Edward Abbey published nine novels and a dozen books of nonfiction during his life, 1927-1989. He was born in western Pennsylvania, moved west when he was 17 and fell in love with the desert country. He was an MP in the US Army stationed in Italy, went to college in New Mexico and Edinburgh, and lived the rest of his life in Arizona and Utah. He worked as a seasonal ranger at Arches National Monument in the late 1950s and the journals he kept of that time became Desert Solitaire. Perhaps his best-known novel is The Monkey Wrench Gang.
A friend of Abbey's, David Peterson, collected and edited Abbey's correspondence and published Postcards from Ed: Dispatches and Salvos from an American Iconoclast. It's a book that should appeal to anyone interested in Abbey and anyone interested in writing.
Abbey had strong opinions and was willing to share them. From the first letter in the book, writing to his family in November 1949: "The radio is on and I'm hearing a song called 'Mule Train' for about the seventh time this evening. Quite a fad, this pseudo-Western culture. First 'Riders in the Sky' and now this . . ."
I found his opinions about other writers interesting. He did not care for John Updike ("his books are essentially trivial"), J.D. Salinger ("that juvenile neurotic!"), Saul Bellow ("promoting an occult theosophical doctrine known as Steinerism"). For a sense of authors he did like (or respected), he listed books by B. Traven, Thomas Mann, Knute Hamsun, Haldor Laxness, Sartre, Kazantzakis, Mariano Azuela among the greatest modern novels. Indeed, I intend to use his lists of 27 great modern novels, 80 contemporary favorites, and 20-plus greatest books of all time (so far) for my own reading suggestions.
"What is the true subject, or point, or premise, of literary art?" Abby asked in a letter to Annie Dillard. "The novel is the book of life, said Lawrence, and I agree. The novelist must be granted his premises, said Henry James, and I agree with that too. And this above all, says Thoreau, over and over again, give me the truth, the truth however cruel rather than comforting fabrication." Postcards from Ed is studded with thought-provoking passages like this, a letter I would guess of a couple thousand words. (I can imagine what Abbey would think of Twitter.)
He was a working writer, and I was stopped by this letter to his editor about his penultimate novel: "I've read The Fool's Progress, all 901 pages, straight through from beginning to end, and this is what I think. Almost every page requires some re-writing. There are entire scenes and passages in the book that should be re-written word for word or discarded. The early love scenes between Lightcap and Honeydew Mellon are embarrassingly bad—sappy, foolish, silly . . . There is . . . too much hasty careless self-indulgent writing throughout the book . . . " Ouch.
But the letter makes me want to read The Fool's Progress. Was Abbey (and his editor) able to clean it up? Or was he misguided, and did the changes make it worse? Without a comparison between the manuscript and the printed book, we'll never know.
I do know however that Abbey was, as they say, an American original, and Postcards from Ed has given me a wealth of ideas and leads to follow.