Abbey’s love-letters to Utah’s red-rock country spawned generations of canyoneering backpackers, and still serve as the heart of aesthetic and political defenses of desert wilderness. Ever since, Abbey has been attacked and defended. Was he racist, misogynist, and anti-immigration? He was. His views of Black and Brown people were deplorable, and his descriptions of women were retrograde. And yet, his defenders inevitably retort, we need his irascible, cranky, and irrepressible voice today more than ever.
But do we? I have come to (re)bury Edward Abbey, not to praise him. (Abbey died in 1989 at the age of 62; he was buried illegally on public lands.) Or more accurately, to make a pitch for putting Abbey in his place and moving on. That place should be in the context of what it means to protect those same dramatic and soul-stirring landscapes without perpetuating an alienating version of what it means to be “truly wild,” or “truly radical,” or “truly environmentalist.” The problem with re-lionizing Abbey in 2018 is not just that he was sexist, racist, and xenophobic. But also that those views were sewn into his brand of so-called radicalism. They constituted the lenses through which he saw the landscape he aimed to protect.
What Abbey saw were beautiful empty places where white men (quite specifically) could be free and wild. Their version of wilderness preservation, even supplemented by the occasional nod to the evils of growth-dependent and extraction-based economies, was oblivious to the structures that enabled their seemingly unmediated encounters with the desert. Those structures included brutal and unscrupulous campaigns to dispossess Native people of most of southeast Utah. They included the failure of post-Civil War efforts to democratize homesteading by including eligible African Americans eager to flee the South. And they included, time and again, the cultural acceptability of exploiting women, both by treating them as fungible sex toys and by relying on them to mind the homestead and raise the young’uns. Abbey’s version of radical environmentalism assumes away all of the inequalities baked into his ability to be a free man in canyon country. Abbey also managed to alienate lots of white men while he was at it. He scorned ordinary work as part of his critique of corporate and industrial interests and romanticized manual labor even while he railed against ranchers and farmers in his midst.