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'My People'
Edward Abbey's Appalachian Roots in Indiana County, Pennsylvania

by James M. Cahalan

Part I, Section 3 : Abbey's Family

Edward Abbey's mother and father were impressive people in their own right. Appreciating them is a key part of understanding Edward Abbey. In 1979, Abbey insisted to Clarence Stephenson, author of a history of Indiana County:

If you are really compiling a book of worthy Indiana County residents I believe it should begin by including an account of the lives of my parents .... Both have distinguished themselves as citizens, parents, and leaders in many and varied ways.... Their contributions certainly exceed mine.[22]

Retired Indiana University of Pennsylvania English professor Bill Betts, who knew the Abbeys, nicely summarizes this inheritance: "Ed got his lyrical feeling for flowers and all of nature from his mother and all of this political sense of injustice and the rebelliousness from his father."

Mildred Postlewait Abbey (1905-88) was a schoolteacher, a pianist, as well as organist and choir leader at the nearby Washington Presbyterian Church, and a tireless worker. As Ed Abbey told his friend Jack Loeffler, "after she put us brats to bed at night... our little ninety-eight-pound mother... would try to play us asleep with the piano. She'd be downstairs playing the piano -- Chopin... old hymns. And we'd be upstairs slowly falling asleep under the influence of that gentle piano music. I've been a lover of music ever since."[23] He also inherited his preference for hills and mountains over flat country from her. Mildred wrote in her 1931 diary, "To me there isn't anything even interesting on a road on which one can see for a mile ahead what is coming. But there is something stimulating, even thrilling in a new scene that is revealed suddenly by a turn in the road or by reaching the crest of a hill." Ed echoed her opinion almost exactly in an article written for his high school newspaper, when he was 17: "I hate the flat plains, or as the inhabitants call them, 'the wide open spaces.' In my opinion, a land is not civilized unless the ground is tilted at an angle."[24]

About a dozen banners made by Mildred Abbey, Ed's mother, grace the walls at Washington Presbyterian Church, where she played the organ and led the choir. Known for her fast gait on country walks and her charity, Mildred Abbey was a rebel as well: a church elder, she supported the rights of homosexuals to be ministers long before the national Presbyterian leadership.

Everyone who knew Mildred Abbey remembers her as "impressive, very nice, a very good person," as her sister Betty George says. Howard Abbey stresses that "she was active. If she didn't have any work to do, she was out walking around. I mean over the hills and through the woods, up and down the highway. Anyone that remembers her remarks about that."

He's quite right. Mildred's sister Isabel Nesbitt recounts that "people would tell me, 'Oh, we saw your sister walking up the railroad tracks up there by Home.' Or they'd be driving somewhere and Mildred would be walking along the road, you know. She did walk miles every day." Ed Abbey makes this a key part of her character in The Fool's Progress: "Women don't stride, not small skinny frail-looking overworked overworried Appalachian farm women.... But our mother did" (51).

Another retired IUP English professor and friend of the Abbeys, John Watta -- a former IUP classmate of Ed, and also my next-door neighbor -- remembers: "One day I caught up with her and told her to slow up a little bit and she said, 'Well, there's so much to do, how can you?' She was always rushing off to this and that and couldn't understand people who didn't have time for this and didn't have time for that."

Nancy Abbey emphasizes her mother's writing ability, her love of nature, and also her courage:

When she was an elder in the church, and the Presbyterian church was considering homosexuals and their stance about homosexuality, my mother stood against all the church in her support for the rights of a gay or lesbian to be a minister. And people respected her so much that she was never ostracized for this view. They tried to understand her viewpoint because she was such a respected woman that they could really listen to her and hear her and think, "my goodness, there must be something to this if Mildred Abbey's saying this." She was revered in that way by people. Part of Ed's relish in being different also was supported so much by my mother -- her not trying to hold us at home or make us fit into the mores of that little community. That takes strength of character.

Iva Abbey, Howard's wife, remembers her as "the best mother-in-law anyone could ever want" and "perfect," and stresses that Mildred was proud of Ed's accomplishments, yet also "always said Ned was just one son." Bill Abbey agrees: "She wrote to me that she was proud of all her kids."[25]

Mildred Abbey had begun teaching school before her marriage, and after raising five children, she returned to teaching, in a first-grade classroom in Plumville. She also attended classes at IUP and did volunteer work for the Meals on Wheels program. After Mildred was killed by a truck in an accident in November 1988, one of her former students, Janice Dembrosky, who had gone on to become a teacher herself, published a moving letter in the Indiana Gazette headlined "Mildred Abbey Touched Many Lives."[26] Just four months before his own death, Ed Abbey described her funeral (the occasion of his final visit home) in his journal:

We buried her, a week before Thanksgiving, in the family plot at Washington Church. A simple ceremony. The preacher read from Isaiah and Ecclesiastes and the 23rd Psalm -- exactly my own preferences. About a hundred people standing about. A chill and windy day, scattered clouds, cold sunshine. We cried. (Confessions, 350)

In their youth, Mildred and Paul Abbey had met on the Indiana-Ernest streetcar in Creekside, where both grew up. Paul Revere Abbey (1901-1992) was born in Donora, southeast of Pittsburgh. He moved to Creekside at age 7, in 1908, after his father, John Abbey, answered an ad to run an experimental alfalfa farm there. In a 1990 interview that was part of a federal folklore project, Paul Abbey remembered: "We had a team of horses and a riding horse and six head of cattle, and he rode the horse and herded the six head of cattle from down below West Newton up to this place here."[27]

Paul Abbey, Ed's father, quoted Walt Whitman from heart and espoused radical political notions his entire adult life.

As a young man, Paul pursued many different jobs, as he would continue to do all of his life. He was a steelworker in Ohio, and he spent some time in the West as a ranch hand. His memories and momentos of the West were Ed's earliest boyhood incentives to go West. Paul left school at an early age but carried on a lifelong, voracious self-education. He could quote Whitman from heart, and he became a devoted socialist in one of the most conservative counties in the United States. A tall, slender man and one of the most spunky characters ever seen in Indiana County, Paul Abbey stood out.

Paul's political radicalism rubbed off on his oldest son at an early age. As Betty George recalls, "Indiana was always a Republican county in those days. About 1938, my husband and I took my father and Ned to the New York World's Fair.... And I remember one of the things Ned said he wanted to see was the Russian Pavilion," because his father had told him about it. Later, of course, Ed Abbey rejected his father's socialism in favor of his own developed articulation of anarchism, yet in doing so he was actually following his father's own independent streak from an early age, as Paul Abbey recounted:

Before I was a socialist, I belonged to the KKK. Back in that time, everybody was joining the KKK -- pretty nice guys in there. So, I joined up too -- just a kid, you know. I went to one meeting and I heard the most miserable speech, from the lousiest guy I ever knew, telling us what we should do with the Jews, and the Catholics, and the "niggers." So I didn't stay in the KKK very long. Now I'm a life member of the NAACP.

While Mildred was the daughter of a schoolteacher and principal, C.C. Postlewait, Paul was the son of a poor farmer. Mildred's marriage to Paul, her sister Betty recollects, "was very unpopular with my family. My mother died in June 1925, and Paul and Mildred were married in the fall of that year, I believe. And my father was very unhappy about it and he didn't like Paul. In fact, his idea was that Paul was no good, so far as a husband and a father was concerned, that he wasn't the sort of a person who would make a home and get a job and keep a job."

Paul and Mildred were devoted, independent souls, but they lived a difficult life. Howard Abbey stresses that they nonetheless provided as well as they could for their children, and he remembers dressing as well as his peers and not going hungry. Nancy Abbey however, told me that her mother

scrubbed diapers on a scrub board for years for the first three babies. It wasn't until after I was born that they got a washing machine. And then, there wasn't running water. When we moved down to the farm, we got electricity in pretty fast but we didn't get water in for a couple of years and then didn't get hot water in for more years than that. And she was a frail little woman .... She had two miscarriages -- one between Bill and myself and one after Bill.... My father just never saw any reason to make money. For him, life was just fine and I think maybe I, being a girl, may have felt more deprived than my brothers because I didn't have clothes like the other girls at school and things like that.

In the literature by and about Edward Abbey, his father is remembered almost solely as a nature-loving farmer and woodsman. Paul Abbey was both of those things, but he probably earned somewhat more money over a longer period of time selling the magazine The Pennsylvania Farmer and then driving a school bus for 17 or 18 years. Howard Abbey indicates that, as a schoolteacher, Mildred "actually made more money than my dad did, probably."

Ed Abbey with his parents during a 1983 visit to Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Paul Abbey loved working in the woods, cutting locust trees for posts, and maintaining his rock shop on Route 119 during the later period of his life. He collected his rocks during trips to the West, during which he visited Ed. Paul worked with Ed on more than one occasion in a fire lookout tower on the north rim of the Grand Canyon, and hiked with him from rim to rim of the Canyon when he was in his 60s, 70s, and 80s.

He had hunted to help feed his family during the Depression, and taught his sons to hunt, but later gave up hunting, explaining, "we don't need the meat any more, "[28] as his son noted in his essay "Blood Sport" in One Life at a Time, Please, where Ed explained his own decision to give up hunting.

Ed Abbey followed his father's example in this and many other respects. Neither was devoted to a steady job; both loved to write bold letters to the editor. Sometime during the 1970s, Ed published one in the Indiana Gazette headlined "Yes, There Is a Home, Pa.": "I have read with pleasure two recent letters in your 'Readers Write' column from a certain Paul Abbey of 'Home' (is there really such a place? or is the writer putting us on?), Pa. In any case, Mr. Abbey demonstrates a rare talent for polemical satire --or satirical polemic -- and I do not hesitate to predict that this young man, if he persists, will go far in his chosen field. Whatever it might be."[29]

While in fact Paul Abbey outlived him, in The Fool's Progress Ed's fictional father dies, crushed by a tree. Indeed there had been least one real incident in which Paul had nearly been killed by a falling tree. The fictional father's death permits Ed's alter ego, Henry Lightcap, to deliver this eulogy:

My father was a vain stubborn self-centered stiff-necked poker-playing whiskey-drinking gun-toting old son of a gun. He was a good hunter, a good trapper, a poor farmer and a hotshot but reckless logger. He was hard on himself, on trees, machines and the earth. He never gave his wife the kind of home she wanted or the kind of life she deserved.... He was a hard man to get along with. But I'll say this for him: he was honest. He never cheated anyone. He was gentle with children and animals. He always spoke his mind. And he was a true independent. Independent, like we say as a hog on ice. I mean he really believed in self-reliance and liberty. He was what some call a hillbilly -- but we call a mountaineer. The mountaineer is a free man.... Mountain men will always be free. Our old man believed in that motto. And someday we're going to prove him right. So long, Paw. (321-22)

After Paul's death in 1992, Howard Abbey wrote and Nancy Abbey recited a comparable eulogy:

If my Dad were judged on his good versus his bad points, I think that the good points would win hands down. Although he was rather intolerant of people whose political and religious views differed from his own, he was very kind and gentle and giving to those he felt were in need of support.... My father has gone from this dimension. If there is a heaven I think he'll be there. And Mom will be there to welcome him, because she is certain to be there.[30]

Like his father, Howard Abbey became a woodsman and worker; he was Ed's closest sibling and the only one to spend most of his life near their boyhood home. Like their mother, Ed, John, Nancy, and Bill were teachers at one time or another; Bill taught earth science for 27 years in Hawaii, and Nancy, who lives in Santa Cruz, California, now works for a health education organization. They all got along pretty well -- except for the usual kinds of boyhood sibling conflicts between Ed and Howard as two brothers close in age, and the friction between John and the others (particularly Ed) due partly to the increased conservatism during the Vietnam War of John, a Korea veteran.

After John died from cancer in 1987, Howard made sure that some of his ashes made their way into the family plot next to Washington Church (before the rest joined those of his late wife, elsewhere), and Paul Abbey saw to it that John's name was carved onto their gravestone there.

As divergent as were their various choices of career and locale, the Abbey children remained linked by a mutual attentiveness to nature that they inherited from Mildred and Paul. The first time I met Howard, I invited him into my house to take a look at Abbey's Web on my computer; he declined, instead pointing out to me a beautiful bluejay feather in my front yard that I had never noticed.

Both Nancy and Bill interrupted me during our interviews to exclaim about birds they saw flying outside their windows. Nancy tells me that "there's something so strong in the Abbey blood that when I read Ed's books, I find out that I like the same music, I like the same authors. We all have this writing skill and we all have this passion for trees and birds and we have different views about ecology and the environment but we all have this love of the things outdoors. And that really came from my parents." Adds Bill: "I remember Nancy's boyfriend, Bruce, mentioning one day when I was visiting her, and Nancy and I were talking about this tree and that tree over there, 'What the hell is it with these Abbeys and the trees? Every Abbey has something about trees.' It's true."

The accuracy of Bill's remark is underscored in Paul Abbey's interview in 1990, when he was 89 years old: "Come over here and look straight across the reflection of that light -- that tallest tree over there. That is a sycamore.... When we were just starting to build here, twenty-two years ago, our next-door neighbor got me a little tree. That's it. Imagine that thing growing that much. That's at least a hundred feet high."

The Abbeys' love of trees and of nature persisted throughout their lives and, through Edward Abbey's writings, was passed on to the rest of the world.

Next section: Part II, Introduction


[22] Abbey, letter to Clarence 0. Stephenson, 18 April 1979 (characteristically signed "Oracle, Arizona"), supplied to me courtesy of Mr Stephenson. Abbey concluded, "I would prefer not to be included in your book unless you also include them." Stephenson did so, listing Mildred and Paul as well as their parents and five of their children, and quoted a further sentence of Abbey's letter to him about Mildred and Paul: "The sum contributions (so far) to the economic, social, cultural, intellectual and educational life of Indiana County far exceed my ability or anyone's ability, to measure such things." Stephenson, Biographical Sketches of Noted Citizens, Past and Present, vol.4 of Indiana County 175th Anniversary History (Indiana, Pa., 1983), 298. It is indicative of Paul and Mildred Abbey's different personalities that after they read their son's letter to Stephenson, Paul called it "the funniest thing I ever read" and joked to Ed that he was a "crazy galoot" and "a traitor to our illustrious county," whereas Mildred wrote: "I was downright crushed by your response to Clarence Stephenson.... He is a good man who has spent uncounted hours, years, effort, in research and writing that volume. It is a useful, interesting record for all of us who have lived in this area.... How else does a community grow?" Joint letter of 9 May 1979, Abbey collection, box 2, folder 2.

[23] Audiotape of interview with Jack Loeffler, 1 Jan.1983, Tucson, Abbey collection, box 27, tape 4.

[24] Abbey, "Vagabond Lover Has Drink With Governor," High Arrow, 20 Dec.1944, 2.

[25] Interview with author, 18 Oct.1995.

[26] Indiana Gazette, 22 Dec.1988, 10. Dembrosky wrote, "She made learning fun. The history of the American Indians came alive for us when she told us stories and showed us arrowheads ... Mildred Abbey was a great teacher because she loved us so.

[27] Interview with Jim Dougherty, 23 June 1990, in the "America's Industrial Heritage Project Folklife Division" collection in Special Collections, Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The subsequent quotation from Paul Abbey is also from this interview. I want to thank Dougherty for doing this interview and making it available.

[28] Abbey, "Blood Sport," One Life at a Time, Please (New York, 1988), 33-34.

[29] I am thankful to Howard and Iva Abbey for lending me this undated letter.

[30] I am grateful to Bill Abbey for lending me this statement, to Howard Abbey for giving me permission to quote from it, and to Nancy Abbey for sharing her memories about it.

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