'All the Wild That Remains' Honors Two Great Authors of the American West

By Romeo, Nick | The Christian Science Monitor, April 21, 2015 | Go to article overview

'All the Wild That Remains' Honors Two Great Authors of the American West


Romeo, Nick, The Christian Science Monitor


The massive droughts and forest fires that have scorched large swaths of the American West over the past decade would not have surprised Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner, two of the region's greatest 20th-century authors. Stegner was prophetic in articulating the defining scarcity of the environment west of the hundredth meridian: "The primary unity of the West is the shortage of water," he wrote. Abbey, meanwhile, blamed the greed of those settling the West rather than the landscape itself; he saw in developers a blind pursuit of growth that resembled the "ideology of the cancer cell."

These two men are the contrasting heroes of a profoundly relevant and readable new book by David Gessner: All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West. In this artful combination of nature writing, biography, literary criticism, and cultural history, Gessner studies two fascinating characters who fought through prose and politics to defend the fragile ecologies and transcendent beauties of the West.

The book is structured as a road trip, and Gessner notes the irony of guzzling gas to retrace the lives and works of two preservationists. But the contradiction is also in the spirit of Edward Abbey, who tossed beer cans from his pickup truck and claimed that the highway, not his littering, constituted the real defacement. A littering environmentalist, a philandering family man, and a Westerner raised in Pennsylvania, Abbey was a catalog of contradictions and inconsistencies. Gessner glosses this complexity with a hopeful spin: "He is a big fat hypocrite and he admits it, and there is something cleansing about this... It does offer the hope that one does not have to be pure to fight."

This is good news; there would be few activists in the world if any hypocrisy invalidated their achievements. Though Abbey's passion is easy to admire, his methods were often wildly unorthodox. His novel "The Monkey Wrench Gang" celebrates the particular brand of idealistic sabotage that Abbey and his friends largely invented: they sawed down billboards, poured sugar into the gas tanks of bulldozers, and schemed to blow up bridges. These tactics typically only delayed development, but they thrust environmental issues into the national conversation and focused public attention on the despoliation of fragile ecosystems.

Wallace Stegner took a more measured approach to both life and conservationism. In fact Abbey criticized Stegner for his "excess of moderation." But Stegner was undeniably effective. He not only worked on legislation that became the landmark 1964 Wilderness Bill, he also helped to create Utah's Canyonlands National Park. Unlike Abbey, Stegner had the patience to do the unglamorous work of sitting on committees, meeting with politicians, and galvanizing public support. Writing novels was his deepest pleasure and aspiration, but he regarded environmental activism as an essential duty.

Eastern intellectuals often ignored and belittled Stegner and Abbey. The New York Times Book Review didn't even review Stegner's 1971 novel, "Angle of Repose," but they did find the space for an essay that objected to the book winning the Pulitzer Prize. …

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