Edward Abbey: Biography, Books & Essays

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Edward Abbey's novels, essays, and memoirs about the Southwest desert made him one of the most influential American writers of the 20th century and a hero of the environmentalist movement. However, his radical ideas make him still controversial to this day.

A Controversial Hero

Edward Abbey was one of the most influential American writers of the second half of the 20th century. His books, especially the novel The Monkey Wrench Gang and his memoir Desert Solitaire, celebrate the beauty of the desert Southwest. They also decry what he saw as the destruction of that beauty through human development.

Abbey started writing in the 1950s, but gained fame in the late-1960s and early-1970s. His message about reverence for nature, and his protest against human development made him a hero of the environmentalist movement that was growing at this time. Environmentalism is a political movement grounded on the principles of respect for nature and protest against human activities that damage the natural world. Abbey's books became rallying cries for many in the movement and even inspired certain tactics used by protesters.

However, while Abbey is still considered a hero to many in the environmentalist movement, which continues to be an important political force today, he is controversial among many people both within and outside the movement for his radical beliefs, which include advocating violence and property destruction in the name of saving nature.


Though he is associated with the desert Southwest region of Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, and Colorado, and he spent most of his life there, Abbey was born far from the desert in Pennsylvania in 1927. He first saw the desert during a hitchhiking trip when he was 17. He fell in love with the area, especially the Four Corners region, the vast, beautiful landscape where the four southwestern states meet and which is home to such famous landmarks as Monument Valley. Abbey wrote of the trip, ''I felt I was getting close to the West of my deepest imaginings, the place where the tangible and mythical became the same.''

After serving time as a military police officer in World War II, Abbey began studying at the University of New Mexico. He also worked for National Park Service at the Arches National Monument in southern Utah while trying to start his writing career.

During this time, he also married the first of his five wives, Jean Schmechel. Abbey's relationships with women were always fraught, as he was frequently unfaithful and away for long periods of time.

The success of The Monkey Wrench Gang made Abbey a celebrity and visible spokesman for environmental causes. Between the publication of The Monkey Wrench Gang in 1975 and his death in 1989, Abbey would only publish a handful of novels and a few collections of nonfiction, though he was an active essayist and speaker on a variety of environmental issues.

Major Works

Abbey published eight novels and several collections of nonfiction writing, but his legacy in both literature and environmental activism rests primarily on three very popular, influential books that have been read by multiple generations of environmentalists.

Desert Solitaire

Published in 1968, Desert Solitaire is based on the journals and notes Abbey took while working as a park ranger in southern Utah and exploring the wider Southwest. It is a loosely-connected collection of memories and stories from that time. Desert Solitaire also tracks Abbey's spiritual journey as he comes into contact with the power of nature. It also documents his growing political activism as he is angered by human interference with the beauty of nature.

As a memoir of a man's interactions with nature, Desert Solitaire is often considered alongside other classics of nature writing such as Henry David Thoreau's Walden and John Muir's My First Summer in the Sierra. All of these books tell the story of man having a spiritual awakening in nature. These books have inspired everyday nature lovers as well as activists.

The Monkey Wrench Gang

The Monkey Wrench Gang is far and away Abbey's most popular and well-known book. It tells the story of a small group of radical activists, led by the ex-Green Beret George Washington Hayduke, who launch attacks on the bulldozers, trains and other aspects of human development that they see as destroying the deserts of northern Arizona and southern Utah.

The members of the Monkey Wrench Gang are portrayed as heroic Western outlaws in the tradition of Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy, staying one step ahead of the law as the pull off their 'monkeywrenches,' such as sabotaging construction equipment.

The gang's biggest goal is blowing up Glen Canyon Dam, an actual dam in northern Arizona, whose construction began while Abbey was working as a park ranger in the 50s. The dam diverted water from the Colorado River and created the Lake Powell reservoir, one of the largest artificial lakes in the country. Abbey passionately hated the dam and the man-made lake. The construction of Glen Canyon Dam was, to Abbey, one of the biggest and most terrible examples of man's destruction of nature.

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