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Epitaph for a Desert Anarchist (1994)

Book coverBy James Bishop, Jr.

Subtitled The Life and Legacy of Edward Abbey

He wrote this book as "my attempt to record the impact of his work on our times and on his admirers [...]". James Bishop once shook hands with Edward Abbey but never knew him personally.

At first this seems like a well-researched book until you come to this paragraph on page 114:

Shortly after receiving his graduate degree he took his first seasonal job with the National Park Service at Arches National Monument, then a remote outpost with few visitors. High above the desert, in a tower with sixty steps, he poured himself into honing his private journals. These became the basis for Desert Solitaire, [...]

Read that again, please! Anyone who as ever opened Desert Solitaire know that Abbey lived in a house-trailer. Yes, he spent summers in fire-towers as well but not in Arches.

This glaring error made me suspicious of the whole book.. How much else is wrong? Nevertheless, this book gives some interesting facts and insight about Ed not found in any other books but, as always, don't believe everything you read.

Cover text

Meet Edward Paul Abbey, twentieth-century polemicist and desert anarchist, a character of elaborate contradictions and eccentricities whose words either infuriated or delighted his readers.

In a career spanning four decades, he wrote passionately in defense of the Southwest and its inhabitants, often mocking the mindless bureaucratic forces hell-bent on destroying it. "Resist much, obey little," from Walt Withman, was this warrior's motto.

While he was alive, attempts to label him in conventional terms nearly always fell short because he was neither left-wing nor right-wing, nor was he an outlaw. Abbey was a genuine rebel who simply did not believe in the moderns industrial way of life. He wrote against the grain, always choosing the path of the greatest resistance. Beginning in the 1950s, he depicted the Southwest not as a virgin utopia peopled by rugged individualists, but as a region under siege because of government and corporate greed, its people at risk of being cut off from the primary wellspring of their spiritual strength - the wild places. He's been dead for a while now, but the legend keeps in growing.

On inner flap:

Novelist, essayist, naturalist, philosopher, and social critic, the late Edward Abbey may have been the most popular writer to take the American Southwest as his subject. In a career that began in the early 1950s and ended only with his death in 1989, he published twenty-one books -- among them Desert Solitaire, his account of his seasons as a park ranger at Utah's Arches National Monument, and the bestselling novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, which introduced the term ecodefense to the struggle to protect the environment - and won the praise and admiration of readers and writers alike. (No less an authority that Larry McMurtry called Abbey "the Thoreau of the American West.") Now James Bishop Jr., who has been granted full access to all of Abbey's papers, has fashioned the first complete and most revealing portrait of this singular American author.

Born in Appalachian Pennsylvania in time for the Great Depression, Edward Paul Abbey first saw the arid landscape of the Colorado Plateau when he was a teenager riding the rails and seems never to have recovered from that experience. "I love it so much," he said, "that I find it hard to talk about it," but talk and write he did, in defiant celebration and high-spirited defense of America's last wild Eden, engages as he was in an affair of the heart that, as Bishop says, "caused him to be hailed, jailed, and railed against." For if Abbey now seems like a prophet -- he went after ranching, agricultural, mining, and timber enterprises feeding off federally subsidized land, water, and trees three decades ago -- throughout much of his life he was vilified as a crackpot, a dangerous radical, and worse. And if he was beloved by his readers and embraced by partisans of various causes, this deliberately provocative, sardonic, and somewhat shy desert rat went through five marriages and countless affairs before, late in life, he began to show any deep tenderness or understanding toward women. In these areas, as elsewhere, Bishop does not hesitate to present Abbey in the full roundness of his contrariness, his passions, his need to put words to paper.

Finally, of course, it is Abbey's work that matters and lasts, and here Bishop is not afraid to rank the best of Abbey with Thoreau's Walden, with Huckleberry Finn, Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River," Faulkner's "The Bear," and Moby Dick. In doing so he offers eloquent testimony and makes a persuasive case for the man and writer he calls "a potent blend of anti-establishment and Line Ranger, Samuel Adams and Natty Bumppo," a true American original.

James Bishop Jr. is a writer, an editor, and a teacher who has worked for Newsweek and for the White House on energy policy. In 1993 he was awarded the William Allen White old medal for best public affairs article. He lives in Sedona, Arizona.


*New* A review of this book appeared in LOCI, Barnes & Nobles web-site.


"Bishop's well-researched book, written with a bravado befitting the man who wrote The Monkey Wrench Gang and Desert Solitaire, convincingly demonstrates the breadth of Abbey's literary and political impact: Not only did Cactus Ed inspire a whole generation of fury-filled environmental writers, but he also became patron saint of Earth First!'s brand of fight-back politics. Bishop concludes that Abbey fundamentally altered the way Americans view the west; once seen as a safe haven from enroaching development, it is now often regarded as a land under siege" -- Miles Harvey, Outside


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Library of Congress Data

Bishop, James, Jr.
  Epitaph for a desert anarchist : the life and legacy of Edward Abbey / James
Bishop, Jr. ; epilogue by Charles Bowden.  New York : Atheneum ; Toronto :
Maxwell Macmillan Canada ; New York : Maxwell Macmillan International, c1994.
xv, 254 p. : ill. ; 22 cm.

LC CALL NUMBER: PS3551.B2 Z59 1994

  Abbey, Edward, 1927-
  Abbey, Edward, 1927- --Influence.
  Authors, American--20th century--Biography.
  Park rangers--United States--Biography.
  Nature in literature.
  West (U.S.)--In literature.

DEWEY DEC:  813/.54  B dc20


  Includes bibliographical references (p. 245-248) and index.

ISBN:  0689121954 : $22.00 ($28.50 Can.)
GEOG. AREA CODE:  n-usp--
LCCN:  93-47564

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