards succeeds in part because Abbey’s letters are characteristic and concise. Each provides a bracing shot of Edward Abbey as he lived and wrote—without an apologist chaser.

Issue 25

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