“The Thoreau of the West”: Edward Abbey and Henry David Thoreau

Dubbed by Larry McMurtry as the “Thoreau of the West”, Edward Abbey was an author and philosopher whose work in defense of the environment was shaped in part by Henry Thoreau’s writing. Where Thoreau faced the scourge of slavery and was avidly abolitionist, Abbey’s great cause was the preservation of the natural world from continued encroachment and exploitation. Like Thoreau, Abbey was willing to allow for militant action to defend against the predation of the powerful upon the powerless.

Abbey summarized the purpose and tone of his writing in the following manner: “I write in a deliberately provocative and outrageous manner because I like to startle people. I hope to wake up people. I have no desire to simply soothe or please. I would rather risk making people angry than putting them to sleep. And I try to write in a style that’s entertaining as well as provocative. It’s hard for me to stay serious for more than half a page at a time.” He criticized Thoreau for an obsession with purity, but also considered Thoreau a kindred spirit (Epitaph for a Desert Anarchist, 185-186). Where Abbey and Thoreau would find common cause are the lengths to which a person should go in pursuit of justice.

In The Monkey Wrench Gang, Abbey portrays a group of misfits who travel the southwestern United States engaging in ecological sabotage against encroaching industrial development, culminating in an attempt to the destroy the Glen Canyon Dam. The book is widely thought to have inspired the radical environmentalist group Earth First! as well as later groups such as the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front. In “The Last Days of John Brown”, Thoreau defended the actions of John Brown to free slaves in the American South and arm them. Abbey distinguished between terrorism, which endangered the lives of people, and sabotage, which only threatened property. Abbey argued the former should be avoided, while the latter was acceptable for preventing injustice. As Doc Sarvis, a character from The Monkey Wrench Gang and its sequel Hayduke Lives, explains, the first rule of eco-sabotage is “”Nobody gets hurt. Nobody. Not even yourself.” In his Master’s thesis, “Anarchism and the Morality of Violence”, Abbey examined those anarchists who employed revolutionary violence and found them wanting in technique, for attacking human lives made scapegoats out of those who employed them. Abbey thus had to set limits where Thoreau did not.

To Thoreau, people were not property and this formed his opposition to slavery. Property, being sacrosanct in American culture, is a difficult thing to attack no matter the well-reasoned justifications. Thoreau and John Brown knew it. Abbey knew it, too. To Abbey, the wilderness was the abode of freedom, the refuge of humanity in the face of increasing technological dependency. Just as the Southern slave needed advocates for abolition, Abbey recognized the need to speak for the wild, long relegated to mere property for exploitation rather than something worth treasuring simply as it was and is. Both Abbey and Thoreau were critical of their societies and governments. Intent on speaking on behalf of the invisible elements upon which societies are built, Thoreau and Abbey challenged the status quo to enlarge the circle of justice to the unconsidered people and components of American democracy.

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4 Responses to “The Thoreau of the West”: Edward Abbey and Henry David Thoreau

  1. mbstanton says:

    What an entertaining article. It was enjoyable to observe the parallels and differences among the two political figures. More specifically, the manner in which Abbey acknowledges his boldness as a rhetorical tool was interesting. I would wonder if Thoreau intentionally expressed his views in an assertive and aggressive manner just to gain attention. I also enjoyed the connection and contrast in the issues these two individuals were passionate about. So similar and so different. Thank you for your post.

  2. alphaomegawords says:

    Thanks for the great post and the thought provoking analysis as you made a connection from the reading that I had not considered! Until your post, I was not familiar with Abbey. However, your post reminded me of one of my favorite Ken Burns series, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. In it, he tells the story of how the National Park Service came about and the struggle and courage it took and takes to make it happen. The central figure is John Muir, who clearly shared many of the same concerns with Abbey. I love the connection and parallel you make with Thoreau and Abbey. Obviously, the focus of their concerns differed, but the motive the drove their actions were similar. Muir shared a similar passion for conservation and the dam built in Hetch Hetchy was similarly discouraging as Glen Canyon. No matter what side one falls on the political spectrum, it just serves as a reminder that there are issues that surpass party politics and require the engagement of us all.

    As an avid lover of the outdoors, I love to spend time in, observe, and even attempt to photograph the beauty that is all around. Having grown up in the lush, mountainous northwest, coming to Arizona was a new experience. It is a different kind of beauty here, but no less marvelous. Getting out into the wilderness, whether around metro-Phoenix, remote corners of the Grand Canyon, or any other area, it just drives home that there is beauty that can be discovered all over (I will grant that there are some really ugly areas too so I am under no delusion that every area is of equal aesthetic, but I digress). However, that also comes at a cost, in one way or another. As the Burns series highlights, there will always be people, groups, entities, etc. that will seek to capitalize for financial gain, often at the expense of the site they are seeking to draw people to. We all share this unique opportunity: what will we do for these areas? There is certainly a cost for everything and this, too, requires capital too. Paying to safeguard, develop well designed facilities with minimal impact/footprint, investigating through many disciplinary, interdisciplinary, or multi-disciplinary ways a better understanding of the place and people, etc. The lists would be lengthy, but this is what I think demonstrates the importance.

  3. I enjoyed your post and the connections you bring up between the two authors, but what I found most interesting about your post was where they differed. You say that Abbey would not support something such as terrorism, while Thoreau seems to support it in “The Last Days of John Brown”. While I am not condoning terrorism as a good method to achieve change, I thought it interesting that Thoreau’s writings suggest that he would support such methods for a cause he deemed morally worthy. Certainly, Thoreau and other abolitionists would have to take some pretty harsh actions to get rid of slavery. Would Thoreau find it morally acceptable to kill in the name of a cause? Would he find it okay to kill a slave owner, if it meant he could free the slaves? Would that not make him a morally questionable person for being willing to go to such lengths as murder? Would Thoreau or Abbey only be willing to fight for their causes, if they were able to do it in a way they deemed morally acceptable? If we are able to go to extreme lengths to change things, then do we not end up in a society that is still morally questionable?

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