Western icons Stegner and Abbey ‘never more relevant’

New book

Edward Abbey, left, and Wallace Stegner are the subjects of a new book by David Gessner. (Stegner photo by Paul Conklin.)

David Gessner’s new book, “All the Wild That Remains,” is at once a celebration, biography and comparison of two of the West’s seminal writer-conservationists—Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner.

Gessner is a self-described “apprentice literary westerner, as common as Sagebrush,” who discovered the work of these authors after coming West as a teenager and later as a young man. After spending more than a year trying to read everything the two men wrote in preparation for the book, Gessner found that Abbey and Stegner, “far from being regional or outdated, have never been more relevant.” The two were particularly prescient, it would seem, in regard to the kinds of environmental issues we face today and how we got here.

“If the region had a literary Mount Rushmore,” Gessner says, “their faces would be chiseled on it.”

Not that they are particularly celebrated outside the West. “More than once,” says Gessner of times he brought up the two writers back East, “I had been asked: ‘Wallace Stevens? Edward Albee?’ No, I would patiently explain. Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey.”

The two authors shared a passionate conservation ethic but had rather different ways of going about protecting their beloved places. Gessner’s book is perhaps guided by the question of whether we should rate Stegner’s or Abbey’s ideology as the best fit for the West today.

The comparison is an immediately interesting one for me. The “buttoned-down” and soft-spoken Stegner (“Wally” to his friends and students) was the more formal of the two. His novels, biographies and histories excelled at developing a sharp sense of place while also giving a clear sense of the big picture—of historical and cultural forces that converge to shape people and places.

Stegner’s best-known novel, “Angle of Repose,” won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972 and was my introduction to Stegner. I remember being rather awed by the novel’s realism, scope and power.

As you might expect from his appearance, Stegner wasn’t one to waste time; his regimen of writing in the morning and teaching in the afternoon was as steady as a Swiss clock. He couldn’t abide idleness or the (to him) phony and irresponsible philosophy of the 1960s counterculture—claiming that “what makes hedonists so angry when they think about overachievers is that the overachievers, without drugs or orgies, have more fun.”

And then there was Edward Abbey, briefly a student of Stegner’s at Stanford’s creative writing program, and probably just the kind of hedonist Stegner was thinking of. Abbey wrote novels and nonfiction that similarly excelled at depicting the Western landscape and railed at its exploitation, yet where Stegner was subtle and restrained, Abbey was outrageous and irreverent. To Gessner, “Abbey is more than any writer I know, this side of Montaigne, alive on the page.”

Abbey loved the land but loved to throw his empty beer cans out the window of his truck on cross-country trips, too, and wasn’t too keen on shaving or withholding his opinion about you. He extolled manliness to a sometimes tiresome (even misogynistic) degree. He wrote, above all, to entertain his friends and exasperate his enemies, and he certainly succeeded at both.

“The Monkey Wrench Gang,” probably Abbey’s best-known novel, is the story of a group of Western dissidents who team up to fight the developers, dam builders and clear-cutters who are despoiling the landscape of the Southwest. The monkey wrenchers pour sugar into the gas tanks of bulldozers, blow up bridges, drink a lot of booze and generally wreak havoc in the name of a kind of Robin Hood eco-justice. Many of the characters were based on friends of Abbey, and some of their escapades were (by Abbey’s admission) based on real ones that Abbey had taken part in himself.

Contrast this approach to Stegner’s more measured approach—writing conservation-minded books or working with Stuart Udall, secretary of the Interior Department under President Kennedy—and you have a pretty damned interesting and hilarious juxtaposition.

In the tradition of many a good nature read (including those of Stegner and Abbey), this one has its own journal-like story to carry forward, a story in which Gessner travels across the states to visit some of the relevant places and people. This includes a stop at the Kentucky home of Wendell Berry (a former student of Stegner’s), Abbey’s hometown of Home, Penn., and Stegnerian haunts in Saskatchewan, Salt Lake City and Vermont.

Abbey-Steg bookSome of the many funny parts of the book come when Gessner tracks down some of Abbey’s disciples—like Doug Peacock, the inveterate wild man upon whom George Washington Hayduke of “The Monkey Wrench Gang is” based and whose doormat reads “Come Back With A Warrant.” Or Ken Sleight, the inspiration for Seldom Seen Smith, also from “The Monkey Wrench Gang.”

After visiting several of Abbey’s devotees you begin to get a sense (in Gessner’s words) of the cult that has kept his books alive. Paraphrasing David Quammen, Gessner says that Abbey had the power to change lives, “could make a salesman in Ohio buy hiking boots and head west.” Despite never getting noticed by the Eastern arbiters of literary taste (a group he seemed to intentionally spit in the eyes of), Abbey’s stock continues to grow mostly by word of mouth.

One of the most interesting discussions in the book comes from Terry Tempest Williams, whom Gessner was not able to visit, but who wrote a letter to the author in which she said, “In so many ways Ed was the conservative, Wally, forever the radical.”

The line does at first seem counterintuitive when you think of Cactus Ed, as he was known, a kind of poster boy of counterculture who delighted in breaking social norms and trampling on decorum, and Wally, the polite and well-dressed scholar who frowned on the student protestors at his beloved Stanford and rolled his eyes at the 1960s counterculture.

But take a closer look. Stegner was the one who crafted sympathetic and believable female characters; was not given to misogynistic or racist outbursts; had even written an admirable book about racism in America called “One Nation”; was the one committed to rootedness and community as an antidote to the West’s recurring problems with the loot-and-scoot mentality; and was (in Gessner’s words) the one who “would never buy into the fashionable belief, exemplified in everyone from Hemingway to Wolfe, that great art and bad behavior went together.” As may be obvious, I’m leaning towards Williams’ view, but I’m not sure that Gessner ever quite endorses it.

Gessner does a fair job of weighing the two men’s writing and he is a good reader and critic, yet I am left with the sense that he has an especially soft spot for Abbey, perhaps even a part of himself that can’t quite forgive Stegner for combing his hair or tucking in his shirt. He fought The Man, sure, but damned if he doesn’t look just like him!

Gessner rates Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire” highest of any of the two men’s books (I would have picked Stegner’s “Wolf Willow”), and though, like many Abbey fans, Gessner resorts to some pretty difficult gymnastics in defending the wild man, I appreciate Gessner’s overall fairness.

“After all, the modern biographical impulse is to tear down,” says Gessner, who doesn’t appear to be interested in that dishonorable trade.

Stegner had the more direct connection to Montana, having spent a few years of his itinerant childhood in Great Falls which, compared to the roughness of Saskatchewan, was dazzlingly civilized in 1920—boasting sidewalks, flush toilets and green lawns. Apparently, it was enough of a connection for the editors of “The Last Best Place” to anthologize Stegner as a Montana author.

Abbey doesn’t seem to have any real connection to Montana, though Gessner does quote from a lecture Cactus Ed delivered at the University of Montana in 1985 in which he said, “Western cattlemen are no more than welfare parasites.”

Ah, Ed, there you go again. But don’t get too comfortable, even if you agree heartily. If you continue to page through Abbey’s books, you’ll probably soon find him ridiculing your particular sacred cow, too—whether it be yoga, poetry, jazz or those (in Abbey’s opinion) effete Eastern hacks like Updike, Roth or Mailer who couldn’t write their way out of a tarpaper shack.

As Stegner said in a letter to his son, warning of exaggeration in writing, “Of course there is always Abbey, but Abbey is outrageous, deliberately, and even when he’s throwing beer cans out into the Montana landscape he is making a point about the landscape, not about himself.”

Whatever their differences, however, the two men were real fighters in protection of the West they loved, albeit in different ways. Even with widely disparate styles, they are often trying to say the same thing.

In a letter to the poet Gary Snyder, Stegner had said, “I have spent a lot of days and weeks at the desks and in the meetings that ultimately save red-woods, and I have to say that I never saw on the firing line any of the mystical drop-outs or meditators.”

Abbey, too, had an opinion to share with Snyder, and I can’t resist including it here.

“I like your work,” Abbey said, “except for all the Zen bullshit.”

As for whose approach to conservation wins out in Gessner’s eyes, you’ll just have to pick up a copy to find out.

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