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Postcards from Ed, edited by David Peterson

Review by Ken Wright

Edward Abbey – December 2006 – Colorado Central Magazine

Postcards from Ed: Dispatches from an American Iconoclast
by Edward Abbey
Selected and edited by David Petersen
Published in 2006 by Milkweed Editions
ISBN: 1-5713-1284-6

I think we need some plain speech and blunt talk and a facing up to the truth in this guilt-neurotic country. And some tolerance for humor.

— Ed Abbey, in a letter to the Chicago Sun-Times, 1988

Back in 1984, soon after I came West and my girlfriend and I discovered the books of Edward Abbey, we decided to write him a letter telling him just how much we’d been inspired by his words. (Meaning we were living cheap, exploring much, and speaking out loudly.) We didn’t expect much; by then, Abbey already was a larger-than-life legend in the West, and we figured he had better things to do than respond to groupie fan letters.

We were amazed, however, when, less than a week later, a postcard arrived in our little mountain-town mailbox with the return address of “Oracle, Ariz.”

“Dear Pam,” the handwritten salutation said, followed by, “Thank you for your kind and generous words … ”

The rest of the card was filled with words I don’t remember, but it wasn’t meaningless drivel. In the space available, Abbey had responded to and discussed our letter, thoughtfully and sincerely. And at the end was that signature: Ed Abbey.

Following our breakup, however, my former love wasn’t about to hand over that prize (“It’s addressed to me,” she reminded me).

It’s an event that has stuck with me, though. I took it as tangible evidence of the character of a man who otherwise was merely mythic to me. And as it turns out, it wasn’t an uncommon act, as the just-released compilation of Edward Abbey’s letters reveals. Aptly titled Postcards from Ed: Dispatches from an American Iconoclast (so named because the blank index card was his favorite medium of correspondence), this just-released collection shows that Abbey didn’t limit himself to just postcards. For more than forty years he was a prolific scrivener of letters to everyone from friends and family to editors and fellow writers, and was the author of letters to the editor to a rather dazzling assortment of publications.

And I am happy to report that, for myself, anyway, Postcards affirms my initial sense that our prompt, sincere, and personal postcard from Ed some twenty years ago represented a man of character — someone who put his convictions into action.

Postcards from Ed editor (and Durango resident) David Petersen got the idea for compiling these letters at Abbey’s wake, a week after he died in March 1989. Petersen had first met Abbey in 1984, when, as Western editor for Mother Earth News, Petersen was able to wrangle an interview with the very private Abbey, who was notorious for not trusting journalists. Abbey liked Petersen’s resulting article, later calling it the best interview ever done on him.

This mutual respect later developed into a friendship (Petersen, Abbey and another friend were set to do a camping trip together the week Abbey died) and eventually to collaborations on several writing projects. After Abbey died, that collaboration and friendship continued when Abbey’s widow, Clarke, anointed Petersen the editor of Abbey’s literary estate.

Petersen’s first project was the culling and editing of Abbey’s journals, released in 1994 as Confessions of a Barbarian. The letters, Petersen says, were ready for publication two years after the journals came out, but Clarke opted to hold back their release, because she didn’t want so much attention on her family in such a short span of time.

That decade-plus wait was good for the book, Petersen explained recently. “Some of the best letters came in during that time.”

As gratifying as it is to see the letters finally in print, Petersen adds, the book “was never intended as a commercial venture.” For himself, he says, the reward is deeply personal.

“I did it close on the heels of Ed’s death,” Petersen recollects. “So there was a great sense of love and honor attached to the work. And gratefulness. I know I am privileged that I’ve been allowed to be so intimate with him in this way.”

And this book is a rare and valuable chance for all readers — especially, but not exclusively, for those who are already Abbey fans — to be intimate in their own way with Edward Abbey, both as a writer and as a man.

“What makes his views on things twenty or forty years ago valuable today is his unique way of looking at and explaining things,” Petersen says. “His ideas are universal on everything from personal feelings, to writing, to the environment, to politics. His take on these timeless human values are just as valid now as then.”

THE LETTERS In the collection go back to 1949, but the bulk are from the early 1970s and on, when Abbey began making carbons and saving copies of his correspondence, which is now sequestered in the Special Collections Library archives at the University of Arizona. Additional cards and letters considered for Petersen’s collection were contributed by Abbey’s friends, family, fellow writers, editors, agents, and others.

Alas, much was lost: Abbey’s earliest journals were lost in a flood in the basement of the Abbey family home in Pennsylvania. Many letters to two of Abbey’s closest friends, John “Debris” DePuy and Jack Loeffler were destroyed, DePuy’s in yet another basement flood, while most of Loeffler’s collection was ritualistically burned during a fit of “being Zenlike,” shortly after he had helped bury his old friend in a secret desert grave.

Still, quite a heap remain. The resulting 280-page book represents about a quarter of the available correspondence.

In sifting through that raw material, Petersen set some parameters. One priority, he says, “was to keep the ideas contemporary, to get at his most relevant, deeper, undying ideas.

“I didn’t want people to feel they were reading history,” Petersen says. “Rather, I edited in favor of letters with messages about things that affect us all personally, today and tomorrow as well as yesterday.”

Petersen’s highest aim, though, was “to show the many sides of Ed, but not whitewash him, either.”

And that may best summarize Postcards from Ed. Whitewash? I’m not sure that could be done with Abbey — there’s little affected or timid material anywhere in his bibliography.

But many sides? That’s here, in spades, and in many manifestations. Found juxtaposed in Postcards (since the book is chronological rather than grouped by theme), and presented in varied and digestible lengths (river runners: this is a great groover book!), are rallying anti-war cries, tender statements of friendship, anti-development rants, and sober reflections on the writing life. There are also some great insights as he defends and elaborates on his most controversial stances and writings: on illegal immigration (or all immigration, for that matter), and on public lands ranching.

AND THERE’S HUMOR. Certainly Abbey had a knack for relieving tension with well-timed wit anywhere, but in Postcards we see him doing things like writing a letter to a chef suggesting she include in the next edition of her cookbook his recipe for “Hardcase Survival Pinto Bean Sludge” (to be served, his recipe states, “on large flat stones” ). And dashing off a hillbilly-sounding rant to Ms (“Mizz,” as he spelled it) magazine. And writing letters to Rolling Stone attacking rock and roll (“music to hammer out fenders by” ) and decrying — hilariously — the Rolling Stone’s editors labeling Bob Dylan as “a poet.”

Overall, the picture Abbey draws of himself in these letters is of a man who felt a personal compulsion and professional responsibility to toss his visions into the social ring. His letter-writing was, I believe, a manifestation of his personal philosophy of both awareness and action.

For example, at one point Abbey sent Scientific American a lovely, articulate, and perceptive criticism of a lack of social consciousness among the scientific community, urging the magazine to take the lead toward rectifying this in its own pages. How many others among us, even if we harbored a similar complaint, would actually reprimand the country’s largest scientific magazine?

“Writing, reading, thinking are of value only when combined with effective action,” Abbey writes in a letter. And for Abbey, writing, even letters (even letters to groupie fans), was action.

Postcards from Ed illuminates and illustrates both the man and his works: Because Postcards from Ed is what Edward Abbey was, a volatile mix of dead-pan comedy and dead serious, dead-on truth.