Archetypal wild man Edward Abbey and proper, dedicated Wallace Stegner left their footprints all over the western landscape. Now, award-winning nature writer David Gessner follows the ghosts of these two remarkable writer-environmentalists from Stegner's birthplace in Saskatchewan to the site of Abbey's pilgrimages to Arches National Park in Utah, braiding their stories and asking how they speak to the lives of all those who care about the West.Read more...
Archetypal wild man Edward Abbey and proper, dedicated Wallace Stegner left their footprints all over the western landscape. Now, award-winning nature writer David Gessner follows the ghosts of these two remarkable writer-environmentalists from Stegner's birthplace in Saskatchewan to the site of Abbey's pilgrimages to Arches National Park in Utah, braiding their stories and asking how they speak to the lives of all those who care about the West.
These two great westerners had very different ideas about what it meant to love the land and try to care for it, and they did so in distinctly different styles. Boozy, lustful, and irascible, Abbey was best known as the author of the novel The Monkey Wrench Gang (and also of the classic nature memoir Desert Solitaire), famous for spawning the idea of guerrilla actions known to admirers as "monkeywrenching" and to law enforcement as domestic terrorism to disrupt commercial exploitation of western lands. By contrast, Stegner, a buttoned-down, disciplined, faithful family man and devoted professor of creative writing, dedicated himself to working through the system to protect western sites such as Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado.
In a region beset by droughts and fires, by fracking and drilling, and by an ever-growing population that seems to be in the process of loving the West to death, Gessner asks: how might these two farseeing environmental thinkers have responded to the crisis?
Gessner takes us on an inspiring, entertaining journey as he renews his own commitment to cultivating a meaningful relationship with the wild, confronting American overconsumption, and fighting environmental injustice all while reawakening the thrill of the words of his two great heroes."
- ISBN-13: 9780393089998
- ISBN-10: 0393089991
- Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
- Publish Date: April 2015
- Page Count: 368
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2015-02-02
- Reviewer: Staff
Channeling writers Wallace Stegner (1909–1993) and Edward Abbey (1927–1989) and their mutual love of the wide-open spaces of the American West, Gessner (The Tarball Chronicles) delivers a spirited, ecologically minded travelogue, based on his exploration of the wilds of Colorado and Utah in summer 2012. In the author's estimation, Stegner and Abbey were "two of the most effective environmental fighters of the twentieth century," though "their tones couldn't have been more different." Stegner, a Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist, practiced environmental advocacy through consciousness raising and by supporting legislation to protect the Western landscape. Abbey, regarded by many as a neo-Thoreauvian, encouraged "monkey wrenching" or environmental sabotage to obstruct the development of public lands. Gessner quotes liberally from the novels and essays of both writers, as well as from works by other nature writers and conservationists, as he tours a rapturously described Western wilderness endangered by drought, forest fires, and fracking. He writes with a vividness that brings the serious ecological issues and the beauty of the land into to sharp relief. For instance, he likens a dried riverbed overflowing from a sudden flash flood to "a dehydrated man choking on his first gulp from a canteen" and says of a landscape marred by oil drilling that "it looked as if someone had taken a knife to a beautiful woman's face." This urgent and engrossing work of journalism is sure to raise ecological awareness and steer readers to books by the authors whom it references. (Apr.)
Well Read: Champions of the West
While they are often roped together as Western or regional writers (narrow classifications they both loathed), and their prime writing years and geographic terrain overlapped to a degree, there could not have been two more different writers—or men—than Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey. Stegner, a buttoned-down careerist and nurturing teacher, curated his life as carefully as he honed his exquisite prose. Abbey was, at turns, a curmudgeon and a wild man. Yet, as David Gessner conveys in his superb new book, All the Wild That Remains, these two great American writers shared a commonality in their love of the West and the passionate, albeit very different, ways they celebrated and fought to preserve it.
Part dual biography, part travelogue, this study of literary legacy and environmental conservation is structured around Gessner’s own road trips through the Western landscape. He travels to Lake Powell, formed by the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam, which obliterated the glorious canyon and spawned the eco-terrorism movement called monkeywrenching (inspired by Abbey’s novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang). In Salt Lake City, he finds the roots of Stegner’s work, which was deeply shaped by autobiographical details, particularly his troubled relationship with his father.
A through-line of Gessner’s narrative is the specter of climate change and the West’s unquenchable thirst for water. In their writing and their activism, Stegner and Abbey each understood the dangers of treating the arid land of the West as if it were the wet landscape of the Eastern states. Both Stegner’s measured warnings and Abbey’s more renegade approach have been largely ignored. “What I came to believe over the course of the year, and what I suspected all along if I am honest, is that Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey, far from being regional or outdated, have never been more relevant,” Gessner writes.
While extolling the work of both men, Gessner makes the stronger case for Stegner’s lasting place in the literary canon (which would have pleased the writer who, despite winning a Pulitzer and a National Book Award, was often ignored by the Eastern establishment). Abbey was a more unpredictable writer, his fiction flawed, Gessner suggests. It was through his essays, highly personal and idiosyncratic, that Abbey continues to leave his mark, and his Desert Solitaire is a perennial seller that, ironically, has inspired countless readers to head west, further threatening its delicate ecosystem.
The two men died four years apart, with Stegner, a generation older, outliving the man who had briefly been his student. Stegner has a fellowship at Stanford named for him and a prize for environmental or Western American history endowed in his name at the University of Utah. Abbey was buried illegally in a secret grave in the remote desert. These contrasting legacies exemplify the ways these two writers lived their lives, wrote their books and fought their battles against the destruction of the West. Abbey was Mr. Outside, while Stegner was Mr. Inside, Gessner says. But they both remain vital in reminding us why we need to preserve what is left of the wilderness.