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Who is Edward Abbey?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 10 September 2016
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Edward Abbey was an American author and essayist who wrote passionately about conservation issues, public land policies, and direct action. His most famous fiction work is The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), a novel long considered to be semi-autobiographical, and an inspiration to the radical environmental movement. Edward Abbey is also well known for Desert Solitaire (1968), about his time working for the National Parks Service.

Edward Abbey was born in 1927 in rural Pennsylvania, traveling West at 17 and falling in love with the natural wonders he found there. He studied at the University of New Mexico, taking his Master's degree there and also spending some time at the University of Edinburgh. In the 1950s, he took a position with the Park Service at Arches National Park in Moab, Utah, then a largely undiscovered area. His time there affected him deeply, and selections from his journals written there were edited and published as Desert Solitaire, which Edward Abbey claimed was “not a travel guide, but a eulogy.”

Edward Abbey was a very abrasive man, deeply committed to conservation, who rejected anthropocentric views of nature and conservation. He believed that nature was better off without humans and boldly stated so many times. He was a radical anarchist, and books by Edward Abbey are embraced by the anarchist community for their views on capitalism, development, sabotage, and radical conservation.

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Edward Abbey made himself a difficult man to define, sometimes supporting conservative causes and dismissing both the left and the right most of the time. He mocked liberals frequently in his books, but also wrote derisively about conservative values and ideals. Edward Abbey spoke firmly about his dread of becoming a trendy figure among “campus liberals” and fought ferociously to maintain his independent spirit.

The Monkey Wrench Gang, Edward Abbey's most well known fictional work, is about a crew of eco-saboteurs who range the desert damaging equipment and tools. Edward Abbey repeatedly said that the book was intended for entertainment only, yet there are strong autobiographical elements in the book, including several characters who were clearly based on real people. The book may also be said to serve as a primer for eco-sabotage, as the Monkey Wrench Gang does not injure people, but only property.

Edward Abbey believed that Americans were destroying their natural world with pavements and cars and that it was probably too late for preservation. He wrote many essays urging people to stay home, rather than despoiling the national parks. In his personal life, many of Abbey's friends have said that he was highly misanthropic and a very difficult man.

Abbey died in 1989 from surgical complications. He directed his friends to wrap him in a sleeping bag and bury him in a desert, holding a party over the grave. According to reports, he is buried somewhere in the Arizona desert with a small headstone, although the grave site has never been found. Edward Abbey left a legacy of radical, prickly environmentalism and a very aggressive approach to conservation issues. His books serve as touchstones for the radical environmental movement, and Abbey himself as a sort of spiny father.

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