Who Was Edward Abbey?

October 14th, 2010 by David Leland Hyde Leave a reply »

Edward Abbey: The Thoreau of the American West

Green River At Hardscrabble Bottom, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, 1971 by Philip Hyde. First published in "Slickrock: The Canyon Country of Southeast Utah," 1971, in the Sierra Club Exhibit Format Series. (RAW SCAN--not yet printing.) Edward Abbey's caption for this photograph in "Slickrock" was "Hardscrabble Bottom along the Green. A great good place. A man could whittle away his life down here and never lose a minute."

(See the RAW SCAN of the photograph full screen Click Here.)

Novelist, essayist, philosopher, conservationist, environmentalists, social critic, gadfly, anarchist, self-declared extremist, lover, father, original monkey wrencher and author of 21 books of fiction and non-fiction, Edward Abbey may have been one of the most popular writers to take the American West and most often the Southwest as his subject. Larry McMurtry called Edward Abbey, “The Thoreau of the American West.”

Edward Abbey attracted a cult following but was uncomfortable with it. His books today enjoy an ever-widening readership, as the modern environmental movement that he helped popularize continues to grow. Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey’s crowning achievement is a lament for wilderness lost, a celebration of a quiet life in the desert landscape and a portrayal of the Southwest unlike any other. Edward Abbey’s enjoyable romping anarchist novel The Monkey Wrench Gang is on a similar list for environmental activists who would prevent the plundering of natural resources. His wry wit and vivid prose carry on the legend of Edward Abbey.

Edward Abbey And Philip Hyde Meet In Canyonlands

In the introduction to Slickrock: The Canyon Country of Southeast Utah by Edward Abbey and Philip Hyde, John G. Mitchell, editor of Sierra Club Books, described how Edward Abbey and Philip Hyde first met in a remote part of Canyonlands National Park:

Edward Abbey and a friend had been exploring a small canyon near the Doll’s House (In the Maze, Canyonlands). Friend, scrambling solo, encounters man with tripod on the rimrock. Cameraman explains he is doing a book. Funny, friend says, so is my buddy. Cameraman asks identity of buddy. Edward Abbey, says Friend. Funny, says Cameraman, same book. Friend hollers down canyon: Hey, Ed. Guy up here says you’re collaborators. Abbey scrambles up. Ed Abbey, says Friend, meet Philip Hyde.

Edward Abbey and Philip Hyde Describe Each Other

There will be more on Slickrock: The Canyon Country of Southeast Utah in blog posts to come. In Slickrock, Edward Abbey described Philip Hyde. His description is on the home page of PhilipHyde.com. For more about Philip Hyde in Canyonlands see the blog post, “Earth Day Celebration Of Ardis And Philip Hyde And Canyonlands.” Philip Hyde also described Edward Abbey on the back flap of the original 1971 edition of Slickrock:

I remember Abbey in a sandstone window overlooking a maze of canyons that wind off toward the deep gorge of the Colorado River. He was chewing on a blade of grass and his sombrero was low again in observance of sundown. Darkness was coming on fast. Time to return to camp. Abbey removed the hat and holding it level, slowly extended his arm toward the big river. Though it struck me as an unusual gesture, it was at once natural and moving. Abbey, saluting the Slickrock with that silly sombrero, reaching out to the stark chiseled bounties of that wild beyond.

Edward Abbey On How To Get To Know Canyon Country

One of Edward Abbey’s most well-known quotes gives advice on how to connect with the natural world:

Do not jump into your automobile next June and rush out to the Canyon country hoping to see some of that which I have attempted to evoke in these pages. In the first place you can’t see anything from a car; you’ve got to get out of the goddamned contraption and walk, better yet crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the…cactus. When traces of blood begin to mark your trail you’ll see something, maybe.

Greg Russell of Alpenglow Images wrote a thoughtful post yesterday called “Aspen Trees and Staying Close to Home” in which he wrote about Edward Abbey and also decided to photograph near his home rather than traveling for Fall color. His results were just as fine, in my opinion.

A Tribute To Edward Abbey

Edward Abbey born in Pennsylvania in 1927, now has a state historical marker commemorating his birth and life:

Author and defender of wilderness,
most famous for his two books Desert
and The Monkey Wrench Gang.
Born in Indiana, Pa., in 1927, Abbey grew
up in and around the village of Home.
Although he moved to the western U.S.
in 1948, books such as Appalachian
, The Journey Home, and The
Fool's Progress
describe his native
county, where he learned to love nature.
Abbey died in Tucson, Arizona, in 1989.


From an environmental activism perspective, possibly the most important historical fact about Edward Abbey is that he helped start the environmental organization called Black Mesa Defense Fund, the first radical environmental group, after which Dave Foreman later patterned Earth First. The Black Mesa Defense Fund direct-action campaign against the strip mining on Black Mesa, shared by the Navajo and Hopi people, was organized by the American Indian Movement, Edward Abbey, Marc Gaede (a photographer and environmentalist who also taught a few workshops with Philip Hyde), and others in 1970. Black Mesa Defense Fund is considered the first modern-day environmental confrontational protest organization.

Edward Abbey References

(Click on each for more information or to purchase)

Abbey’s Web

Slickrock: The Canyon Country of Southeast Utah by Edward Abbey and Philip Hyde

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

The Monkey Wrench Gang By Edward Abbey

Down the River by Edward Abbey

The Serpents of Paradise by Edward Abbey

Beyond the Wall: Essays from the Outside by Edward Abbey

Resist Much Obey Little: Remembering Ed Abbey edited by James R. Hepworth and Gregory McNamee

Confessions of a Barbarian: Selections from the Journals of Edward Abbey by Edward Abbey

Adventures with Ed: A Portrait of Abbey by Jack Loeffler

Edward Abbey: A Life by James M. Cahalan

Epitaph For A Desert Anarchist: The Life And Legacy Of Edward Abbey by James Bishop, Jr.



  1. pj says:

    Love the post. I’ve worn out more copies of Abbey’s books over the years than I can count. I haven’t seen Slickrock in years, but oh my, your dad’s photos and Abbey’s words in one volume! What a treasure. I’ll have to click over on your link and order one when I get flush again.

  2. Hi PJ, thank you. Slickrock is truly a magical book, if the authors don’t roll over when I call it that. The way they met, their descriptions of each other and of the country, how it came to be published are all a bit surreal. It is Edward Abbey’s most impassioned writing and some of Dad’s best photographs in book form. Slickrock is one of Edward Abbey’s best books and one of Dad’s finest as well. Oh, and by the way, it is also the most collectible. I’ve seen the original 1971 hardbound edition for sale for over $600.00, and regularly for several hundred.

  3. Greg Russell says:

    Wonderful post, David. Like PJ, I’m on my 10th copy of Desert Solitaire because I keep giving it away. Abbey really was a champion for the American Southwest, appealing not only to our sense of place, but also forcing us to think about the fate of the land we all love so much.

    In a way, he not only contemplated the loss of nature, but the nature of loss. He convinced us all to realize the broader, further reaching consequences of our actions (that altered the environment…).

    I’m very grateful for him.

  4. Hi Greg, thank you for the comment. From the way you wrote about the land starting with the first time you commented on this blog, I wondered if you might be the type that would be an Edward Abbey fan. I agree with everything you say above about him. He was very convincing too. Another reason his following still increases, is that he was so apt at conveying what you have expressed because he wrote so well. Even people who aren’t into nature get into nature after reading one of his books. Keep giving them away. It’s a good idea.

  5. Greg Russell says:

    Well said, David.

    Incidentally, I wonder if its the moon phase or just dumb luck, but it seems Abbey was on a lot of minds this week:


  6. Wow, I thought I had just visited your blog it seemed like yesterday too. Same quote. I did write that was one of his most famous quotes, didn’t I? It’s also the one on Abbey’s Web, is that where you found it or did you get it out of one of your books? What book is that from? You probably don’t know that I usually write my posts ahead in Microsoft Word. I just checked and I wrote my post on August 19, 2010. However, I did most of the work to put it on the blog on the same day you wrote yours, not knowing you were posting something about Edward Abbey. Funny. The same thing happened to Guy Tal and me. We both posted about William Neill the same week. Maybe we are connected on some other level to the people whose blogs we read often.

  7. Greg Russell says:

    I have it marked in my copy of Desert Solitaire, which I’m re-reading right now (its in the foreward, at the end). Its a great quote for sure.

    I’ll crosslink your post with mine as well. Small world!

  8. Hmm, I seem to hazily remember that now. It’s been a while since I read Desert Solitaire. Desert Solitaire is one of my all-time favorite books. I just made a comment on your blog while you were commenting here. This reminds me of Dad and Edward Abbey meeting in Canyonlands, each working separately on the same book and running into each other in the Maze.

  9. Thanks for another informative post, David. I enjoy your blog a great deal.


  10. Hi Sharon, thank you for stopping by. Your questions, suggestions and insights add a great deal to this blog. I appreciate your participation.

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