Ativism: Thoreau and Abbey

by Jim Farrar (1987)

With post-graduate study but a dim speck on the horizon, this essay, in all likelihood, represents my last opportunity to write about literature for awhile. For this reason, what follows strikes me as being somehow appropriate to the occasion.

The value of my own education, it seems to me, lies in how I have evolved as a student. Simply put, I am a better reader than I was when I returned to school a couple of years ago. As a result, I would like to believe I have also become a better thinker. Almost literally, I have been re-taught how to think, how to look at books, which I've always loved, in ways that had never before crossed my mind. This is the value of any education, I believe, with knowledge being not so much an accumulation in our brains of facts, as much as it is the method or the process with which we perceive the world.

More specifically, my own understanding of literature has changed as a result of my experience here at school. I've always realized that no writer lives in an absolute vacuum, that the creative process is of necessity sparked by something in the writer's own experience, be it physical, spiritual, emotional, or intellectual.

What has not always been apparent to me, however, is the evolutionary, or atavistic, nature of literature itself. Not until I'd gone through a cycle of literature courses did I start to see a pattern emerge. Certain themes, or ideas, would pop up in the work of one writer, or group of writers, that harkened back or seemed to precipitate another. Literature, I found, is not static, but dynamic. It builds upon itself; it is in fact symbiotic, not a hodgepodge collection of movements or genres existing independently of each other. And though I realize literature can't always be pigeonholed by period or genre or philosophical point of view, that some allowance, after all, must be made for an author's individuality, for the uniqueness of voice and vision which is the mark of genius, I can still see the thread in whatever I read connecting past with present, regardless of whether or not it underscores a similarity, or merely points out a difference.

Before Garrison Keillor, for example, had given us Lake Wobegon, there was a another writer named Sinclair Lewis, who had created another little town in Minnesota, called Gopher Prairie. Before Sherlock Holmes there was Poe's C. Auguste Dupin, as well as Wilkie Collins' detective stories. And long before the birth of Norman Mailer, Daniel Defoe had written what has come to be known as the real-life novel.

Such is the lead-in, then, to the topic I'm about to introduce. I'd like to at look two books, written by two American writers, one living, the other dead; two books which appeared roughly one hundred and fifteen years apart from one another. To wit, these books are Walden, by Henry David Thoreau, and Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey.


I wish to emphasize that though these two books, as well as the men who wrote them, reveal remarkably similar imaginations, they are also very distinct and highly individual works, and they should be considered in such a light.

Looking over their respective backgrounds, however, one thing that stands out is how much alike Thoreau's education was to Abbey's. Thoreau studied at Harvard, where the bulk of his course work was devoted to the classics. Library records show that he consumed a large portion of Chalmer's twenty-one volume anthology, The English Poets, as well as works by Goldsmith, Southey, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, Cowper, Johnson, Gray, Homer, the Greek poets, and the travel books of Hall, McKenney, Barrow, Brackenridge, and Back, among others (Harding 38). In addition, his writings also reflect a familiarity with Eastern and Oriental literature, to which he refers a number of times in Walden.

Abbey is also well acquainted with the ancients, with many of the aforementioned writers also appearing in his work. After a period of study at Yale and Edinburgh, he received his M.A. in philosophy from the University of New Mexico in 1956, writing his thesis on "Anarchism and the Morality of Violence."

Coincidentally, he did not attend his graduation ceremony, just like Thoreau, who had also failed to attend his, over one hundred years earlier at Harvard.

If any inference can be drawn from all this, it is that both Thoreau and Abbey may have developed their individual philosophies in essentially the same intellectual context. There are what I feel to be remarkable passages in both Walden and Desert Solitaire, which we'll get to later, that appear to be borne of a common perception.

If based solely on the education of its authors, it is much too superficial an observation, however, to say that Walden and Desert Solitaire are similar. Worse yet, a case could be made which would in fact conclude that Desert Solitaire is merely a second-rate imitation of Walden. Aside from too easily dismissing something that can, and does, exist on its own merits, such a conclusion, I think, ignores some major differences between the two books. To see this, it's necessary to look at the books themselves.


Upon publication, both Walden and Desert Solitaire were originally greeted with unenthusiastic responses. Both books built their audiences over a period of years, however, slowly gathering fans until they were at last recognized by the mainstream literati.

To the press, Abbey has dismissed Desert Solitaire as an uninspired patch job. He says:

I wanted to be a fiction writer, a novelist. Then I dashed off that Desert Solitaire thing because it was easy to do. All I did was copy out of some journals that I'd kept. It was the first book that I published that had any popularity at all, and at once I was put into the "Western Environmentalist Writer" bag, category, pigeon hole. I haven't tried very hard to get out of it. I've been making a pretty easy living at it since then (Hepworth 39).

Somehow, this seems to be a primary difference between Abbey and Thoreau. Though still an avid outdoorsman, Abbey is essentially a professional writer, he makes his living with his pen; he's done so for quite some time now. Thoreau, on the other hand, failed to publish anything in his lifetime that could, by today's standards, be called successful.

Does this make a difference? No, probably not – at least with Desert Solitaire, since Abbey was still pretty much an unknown when he wrote it.

Abbey's later work, however, has been terribly inconsistent. Anymore, he appears to be a writer trying to deal with, or pander to, the expectations of his audience, a writer who seems to be consciously aware of his image while at the same time trying to maintain it. If nothing else, Thoreau was unencumbered by his reputation as a nonconformist or nature writer or unambitious crackpot, by whatever label was fastened upon him. With Thoreau, there simply was no ego or image to maintain, since, by his own account at least, he was writing to please no audience other than himself:

For a long time I was reporter to a journal, of no very wide circulation, whose editor has never yet seen fit to print the bulk of my contributions, and, as is too common with writers, I got only my labor for my pains. However, in this case my pains were their own reward (118).

The respective persona that emerges from each book, then, seems an appropriate thing on which to focus a discussion of them. Judging from each man's writing, both Thoreau and Abbey appear to be motivated not by social values, but, instead, by more individual and transcendental forces, as compared to those of the masses who live their so-called lives of "quiet desperation." In both Walden and Desert Solitaire, Abbey and Thoreau portray themselves as observers who are aware of, and in harmony with, nature, with natural laws. And nature itself can often be terrifying. Thoreau writes:

I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion (Walden 173).

Now compare this to Abbey's observation, as he writes of a search to find a missing hiker:

The plow of mortality drives through the stubble, turns over rocks and sod and weeds to cover the old, the worn-out, the husks, shells, empty seedpods and sapless roots, clearing the field for the next crop. A ruthless, brutal process – but clean and beautiful. A part of our nature rebels against this truth and against that other part which would accept it. A second truth of equal weight contradicts the first, proclaiming through art, religion, philosophy, science and even war that human life, in some way not easily definable, is significant and unique and supreme beyond all the limits of reason and nature. And this second truth we can deny only the cost of denying our humanity (242).

Both men acknowledge a basic truth, a beauty which is found, paradoxically, in the amoral cruelty of existence.

At this point, it seems almost puerile to point out the obvious and say both men can be viewed as nonconformists. Such is each man's reputation. The figures that emerge from both Walden and Desert Solitaire speak with such individual voices that each seems striking when compared even to one another.

Oddly enough, this accounts for a very perceptible difference between Thoreau's philosophy and Abbey's. Perhaps both men would be insulted to be compared to one another in the first place. But of the two, Abbey becomes in his writing not so much an introspective and solitary observer of man and nature, a man at peace with himself and tolerant of the faults of his neighbors, such as Thoreau appears to be, but seems, instead, to be an aggressive iconoclast, a man who is angry with human stupidity, who has a very heavy axe to grind with the Powers That Be. Abbey sees himself as a polemicist. By way of explanation, he writes in the preface that

Certain faults will be obvious to the general reader, of course, and for these I wish to apologize. I quite agree that much of the book will seem coarse, rude, bad-tempered, violently prejudiced, unconstructive – even frankly antisocial in its point of view. Serious critics, serious librarians, serious associate professors of English will if they read this work dislike it intensely; at least I hope so. To others I can only say that if the book has virtues they cannot be disentangled from the faults; that there is a way of being wrong which is also sometimes necessarily right (xi).

Abbey is referring to an issue of public policy here, namely the over-development of America's national park system, which he judges to be as much a rape of the land as strip-mining or the clear-cutting of forests.

In Walden one finds no similar passage – such angry challenges simply fail to appear. Thoreau's opinions are presented with wit and, occasionally, sarcasm; Abbey, on the other hand, is prone to throwing down the gauntlet, to arguing political issues and spitting venom. Unlike Desert Solitaire, Walden is essentially a meditative work, the reflections of a basically happy man.

In shape and structure, however, both books bear a striking resemblance to one another. Both are culled from journals; both are accounts, monologues actually, which describe in detail thoughts and observations made during an extended stay in the wilderness by Thoreau in the woods of New England, and Abbey in the desert of the American Southwest. Not coincidentally, I think, each writer begins and ends his narrative in similar fashion, with a sameness of speech that goes beyond semantics. Walden, for example, starts like this:

When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again (107).

Compare this to Abbey's opening lines in Desert Solitaire:

About ten years ago I took a job as a seasonal park ranger in a place called Arches National Monument near the little town of Moab in southeast Utah. Why I went there no longer matters; what I found there is the subject of this book (ix).

Though I'm not going to quote them, I would like to point out that the closing lines of each book also resemble one another, with each man marveling at the mystery of life, of the earth and the sun and the stars, at the passage of time. There is a sense of awe, an amazement at both the simplicity and complexity of nature, which seems to permeate the whole of both books.

Henry Thoreau spent a little over two years in the cabin he built on the side of Walden Pond. Edward Abbey worked as a ranger, living alone in an aluminum trailer in the middle of the Utah desert, for three seasons. In both Walden and Desert Solitaire, however, the passage of time, if we're aware of it at all, seems compressed, truncated from the actual number of days that actually pass. The reason for this, I think, is that neither book is arranged in a strict, perceptible, chronological fashion. The ideas considered, the observations recorded, aren't so much interlocked with one another and presented in order, like a logical argument, as they are interchangeable, universal and, yet, separate from one another. You can, for example, open Walden to any chapter, perhaps any page, and begin reading. It's impossible to get lost in it.

The same is true of Desert Solitaire. Abbey delivers what is essentially a series of nature lectures, philosophical ruminations, anecdotes, and polemics, none of which seems to occur in any particular order.

A number of events described in each book, as well as the conclusion each author draws from them, seem uncannily alike. Thoreau, for example, describes, in a famous section, a battle between two species of ants. When it is over, he feels as though he has witnessed, in a microcosm, a war which becomes, ultimately, a metaphor for "the ferocity and carnage, of a human battle before my door" (276).

Likewise, in Desert Solitaire, Abbey observes the mating dance of a pair of gopher snakes, an event which urges him to reconsider the sense of continuity found in nature, and man's place in the order of things:

In the long hot days and cool evenings to come I will not see the gopher snakes again. Nevertheless I will feel their presence watching over me like totemic deities, keeping the rattlesnakes far back in the brush where I like them best, cropping off the surplus mouse population, maintaining useful connections with the primeval. Sympathy, mutual aid, symbiosis, continuity (23).

Like Thoreau does with the ants, Abbey sees in the snakes a connection between man and nature, and the inherent mystery therein. In a passage that could just as easily been written by Thoreau, he explains:

How can I descend to such anthropomorphism? Easily – but is it, in this case entirely false? Perhaps not. . . I suggest, however, that it's a foolish, simple minded rationalism which denies any form of emotion to all animals but man and his dog. This is no more justified than the Moslems are in denying souls to women. . .All men are brothers, we like to say, half-wishing sometimes in secret it were not true. But perhaps it is true. And is the evolutionary line from protozoan to Spinoza any less certain? That also may be true. We are obliged, therefore, to spread the news, painful and bitter though it may be for some to hear, that all living things on earth are kindred (23-24).

Both writers certainly recognize and acknowledge the animal within themselves, the brute that lies in the breast of every man. Under similar circumstances, both Thoreau and Abbey come face to face with the wildness, with the primitive desire to kill, in their own souls. In a section titled "Higher Laws," Thoreau writes of an impulse with which he was seized one night as he returned home:

As I came home through the woods with my string of fish, trailing my pole, it being now quite dark, I caught a glimpse of a woodchuck stealing across my path, and felt a strange thrill of savage delight, and was strongly tempted to seize and devour him raw; not that I was hungry then, except for the wildness which he represented (260).

By the same token, Abbey displays a similar desire as he walks home along a back country road. He sees a cottontail rabbit and decides to kill it. What motivates him echoes Thoreau:

For a moment I am shocked by my deed; I stare at the quiet rabbit, his glazed eyes, his blood drying in the dust. Something vital is lacking. But shock is succeeded by a mild elation. . .I continue my walk with a new, augmented cheerfulness which is hard to understand but unmistakable. What the rabbit has lost in energy and spirit seems added, by processes to subtle to fathom, to my own soul (38).

Each man possesses an innate wildness, a primeval instinct which is in harmony with nature and, eventually, with man himself. Thoreau's desire and Abbey's deed both take us back to the terrible and mysterious, yet beautiful, meanness which both Thoreau and Abbey find in nature.


As I said earlier, no writer lives, or works, in a vacuum. It would be foolish for me to say that Edward Abbey is unaware of Thoreau's work and, therefore, is uninfluenced by it. Of course he's been influenced by Thoreau. By his own admission.

But though Abbey has pays homage to Thoreau in his writing, Edward Abbey is not Henry Thoreau, nor does he try to be.

Once again, this brings me round to the issue I raised at the start of the essay. Just as surely as Ralph Waldo Emerson helped shape Thoreau's writing, Thoreau has, at least indirectly, shaped Edward Abbey's. This is Emerson and Thoreau's legacy, their function; writers such as Abbey have learned from them, and have built upon and expanded on that which their literary antecedents have bequeathed to them.

There's no paradox here. I think a writer can be influenced by those who came before him, can even say the same things, and still retain his individuality. It's the voice that counts, and surely Abbey speaks, for all its similarity to Thoreau's, with a voice that is clearly of his own generation, just as much as Thoreau's was a product of his.

Works Cited

Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness. New York: Ballantine Books, 1968.

Harding, Walter. The Days of Henry Thoreau: A Biography. New York: Dover Publications, 1962.

Hepworth, James. "The Poetry Center Interview." Resist Much, Obey Little: Some Notes On Edward Abbey. Eds. James Hepworth & Gregory McNamee. Salt Lake City: Dream Garden Press, 1985. 33-42.

Thoreau, Henry David. Thoreau: Walden and Other Writings. Ed. Joseph Wood Krutch. New York: Bantam Books, 1962.

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