Thursday, March 14, 2019

As big as the West

‘Married once again and - I swear - for the final time.’ This comes from the diary of Edward Abbey, a controversial American writer - ‘as big as the West itself’ - who died 30 years ago today. 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 his diary, like the one above, were edited and published posthumously as Confessions of a Barbarian, and much 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, 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.

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 several extracts from Abbey’s journal.

3 June 1952
‘Cornwall. The way these short-skirted English women display their knobby knees and hairy shanks, you would think they thought they had something to show. You would think they thought. How’d I happen to notice? Well ... just habit.

Where am I? I’m on the north Cornish coast by the seashore near a little town called Bude, looking west, at the moment, toward America - the Promised Land.

The sea is beautiful. It’s a revelation: I’d almost forgotten how powerful and mysterious and beautiful the shore, the beach, the sun, sea and charging surf can be. Genuine surf here - big breakers three feet high and a sandy beach walled in by gray-green cliffs. Gulls and crows. Dark brown kelp sprawled wet and limp on the rocks, algae the color of pea-soup, pale blue English sky, mild English sun, wistful little English clouds floating around listlessly on the horizon. A pleasant charming setting, England at its best.

I’m all alone on the beach now. The English have all trotted off for three o’clock tea. An amazing people. If I didn’t admire them so much I could despise them far more satisfactorily.’

7 June 1952
‘Bude. The novel is shambling along - I’m in a big scene now, the murder of Jonathan’s father, but there are so many distractions and interruptions here that I can’t really get rolling - every time I think it’s about to rain, the sun comes out instead and I surrender to the overwhelming compulsion to go swimming in the surf-then when I get in at night I’m too tired to write. Damn thing is 625 pages long now and I’m not halfway finished. What a monstrous heap of rubbish! - or genius and artistry! - or both.

About three more days and I’ll be leaving Cornwall, and Britain and Europe. Will I ever come back? Who knows? I want to, of course-yet not as much as I want to explore Asia, and Australia and the Americas. But I’ll probably be back - not alone, I half-hope.

Thinking of girls, and sex and these brief parting little flying affairs of mine - I suddenly realize that I am tired and sick of simple animal love. I begin to long for something better, and more complicated, and more enduring. Every other thought or so - half-dream, vague emotion - is of her, the girl I love, the demon-possessed Jew-girl back there in the Promised Land, waiting for me.

Yet with the longing for the comradeship of a real live heart - and-brain - shared love comes the old feeling of restriction, constriction, a dragging weight. I still wonder if I am man enough for love, good enough for marriage, worthy of her. When I wonder I doubt, and doubt makes wonder. I’m still filled and bulging with adolescent urges and lurches, afraid of responsibility, afraid of hard work. But what would it be like - with her? Not this pedestrian and mediocre association, surely, but rather something grand and growing, full of beauty and creating for both of us not less but ever more freedom. Surely. . .’

8 June 1952
‘Bude. Do I occasionally long for death? Not very deeply - I’m much too interested in the investigation of the human situation, in trying to discover the root-cause of my own and others’ misery. After all. I'll die anyway, probably - no need for impatience. The final gift of life, at least, never fails us.

Again I am grateful that I have abandoned - no, it would be more accurate to say “never acquired” - Christianity, with its appalling and horrible promise of immortality which makes Heaven and Hell indistinguishable, and life a vale of dread. It’s not immortality I crave, no; never - what I want is understanding. Gladly, joyfully would I sacrifice all eternity for one bright flash of terrible and godly omniscience.

This traditional Western bawling after immortality - what is the meaning of it? Why the insane desire to perpetuate through and beyond all time the identity of the person and the personal consciousness? The Orientals know better - they have the spirit merge with the world, not buzz over it forever like a bored and boring fly.

I can hear the sea: the roaring surf, the waves, the wind.’

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. . .’

This article is a revised version of one first published 10 years ago on 14 March 2009.

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