Saturday, March 14, 2009

As big as the West

‘Married once again and - I swear - for the final time.’ So wrote Edward Abbey, the controversial American writer considered by some to be as big as the west itself, in his diary. It was his fourth marriage he was writing about then, but there would be a fifth before he died in his early sixties. Extracts from the diary were edited and published posthumously as Confessions of a Barbarian, and most of the book can be read freely online.

Abbey’s Web, which is edited by Christer Lindh in Sweden, has a good deal of information about Abbey. He was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania, in 1927, and grew up in nearby Home. After a brief military career (1945-1947) in Italy, he attended Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Subsequently, he studied at the University of New Mexico, with a year at Edinburgh University in Scotland. His master’s thesis at New Mexico was called Anarchism and the Morality of Violence. For 15 years and well into his 40s, he worked as a part-time ranger and fire lookout at several different national parks, providing a collection of experiences that underpinned much of his writing.

Here is an assessment of the man from the blurb of a 1993 documentary video Edward Abbey: A Voice in the Wilderness. ‘Through his novels, essays, letters and speeches, Edward Abbey consistently voiced the belief that the West was in danger of being developed to death, and that the only solution lay in the preservation of wilderness. Abbey authored twenty-one books in his lifetime, including Desert Solitaire, . . . The Brave Cowboy, and The Fool’s Progress. His comic novel The Monkey Wrench Gang helped inspire a whole generation of environmental activism. A writer in the mold of Twain and Thoreau, Abbey was a larger-than-life figure as big as the West itself.’

Larger-than-life indeed. According to Wikipedia (an article that is not fully referenced) Abbey’s abrasiveness, opposition to anthropocentrism, and outspoken writings made him the object of much controversy. He was sometimes called the ‘desert anarchist’ for his ability to anger people of all political stripes, including environmentalists. His private life was no less full of discord. He married five times, fathering five children from three different wives, and died on 14 March 1989, two decades ago today.

Abbey kept a diary - intermittently - from the age of 19 to a few days before his death, filling 20 volumes. They were edited by his friend David Petersen (who is also the literary editor of the Abbey estate), and published in 1994 by Little Brown as Confessions of a Barbarian - Selections from the Journals of Edward Abbey 1951-1989. Most of the book is viewable at Googlebooks.

Here is the start of Petersen’s introduction: ‘Abbey began keeping a personal journal in 1946, viewing it as an important resource in his hoped-for-career as ‘a writer of creative fictions.’ He was nineteen at the time, serving as an army motorcycle cop in postwar Italy. Abbey continued the practice of writing to himself until just days before his death on March 14, 1989. The product of those four-plus decades of ‘scribbling’ (his term) was twenty cursive volumes kept in eight-by-ten and five-by-seven notebooks. Would have been twenty volumes, that is, had not the three earliest journals, documenting the years 1946 through most of 1951, been destroyed by flooding while in storage in the basement of the Abbey family home in rural Pennsylvania.’

And here are a few extracts from Abbey’s journal. I’ve chosen the first (from 28 May) because my own name is Paul and I was born on 28 May, exactly seven years earlier than Aaron.

28 May 1959
‘ATTENTION: Aaron Paul Abbey is born today. My second son. May he, like my first, be blessed by Heaven and Earth, grow straight and strong in the joyous sunlight.

If the world of men is truly as ugly, cruel, trivial, unjust and stinking with fraud as it usually appears, and if it is really impossible to make it pleasant and decent, then there remains only one alternative for the honest man: stay home, cultivate your own garden, look to the mountains. (Withdraw! Withdraw! Withdraw!)’

10 February 1974
‘Married once again and - I swear - for the final time [This was his fourth marriage.]. If this one fails, for any reason, I shall resign myself forever to the call of solitude, wander the world with my Suzi [his daughter by his third marriage] and maybe a small friendly homely dog.

But it won’t. Renee is the right one, at last, after twenty seven years (!) of searching. Very young - eighteen now, sixteen when I met and fell in love with her - she is not only beautiful and sweet and gentle and full of love for me, but also - so to speak - unspoiled, free of all those neurotic tics and nervous fears that older women invariably reveal after the honeymoon begins to fade. Spoiled, mostly, by men of course, by mistreatment or what they imagine is mistreatment. Anyway I’ve found the one I want. And by Gawd, I’m going to keep her.’

29 May 1979
‘Visitors come and visitors go. Some sonofabitch shit on the floor of our shithouse. Swine. So I’ll have to lock that one up too.

Renee was here for a couple of days. Tells me we’re through; she’s bored with our marriage (‘lacks intensity’) and fed up with me - says I’m away too much, that I don’t talk to her when I am with her, that I’m indifferent, that I don’t love her etc. She suspects me of fooling around with other women; doesn’t trust me. Says she wants out. Wants a divorce . . .’

30 May 1979
‘So. Again. Divorce and loneliness loom ahead. Can I endure it all again? If I must, I will. One thing for sure: no more hasty or impulsive marriages for me. Me and Suzi will go it on our own for a while. . .’

No comments: