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By Wendell Berry - 1985

Edward Abbey: to pc or not too pc?
Hayduke Speaks - The living legacy of Ed Abbey

Reading through a sizable gathering of reviews of Edward Abbey's books, as I have lately done, one becomes increasingly aware of the extent to which this writer is seen as a problem by people who are, or who think they are, on his side. The problem, evidently, is that he will not stay in line. No sooner has a label been stuck to his back by a somewhat hesitant well-wisher than he runs beneath a low limb and scrapes it off. To the consternation of the "committed" reviewer, he is not a conservationist or an environmentalist or a boxable ist of any other kind; he keeps on showing up as Edward Abbey, a horse of another color, and one that requires some care to appreciate.

He is a problem, apparently, even to some of his defenders, who have an uncontrollable itch to apologize for him: "Well, he did say that. But we mustn't take him altogether seriously. He is only trying to shock us into paying attention." Don't we all remember from our freshman English class how important it is to get the reader's attention ?

Some environmentalist reviewers see Mr. Abbey as a direct threat to their cause—a man embarrassingly prejudiced or radical or unruly. Not a typical review, but one representative of a certain kind of feeling about Edward Abbey, was Dennis Drabelle's attack on Down the River in The Nation of May 1, 1982. In it, Mr. Drabelle accused Mr. Abbey of elitism, iconoclasm, arrogance, and xenophobia; he found that Mr. Abbey's "immense popularity among environmentalists is puzzling" and observed that "many of his attitudes give aid and comfort to the enemies of conservation."

Edward Abbey is, of course, a mortal requiring criticism, and I would not attempt to argue otherwise. He undoubtedly has some of the faults he has been accused of having, and maybe some others that have not been discovered yet. What I would argue is that attacks on him such as that of Mr. Drabelle are based on misreading, and that the misreading is based on the assumption that Mr. Abbey is both a lesser man and a lesser writer than he in fact is.

Mr. Drabelle and others like him assume that Mr. Abbey is an environmentalist—and hence that they, as other environmentalists, have a right to expect him to perform as their tool. They further assume that if he does not so perform, they have a proprietary right to complain. They would like, in effect, to brand him an outcast and an enemy of their movement and to enforce their judgment against him by warning people away from his books. Why should environmentalists want to read a writer whose immense popularity among them is puzzling?

Such assumptions, I think, rest on yet another assumption that is more important and more needful of attention: namely, that our environmental problems are the result of bad policies, bad political decisions, and that, therefore, our salvation lies in winning unbelievers to the righteous political side. If all those assumptions were true, then I suppose that the objections of Mr. Drabelle would be sustainable: Mr. Abbey's obstreperous traits would be as unsuitable in him as in any other political lobbyist. Those assumptions, however, are false.

Mr. Abbey is not an environmentalist. He is, certainly, a defender of some things that environmentalists defend, but he does not write merely in defense of what we call "the environment." Our environmental problems, moreover, are not, at root, political; they are cultural. As Edward Abbey knows and has been telling us, our country is not being destroyed by bad politics; it is being destroyed by a bad way of life. Bad politics is merely another result. To see that the problem is far more than political is to return to reality, and a look at reality permits us to see, for example, what Mr. Abbey's alleged xenophobia amounts to.

The instance of xenophobia cited by Mr. Drabelle occurs on page seventeen of Down the River, where Mr. Abbey proposes that our Mexican border should be closed to immigration. If we permit unlimited immigration, he says, before long "the social, political, economic life of the United States will be reduced to the level of life in Juarez. Guadalajara. Mexico City. San Salvador. Haiti. India. To a common peneplain of overcrowding, squalor, misery, oppression, torture, and hate." That is certainly not a liberal statement. It expresses "contempt for other societies," just as Mr. Drabelle says it does. It is, moreover, a fine example of the exuberantly opinionated Abbey statement that raises the hackles of readers like Mr. Drabelle—as it is probably intended to do. But before we dismiss it for its tone of "churlish hauteur," we had better ask if there is any truth in it.

And there is some truth in it. As the context plainly shows, this sentence is saying something just as critical of ourselves as of the other countries mentioned. Whatever the justice of the "contempt for other societies," the contempt for the society of the United States, which is made explicit in the next paragraph, is fearfully just: "We are slaves in the sense that we depend for our daily survival upon an expand-or-expire agro-industrial empire—a crackpot machine—that the specialists cannot comprehend and the managers cannot manage. Which is, furthermore, devouring world resources at an exponential rate. We are, most of us, dependent employees"—a statement that is daily verified by the daily news. And its truth exposes the ruthless paradox of Mexican immigration: Mexicans cross the border because our way of life is extravagant; because our way of life is extravagant, we have no place for them—or won't have for very long. A generous immigration policy would be contradicted by our fundamentally ungenerous way of life. Mr. Abbey assumes that before talking about generosity we must talk about carrying capacity, and he is correct. The ability to be generous is finally limited by the availability of supplies.

The next question, then, must be; if he is going to write about immigration, why doesn't he do it in a sober, informed, logical manner? The answer, I am afraid, will not suit some advocates of sobriety, information, and logic: He can write in a sober, informed, logical manner—if he wants to. And why does he sometimes not want to? Because it is not in his character to want to all the time. With Mr. Abbey, character is given, or it takes, a certain precedence, and that precedence makes him a writer and a man of a different kind—and probably a better kind—than the practitioner of mere sobriety, information, and logic.

In classifying Mr. Abbey as an environmentalist, Mr. Drabelle is implicitly requiring him to be sober, informed, and logical. And there is nothing illogical about Mr. Drabelle's discomfort when his call for an environmentalist was answered by a man of character, somewhat unruly, who apparently did not know that an environmentalist was expected. That, I think, is Mr. Abbey's problem with many of his detractors. He is advertised as an environmentalist. They want him to be an environmentalist. And who shows up but this character, who writes beautifully some of the time, who argues some of the time with great eloquence and power, but who some of the time offers opinions that appear to be only his own uncertified prejudices, and who some of the time, even in the midst of serious discussion, makes jokes.

If Mr. Abbey is not an environmentalist, what is he? He is, I think, at least in the essays, an autobiographer. He may be writing on one or another of what are now called environmental issues, but he remains Edward Abbey, speaking as and for himself, fighting, literally, for dear life. This is important, for if he is writing as an autobiographer, he cannot be writing as an environmentalist—or as a special ist of any other kind. As an autobiographer, his work is self-defense; as a conservationist, it is to conserve himself as a human being. But this is self-defense and self-conservation of the largest and noblest kind, for Mr. Abbey understands that to defend and conserve oneself as a human being m the fullest, truest sense, one must defend and conserve many others and much else. What would be the hope of being personally whole in a dismembered society, or personally healthy In a land scalped, scraped, eroded, and poisoned, or personally free in a land entirely controlled by the government, or personally enlightened in an age illuminated only by TV? Edward Abbey is fighting on a much broader front than that of any "movement." He is fighting for the survival not only of nature, but of human nature, of culture, as only our heritage of works and hopes can define it. He is, in short, a traditionalist—as he has said himself, expecting, perhaps, not to be believed.

Here the example of Thoreau becomes pertinent. My essay may seem on the verge of becoming very conventional now, for one of the strongest of contemporary conventions is that of comparing to Thoreau every writer who has been as far out of the house as the mailbox. But I do not intend to say that Mr. Abbey writes like Thoreau, for I do not think he does, but only that their cases are similar. Thoreau has been adopted by the American environment movement as a figurehead; he is customarily quoted and invoked as if he were in some simple way a forerunner of environmentalism. This is possible, obviously, only because Thoreau has been dead since 1862. Thoreau was an environmentalist in exactly the sense that Edward Abbey is: he was for some things that environmentalists are for. And in his own time he was just as much of an embarrassment to movements, just as uncongenial to the group spirit, as Edward Abbey is, and for the same reasons: he was working as an autobiographer, and his great effort was to conserve himself as a human being in the best and fullest sense. As a political activist, he was a poor excuse. What was the political value of his forlorn, solitary taxpayer's revolt against the Mexican War ? What was politic about his defense of John Brown or his insistence that abolitionists should free the wage slaves of Massachusetts ? Who could trust the diplomacy of a man who would pray:

Great God, I ask thee for no other pelf
Than that I may not disappoint myself;
. . . . . . . . . . . .
And next in value, which thy kindness lends,
That I may greatly disappoint my friends . . .

The trouble, then, with Mr. Abbey—a trouble, I confess, that I am disposed to like—is that he speaks insistently as himself. In any piece of his, we are apt to have to deal with all of him, caprices and prejudices included. He does not simply submit to our criticism, as does any author who publishes; he virtually demands it. And so his defenders, it seems to me, are obliged to take him seriously, to assume that he generally means what he says, and, instead of apologizing for him, to acknowledge that he is not always right or always fair—which, of course, he is not. who is? For me, part of the experience of reading him has always been, at certain points, that of arguing with him.

My defense of him begins with the fact that I want him to argue with, as I want to argue with Thoreau. If we value these men and their work, we are compelled to acknowledge that such writers submit to standards raised, though not necessarily made, by themselves. We, with our standards, must take them as they come, defend ourselves against them if we can, agree with them if we must. If we want to avail ourselves of the considerable usefulness and the considerable pleasure of Edward Abbey, we will have to like him as he is. If we cannot like him as he is, then we will have to ignore him, if we can. My own notion is that he is going to become harder to ignore, and for good reasons, not the least of which is that the military-industrial state is working as hard as it can to prove him right.

It seems virtually certain that no reader can read much of Mr. Abbey without finding some insult to something that he or she approves of. Mr. Abbey is very hard, for instance, on "movements"—the more solemn and sacred they are, the more they tempt his ridicule. He is a great irreverencer of sacred cows. There is not one sacred cow of the sizable herd still on the range that he has left ungoosed. He makes his rounds as unerringly as the local artificial inseminator. This is one of his leitmotifs. He gets around to them all. His are glancing blows, mainly, delivered on the run, with a weapon no more lethal than his middle finger. The following is fairly typical:

The essays in Down the River are meant to serve as antidotes to despair. Despair leads to boredom, electronic games, computer hacking, poetry and other bad habits.

That example is appropriate here because it passingly gooses one of my own sacred cows: poetry. I am inclined to be tickled rather than bothered by Mr. Abbey's way with consecrated bovines, and this instance does not stop me long—though I do pause to think that I, anyhow, would not equate poetry with electronic pastimes. But if one is proposing to take Mr. Abbey seriously, one finally must stop and deal with such matters. Am I, then, a defender of "poetry"? The answer, inevitably, is no; I am a defender of some poems. Any human product or activity that humans defend as a category becomes, by that very fact, a sacred cow—in need, by the same fact, of an occasional goosing.

Some instances of this activity are funnier than others, and readers will certainly disagree as to the funniness of any given instance. But whatever one's opinion, in particular or in general, of Mr. Abbey's blasphemies against sacred cows, one should be wary of the assumption that they are merely humorous or (as has been suggested) merely 'image-making" stunts calculated to sell articles to magazines. They are, I think, gestures or reflexes of his independence, his refusal to act as a spokesman or a property of any group or movement, however righteous. This refusal keeps the real dimension and gravity of our problems visible to him, and keeps him from falling for easy answers. You never hear Mr. Abbey proposing that the fulfillment of this or that public program, or the achievement of the aims of this or that movement, or the "liberation" of this or that group, will save us. The absence in him of such propositions is one of his qualities, and it is a welcome relief.

The funniest and the best of these assaults are the several that are launched head-on against the most exalted of all the modern sacred cows: the self. Mr. Abbey's most endearing virtue as an autobiographer is his ability to stand aside from himself and recount his most outrageous and self-embarrassing goof-ups, with a bemused and gleeful curiosity, as if they were the accomplishments not merely of somebody else, but of an altogether different kind of creature. I envy him that. It is, of course, a high achievement. How absurd we humans in fact are ! How misapplied is our self-admiration—as we can readily see by observing other self-admiring humans ! How richly just and healthful is self-ridicule ! And yet how few of us are capable of it. I certainly find it hard. My own goof-ups seem to me to have received merciless publicity when my wife has found out about them.

Because Mr. Abbey is so humorous and unflinching an autobiographer, he knows better than to be uncritical about anything human. That is why he holds sacred cows in no reverence. And it is at least partly why his reverence for nature is authentic: he does not go to nature to seek himself or flatter himself, nor does he speak of nature to display his sensitivity. He is understandably reluctant to reveal himself as a religious man, but the fact occasionally appears plainly enough: "It seems clear at last that our love for the natural world—Nature—is the only means by which we can requite God's obvious love for it."

The most interesting brief example of Abbey humor that I remember is his epigram on "gun control" in his essay "The Right to Arms." "If guns are outlawed," he says, "only the government will have guns." That sentence, of course, is a parody of the "gun lobby" bumper sticker: "If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns." It seems at first glance only another example of sacred cow goosing—howbeit an unusually clever one, for it gooses both sacred cows involved in this conflict: the idea that, because guns are used in murders, they should be "controlled" by the government, and the idea that the Second Amendment to the Bill of Rights confers a liberty that is merely personal. Mr. Abbey's sentence, masquerading as an instance of his well-known "iconoclasm," slices through the distractions of the controversy to the historical and constitutional roots of the issue. The sentence is, in fact, an excellent gloss on the word "militia' in the Second Amendment. And so what might appear at first to be merely an "iconoclastic" joke at the expense of two public factions becomes, on examination, the expression of a respectable political fear and an honorable political philosophy, a statement that the authors of our Constitution would have recognized and welcomed. The epigram is thus a product of wit of the highest order, richer than the excellent little essay that contains it. Humor, in Mr. Abbey's work, is a function of his outrage, and is therefore always answering to necessity. Without his humor, his outrage would be intolerable—as, without his outrage, his humor would often be shallow or self-exploitive. The indispensable work of his humor, as I see it, is that it keeps bringing the whole man into the job of work. Often, the humor is not so much a property of the argument at hand as it is a property of the stance from which the argument issues.

Mr. Abbey writes as a man who has taken a stand. He is an interested writer. This exposes him to the charge of being prejudiced, and prejudiced he certainly is. He is prejudiced against tyranny over both humanity and nature. He is prejudiced against sacred cows, the favorite pets of tyrants. He is prejudiced in favor of democracy and freedom. He is prejudiced in favor of an equitable and settled domestic life. He is prejudiced in favor of the wild creatures and their wild habitats. He is prejudiced in favor of charitable relations between humanity and nature. He has other prejudices too, but I believe that those are the main ones. All of his prejudices, major and minor, identify him as he is, not as any reader would have him be. Because he speaks as himself, he does not represent any group, but he stands for all of us.

He is, I think, one of the great defenders of the idea of property. His novel Fire on the Mountain is a moving, eloquent statement on behalf of the personal proprietorship of land: proper property. And this espousal of the cause of the private landowners, the small farmers and small ranchers, is evident throughout his work. But his advocacy of that kind of property is balanced by his advocacy of another kind: public property, not as "government land," but as wild land, wild property, which, belonging to nobody, belongs to everybody, including the wild creatures native to it. He understands better than anyone I know the likelihood that one kind of property is not safe without the other. He understands, that is, the natural enmity of tyranny and wilderness. "Robin Hood, not King Arthur," he says, "is the real hero of English legend."

You cannot lose your land and remain free; if you keep your land, you cannot be enslaved. That old feeling began to work its way toward public principle in our country at about the time of the Stamp Act. Mr. Abbey inherits it fully. He understands it both consciously and instinctively. This, and not nature love, I think, is the real motive of his outrage. His great fear is the fear of dispossession.

But his interest is not just in landed property. His enterprise is the defense of all that properly belongs to us, including all those thoughts and works and hopes that we inherit from our culture. His work abounds in anti-intellectual jokes (he is not going to run with that pack, either), but no one can read him attentively without realizing that he has read well and widely. His love for Bach is virtually a theme of his work. His outrage often vents itself in outrageousness, and yet it is the outrage of a cultivated man—that is why it is valuable to us, and why it is interesting.

He is a cultivated man. And he is a splendid writer. Readers who allow themselves to be distracted by his jokes at their or our or his expense cheat themselves out of a treasure. The xenophobic remark that so angers Mr. Drabelle, for example, occurs in an essay, "Down the River with Henry Thoreau," which is an excellent piece of writing—entertaining, funny some of the time, aboundingly alive and alert, variously interesting, diversely instructive. The river is the Green, in Utah; the occasion was a boat trip by Mr. Abbey and five of his friends in November I 9 80. During the trip he read Walden for the first time since his school days. This subjection of a human product to "the prehuman sanity of the desert" is characteristic of Mr. Abbey's work, the result of one of his soundest instincts. His account of the trip is, at once, a travelogue, a descriptive catalog of natural sights and wonders, and a literary essay. It is an essay in the literal sense: a trial. Mr. Abbey tries himself against Thoreau and Thoreau against himself; he tries himself and Thoreau against the river; he tries himself and Thoreau and the river against modern times, and vice versa. The essay looks almost capriciously informal, but only a highly accomplished and knowledgeable writer could have written it. It is, among all else, a fine literary essay—such a reading of Walden as Thoreau would have wanted, not by the faceless automaton of current academic "scholarship," but by a man outdoors, whose character is in every sentence he writes.

I don't know that that essay, good as it is, is outstanding among the many that Mr. Abbey has written. I chose to speak of it because Mr. Drabelle chose to speak of it, and because I think it represents its author well enough. It exhibits one of his paramount virtues as a writer, a virtue paramount in every writer who has it: he is always interesting. I have read, I believe, all of his books except one, and I do not remember being bored by any of them. one reason is the great speed and activity of his pages; a page of his, picked at random, is likely, I believe, to have an unusual number of changes of subject, and to cover an unusual amount of ground. Another reason is that he does not oversimplify either himself or, despite his predilection for one-liners, his subject. Another reason is his humor, the various forms of which keep breaking through the surface in unexpected places, like wet-weather springs.

But the quality in him that I most prize, the one that removes him from the company of the writers I respect and puts him in the smaller company of the writers I love, is that he sees the gravity, the great danger, of the predicament we are now in, he tells it unswervingly, and he defends unflinchingly the heritage and the qualities that may preserve us. I read him, that is to say, for consolation, for the comfort of being told the truth. There is no longer any honest way to deny that a way of living that our leaders continue to praise is destroying all that our country is and all the best that it means. We are living even now among punishments and ruins. For those who know this, Edward Abbey's books will remain an indispensable solace. His essays, and his novels too, are "antidotes to despair." For those who think that a few more laws will enable us to go on safely as we are going, he will remain—and good for him!—a pain in the neck.

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