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Edward Abbey: A Life, by James M. Cahalan

Review by Ken Wright

Biography – March 2002 – Colorado Central Magazine

Edward Abbey: A Life
by James M. Cahalan
Published in 2001 by University of Arizona Press
ISBN 0-8165-1906-4

I HAD A CHANCE to meet Edward Abbey once, and didn’t on purpose. An odd decision, really. I was a graduate student in writing and aspiring author, and had met a number of my literary heroes: Wallace Stegner, Terry Tempest Williams, Vine Deloria, Art Goodtimes, Barry Lopez, Dave Foreman. But when I had the chance to meet Abbey, perhaps my greatest writerly hero of all, I stalled, deferred, and ended up opting out of the opportunity. I didn’t know it then, but it was an opportunity that would never come again.

Why didn’t I go? I think it’s because for me, like many others, Abbey was more than a hero — he was a figure of mythic proportions in my life. And I realized I wanted the myth more than the man.

James Cahalan, in Edward Abbey: A Life, seeks to untangle the man from the myth. This is the first writing about Abbey that doesn’t try to maintain the mythic Ed Abbey, but this doesn’t mean Cahalan is out to undermine the significance of the man or the power of the writing, either. What results is an honest look at an honest life that in the end turns out to be in many ways even more potent than any myth.

Truly readable biographies are as rare as listenable Yoko Ono albums, but here is one. Cahalan succeeds because, while he produces the document he set out to, the text is surprisingly rich in anecdotes and voice — Abbey’s and others. The book is certainly for Abbeyists — he jumps right in with no backgrounding of who Abbey is or what he meant, assuming the readers already know and have drawn their own conclusions, and instead launches from that conversation to add this new perspective: what are the facts, and how do they compare with the Abbey myth, both popular and self-made?

Cahalan, to his credit, lets the facts speak for themselves; he lets the events tell the story. Blessedly, this also means he refrains from offering up yet another series of analyses of the meaning of Abbey’s writings. Instead, he lets the circumstances of Abbey’s life tell the story of how his writings came about. The only sort of “framing” he does is pragmatic: he breaks Abbey’s life into time periods based on his life circumstances, and these chapters are then introduced with a summary of the major events, and then he backtracks to the details. The result is a chronological telling, but with an almost novel-esque breaking up of the story that makes it easier to follow than if it were just broken into decades.

Cahalan’s goal in this book is not to make a point (like Epithet for a Desert Anarchist, the other biography we have) but to create a document, an historical record while many of Abbey’s friends and associates are still alive. And he’s done that. This is a biography rich in well-supported facts, numerous interviews and overviews of previously unpublished writings and drafts of published works, and extensive footnote appendix, and lengthy bibliography. This will be an important text for future Abbey scholars.

TO DOCUMENT the Abbey story, Cahalan, draws on sources that will be familiar to hard-core Abbey fans — his published journals, the Temple documentary and interviews with the usual cast of Abbey associates. He also, though, has scrounged plenty of new and interesting stuff — letters, interviews, unpublished manuscripts, drafts of familiar essays and books. Also, for the first time, Cahalan has pieced together a vivid picture of Abbey’s life from birth until the 1950s (when his surviving journals begin), through letters, high school writings, and the stories of family and associates from that time. Cahalan was in a unique situation to capture the interviews needed to outline the early part of Abbey’s life because he lives and works near where Abbey spent his youth, in western Pennsylvania.

Aside from creating a biographical document, Cahalan’s real goal is to untangle Abbey’s mythic life from the facts of his life. This is an intriguing endeavor, for even though Abbey was first and foremost an autobiographer and literary provocateur, even in his non-fiction he took more liberty with the facts than most essayists, because, as he always said, his goal in writing was truth rather than accuracy. Adding to the confusion is the fact that Abbey worked hard to create a public character that was different than his private persona. Add to that the mythos created by both the hero-worshiping and Abbey-reviling publics, and you have a very tangled web.

Untangling that web, Cahalan finds “neither simply a countercultural cowboy hero nor a backward villain, but, rather, a very complicated person.” He does this by seeking accuracy, following the sometimes not-so-parallel threads of literature and life, and testing Abbey’s myth-making statements against reality — statements about where he lived, when things happened, descriptions of places and events, (including the events that led to Desert Solitaire’s beautiful “Dead Man at Grandview Point” that didn’t actually take place at Grandview point), and other claims.

This technique sometimes leads to unnecessary minutiae — street addresses of Abbey’s many residences, for example — but overall the result is an intriguing study in how events and circumstances were conveyed in print, and how those print versions evolved from magazine article to speech to essay to novel. It gives a glimpse into the writer’s mind and process that traditional literary analysis cannot.

The greatest value, though — for both Abbey fans and, more philosophically, for anyone who wants to live an interesting life — is that once the truth and the myth are untangled, we see a validation of what Abbey’s friends have said for years: Abbey’s greatest creation was his life itself. For, although Abbey’s actions and words may not always have been pretty (but whose life is?) his life was real, honest, and full of vitality and purpose. And that — eco-hero, taboo-breaker, iconoclast, literary genius aside — is probably his greatest message and lesson. That was Abbey’s true art.

And that’s better than any myth.

— Ken Wright