Literature: Cahalan’s Abbey: A Life

“Write right. Write good. Right Wrong. Write on!” –Edward Abbey

Abbey’s Arches National ParkJames J. Cahalan’s Edward Abbey: A Life (2001) tells the story of one of my personal heroes in a very real way. Edward Abbey (1927-1989) authored some twenty books, including two of my favorites: Desert Solitaire (1968) and The Monkey Wrench Gang (1976). Abbey was an environmental activist, a champion of the desert landscape, a cantankerous old man. Edward Abbey is regarded as one of America’s finest “nature” writers—even though he both embraced and distanced himself from that categorization, depending on his mood. Instead of glossing over the less desirable aspects of Abbey’s life, Cahalan’s biography searches for the facts that may help explain them, and it also addresses criticisms of Abbey as racist, as misogynist, and as a stretcher of the truth. Abbey had five wives and many more affairs. He drank so much that his late-life health problems probably stemmed from his habit, and he sometimes told stories that mingled too much fiction with fact. What struck me about Cahalan’s telling of Abbey’s life was how he portrayed Abbey as a normal person—as in, just like you and me—despite the extraordinary things he did during his lifetime. In biography, I find this refreshing, and maybe it’s not so much about Cahalan’s telling of Abbey’s life but more about how Abbey really was. As I have been reading more biography lately, I find it almost depressing to hear about how person X achieved thing Y by age 5, or how so-and-so overcame Z in order to become the best at A, B, and C (by age 30). Edward Abbey failed frequently—even in his writing, but he somehow just kept going in his life and in his work. Cahalan’s story isn’t a story about success; it’s a story about perseverance, breakdown, and a wild commitment to living life in the midst of it all.

Other “Down and Out” posts on Edward Abbey include:  

Literature: Abbey’s Road

Literature: Abbey’s Vox Clamantis in Deserto

Literature: Abbey’s Desert Solitaire

Literature: Abbey on Thoreau


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