Stop Dropping the A-bomb: Edward Abbey’s legacy going up in clichéd smoke

Stop Dropping the A-bomb

Bombs are used for impact.  Whether it’s a 500-pound cluster bomb dropped on a fortified stronghold or a cherry bomb in a toilet, the end result is going to grab someone’s attention.  Writers know this and have booby-trapped their work with metaphorical bombs since ink hit papyrus. With explosive catch phrases and ticking words, writers hope to fire up the reader.  A relatively new ordinance has come on the literary scene: A-bombs—Abbey Bombs.

Since the early nineties, shortly after Edward Abbey’s death, rarely a week goes by when someone doesn’t brandish an Abbey quote or 6a00e5505da11788340147e310afc0970b-800wimake reference to the writer usually pairing his name with terms like desert rat, curmudgeon, or defender of the wild. This name-dropping is happening in metropolitan newspapers as well as tiny, backcountry rags.  It’s going on in the outdoorsy and environmental magazines and all over the blogosphere.  A recent edition of the reputable High Country News contained two references to the author and one of those was a book review for a work of non-fiction containing musings on the writer’s fascination with Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. Edward Abbey’s ghost is summoned again and again to lend his essence to a variety of subjects: cattle grazing, overpopulation, immigration, and the celebration of wilderness.

Now it’s no surprise that writers drop Abbey’s name.  The man’s writing continues to inspire and enrage. A carefully chosen Abbey excerpt works like a spring-loaded bear trap. It’s either going to capture the reader or evoke wariness, but it will never be ignored.

The use of an A-bomb is also a clever device a writer can use to get work into print.  Abbey sells.  Outdoor-oriented folk, from ranchers to mountain bikers, recognize the man and if even a fraction of those pony up cash to read anything that contains Abbey’s name, editors and publishers can’t be blamed for throwing themselves on Abbey’s overloaded coattails.

Some pen-pushers reference Abbey as a form of homage, a tip of the hat to a literary hero.  Still others embed the man into their writing with hopes that a little of Cactus Ed’s cantankerous and rakish aura is transferred onto him or herself.

Is this all harmless name dropping?

Doug Peacock, one of Abbey’s pals and the inspiration for the George W. Hayduke character in The Monkey Wrench Gang, was asked about his friend’s legacy on a radio talk show.  Peacock lamented 20 years after his friend’s death that no one had taken up Abbey’s mantle.  “I’d thought there had been a 100 Ed Abbeys by now,” he grumbled.  One translation: too many writers are dropping Abbey’s name and too few are picking up on the writer’s examples.

And here begins the rub: writers using A-bombs are hiding behind the icon.

Where there’s an A-bomb, there’s typically a lack of originality.  Most A-bomb detonators are simply regurgitating subjects and themes already covered by Abbey.  A dangerous endeavor when the man’s work still resonates with pertinence.  Using Abbey as a rant springboard, writers spew vinegar about overcrowded backcountry, motorized tourism, or sprawl.  Too many times this sophomoric writing comes off as uninformed fuming or the continued flogging of an over-covered issue.  Abbey ranted, true.  But the man typically was on the battlefield with the things he attacked.  Whether through direct, visceral experience or heavy study, Abbey intimately knew what he was talking about and usually had a stake in the outcome.

If not ranting, penmen attempting to channel Abbey euphorically spew nothing but bliss and beauty for the natural world and places off the beaten path. The Montana Standard dropped an A-bomb in a piece about the “romantic life” of a fire lookout volunteer by harkening up an image of Abbey pensively working on Black Sun while perched in a similar lofty retreat.  Emotive work on the subject of wild places has already been nailed by the likes of Thoreau, Leopold, and Mary Austin.  Readers would be better served if such purple drivel were left unseen on the pages of the writer’s personal journal.

J2FKWAn even graver offence, writers who continuously exhume the bones of Abbey lack their own voice.  Abbey’s literary voice is the first thing that jumps off the page. It’s an oily blend of conversational and convoluted, engaging and incendiary, plain folk and intellectual.  Most times Abbey’s words resonate in the reader’s ears as if they were spoken around the fire ring, the writer’s direct voice interlaced with hissing coals and cricket song.  Too many times the borrowed Abbey quote or reference is the most virile tidbit in otherwise flaccid prose.  Just as reading Thomas Paine and listening to Rage Against The Machine doesn’t make one a revolutionary, dropping Abbey’s name doesn’t endow a writer with gravitas.

By all means, read Abbey’s work, ponder his messages, go out and pull some survey stakes, but leave the man’s bones to rest.  His work is done.  Get busy on your own.

Jeff Osgood is a freelance writer based in Longmont, Colorado.