Wildness and Wilderness: Anti-pastoralism and the Problematic Politics of Edward Abbey


Edward Abbey was one of the most important and controversial figures in twentieth-century American environmental literature. Desert Solitaire (1968), his account of his time as a park ranger in the American southwest, first brought him to widespread public attention. The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975), his classic novel about a group of friends who band together to sabotage industrial exploitation of the environment, sealed his status as an icon of environmental literature. Currently there is a resurgence of interest in Abbey and his writing, as evidenced by books such as David Gessner’s All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West (2015), a collection of essays from the University of New Mexico edited by John A. Murray, Abbey in America: A Philosopher’s Legacy in a New Century (2015) and a documentary, Wrenched (2014). Integral to this revival have been attempts to rehabilitate Abbey on charges of racism and reactionary ideology. Such apologetics are essentially exercises in damage limitation that seek to characterise Abbey’s racist outbursts as attention-seeking and to ameliorate their toxicity by referring them to his environmentalism. John Alcock, for instance, tackling the thorny subject of Abbey’s tirades against immigrants, offers the defence that for someone as convinced as Abbey that population growth threatens America’s national parks, ‘immigration is not good’, and that ‘the racist tag as applied to Abbey arises because Mexicans and others from south of the border make up the bulk of illegal immigrants to the United States’, before speculating rather forlornly that if Abbey were alive today he might change his stance (47).

Such equivocation will simply not do. As Catrin Gersdorf points out, such efforts ignore the extent to which a reactionary outlook informed all Abbey’s writing in which wilderness is defended ‘not so much for its own sake but, in a Rooseveltian sense, as an Anglo-Saxon male domain, a political space’ (Gersdorf 194). As part of this politicisation of nature, pastoral tropes of bliss, return and retreat, taking inventory, and wilderness as paradise are employed, but are inverted in a way that enables Abbey to ‘radicalize wilderness as an anti-establishment, anti-regulatory, pro-individualist, and pro-masculinist space’ by emphasising struggle and competition in nature over harmony and co-operation (Gersdorf 199). Picking up on Gersdorf’s observations, in this essay I will consider Abbey as an anti-pastoral writer by looking at his version of pastoral – one that emphasises red-blooded masculine struggle and competition – and analyse how this relates to his ‘libertarian anarchist’ political ideology in which wilderness is defined as a supposedly apolitical space subject only to putative ‘laws of nature’ (Abbey, Postcards 142).

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Published 30 June 2015 in Afterlives of Pastoral. Subjects: American (USA) literature and writers, Pastoral literature.

Cite as: Potts, Michael. ‘Wildness and Wilderness: Anti-pastoralism and the Problematic Politics of Edward Abbey.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 30, no. 2, 2015, doi: 10.20314/als.92ef36abe9.