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Edward Abbey (1927-1989)

January 29th marks the 93rd anniversary of the birth of Edward Abbey, the influential American writer whose work continues to inspire modern environmentalists, and who spent a year at the University of Edinburgh.

Edward Abbey

Born in the town of Indiana, Pennsylvania on 29 January 1927, Abbey grew up around the nearby village of Home, which now has a state historical marker commemorating him.

In 1944, at the age of 17, he left the family farm and set off to see the American West. He hitchhiked and rode the railways across the Midwest to the Rockies and the West Coast, returning via a tour of the Southwest. He fell in love with the desert, a love that shaped his life and art for more than 40 years.


After a brief military career from 1945 to 1947 in Naples, Abbey attended Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and then the University of New Mexico. It was during his time there that he took a one-year stint (1951-52) at the University of Edinburgh as a Fulbright scholar. Despite finding the city dark and oppressive, it was a fruitful period for his writing, and he completed 'Jonathan Troy', his first published novel.

Back at New Mexico, his master's thesis was on 'Anarchism and the Morality of Violence', and he received both graduate and postgraduate degrees. He then entered another graduate programme at Yale, but hated the strictures of the Ivy League and dropped out after two weeks.


In the 1950s and 1960s Abbey worked as a seasonal park ranger and fire lookout, and wrote three novels that attracted minor attention. 'Desert Solitaire' (1968), his fourth book, made Abbey's reputation as someone who could positively influence others to treasure and protect America's natural heritage. This non-fiction account of life as a backcountry ranger in Utah, subtitled 'A Season in the Wilderness', is regarded as a masterpiece of nature writing and philosophy.

He next wrote three non-fiction coffee table books - 'Appalachian Wilderness' (1970); 'Slickrock' (1971); and 'Cactus Country' (1973) - each filled with beautiful photography. His fifth novel, however, soon distanced him from the establishment. 'The Monkey Wrench Gang' (1975), became the most famous of Abbey's 20+ books, and tells the story of four ecological saboteurs whose dream is to blow up Arizona's Glen Canyon Dam. The author called his book a satire; others saw it as a how-to guide for destroying property. The novel inspired the formation of the direct action environmental movement Earth First!, and such sabotage in defence of the environment became known as 'monkey-wrenching'. Abbey, however, was uncomfortable with his image as a counterculture environmentalist, and refused to be linked with either the left or the right of the political spectrum.

Honours and later life

Abbey received many awards. His novel 'Fire on the Mountain' won him the Western Heritage Award for Best Novel in 1963, and he was a  Guggenheim Fellow in 1975. In 1987 he was granted the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, an honour that he declined due to plans to run a river in Idaho on the week of the ceremony. Some of Abbey's works have been adapted to film, too: 'The Brave Cowboy' was released as 'Lonely Are the Brave' in 1962, and 'Fire on the Mountain' was released in 1981. 

Abbey suffered from a circulatory disorder and died from internal bleeding in 1989, in Oracle, Arizona. His body was buried in an unmarked location in a southwestern desert of the United States in a sleeping bag, as per his request.


Encyclopedia of World Biography (external)

Edward Abbey: A Life on Google Books (external)