Truth to Power

Shoddy editing can't diminish the power of Edward Abbey's letters

I remember years ago attending a gathering in Bisbee, an odd mix of memorial, art opening and movie premiere celebrating the life of Edward Abbey. Friends, family, fans and other ne'er-do-wells had come together to view a new documentary film about one of Southern Arizona's most famous, and infamous, writers.

One guy was sitting off by himself on the sagging wooden floor of the old gallery watching the documentary, wiping away an occasional tear, and pounding down cans of Budweiser, something Abbey might have referred to as a "fine workingman's brew." After the show, people gathered in small groups to talk about the movie and reminisce about Ed. The gentleman, weaving slightly, made his way up to one group and said, in a not-too-slurred manner, "You know, there are some of us out there who think that maybe Abbey's not really dead."

I'll never forget the absolute silence, the collective wince, and the brief moment of fear and confusion that swept over the group, at which point they all gave little pinched smiles and kind of eased away from the sloshed speaker, who wandered away grinning to himself and looking for that next beer.

I got similar reactions from people when I told them I was reviewing Ed Abbey's newest book. "But he's dead," they all said. I just grinned.

It's true: He's gone, but we do indeed have a new Abbey book. So far, we've seen a biography, a biography/memoir, another memoir, various literary analyses, the journals and Edward Abbey: The Movie. So it was inevitable that sooner or later, we'd see a collection of letters: Postcards From Ed: Dispatches and Salvos From an American Iconoclast.

Reading other people's letters can be about as much fun as beating yourself over the head with a two-by-four, though there are exceptions, say, perhaps the letters of Wallace Stevens and John Steinbeck. Postcards From Ed, lucky for us, turns out to be one of those exceptions.

The beauty of these letters is in their honesty, candor, humor and spontaneity. Writers are first and foremost storytellers; authors in person almost never turn out to be whom you imagine from reading their work. The process of writing and editing leads to a final product that is smooth, polished and tailored toward publication. Here we get the real deal, Abbey in the raw.

In a 1984 letter, Ed wrote, "Instant communication is not communication at all but merely a frantic, trivial, nerve-wracking bombardment of clichés, threats, fads, fashions, gibberish and advertising." This is before e-mail, text messaging, Blackberrys and PDAs. Abbey knew what was coming. You have to wonder, given the emptiness of today's typical e-mail message, if a book of letters such as this will even be possible in the future.

This is the sort of thing Abbey railed against constantly. He rants against science and technology, not so much the pure method of science used in trying to understand the natural world--say, a Jane Goodall running around observing chimps--but what science has become. Abbey viewed it as a cult of thousands of little men in white coats who've brought us things like "the nuclear bomb ... the MX (missile), nerve gas, neutron bomb, napalm, television, the computerized university, sphincter transplants, fetal surgery, Hostess Twinkies, dioxin, PCBs, Three Mile Island, etc."

The letters give us clues to Abbey's mind, his personality: "What I am really writing about, what I have always written about, is the idea of human freedom, human community, the real world which makes both possible, and the new technocratic industrial state which threatens the existence of all three."

Abbey carried on a huge range of correspondence with the likes of Tom McGuane, Barry Lopez, John Nichols, Jim Harrison, Cormac McCarthy, Ed Hoagland and Annie Dillard. There are letters to agents, letters to the editor, letters to friends and family. Some of his more touching words include a love note to his third wife-to-be, a piece so lovely that we become voyeurs of something that perhaps is none of our business, and notes to his sons, where it's apparent he has been the absent father, but has the decency to know it and tries, as best he can, to make up for it.

The only real weakness in the book has nothing to do with the letters but with the editor. His annotations are so thin as to be virtually worthless, and his biographical summaries of Abbey's life are the same. This is simply intellectual laziness and is inexcusable. Context is everything, and the editor dropped the ball here.

That aside, buy the book for Abbey, for a reminder of what a fine writer the man was, for a glimpse of his human side and to honor someone who never hesitated to speak truth to power, a quality needed now more than ever.