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

by James M. Cahalan

Part II, Section 2 : Indiana County Education and First Writings

Edward Abbey attended the Rayne Township Consolidated School (1934-41), Marion Center High School (1941-42), Indiana High School (1942-45), and Indiana University of Pennsylvania (1947) before leaving for Albuquerque and the University of New Mexico, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in philosophy.

Howard Abbey remembers that he and his brother started school as first-graders in 1934, when there was no kindergarten, and that soon thereafter Ed was skipped ahead to second grade. Ed, says his brother, always remained very self-assured and certain of his superiority over his peers. Ed was recalled by others as a shy, studious schoolboy. In fact, from people who knew him at various stages of his life, one learns that the real Ed Abbey was quite different than the image of him created by characters such as the wild Hayduke in The Monkey Wrench Gang or Henry Lightcap in The Fool's Progress. Abbey himself was aware of the dichotomy. "The Edward Abbey of my books," he wrote in his journal, "is largely a fictional creation: the true adventures of an imaginary person. The real Edward Abbey? I think I hardly know him. A shy, retiring, very timid fellow obviously. Somewhat of a recluse, emerging rarely from his fictional den only when lured by money, vice, the prospect of applause."[31]

Abbey clearly developed a persona in his books and as a public speaker that was not the same as his private demeanor. He remarked in an interview that the "character I create in my journalism is perhaps a person I would like to be: bold, brash, daring.... I guess some people mistake the creation for the author, but that's their problem."[32]

His relatives and high school classmates agree. Sister Nancy Abbey says that as a boy Ed "was too shy to be much of a cut-up.... He was a very, very complex person." An aunt, Betty George, notes that "I never saw him trying to be funny." I had gone to Ed Abbey's 50th high school reunion -- he was posthumously honored as a distinguished alumnus, with clippings about him displayed on a bulletin board -- expecting to hear from his Indiana High School classmates that he was an unforgettable character and perhaps a practical joker. Instead, the word that I heard most frequently from his classmates was "loner." Judy Moorhead recalls that "he wasn't a part of a group. Part of that was because he lived in the country and he would ride the schoolbus home." Eugene Bence concurs: "He lived a little ways away. And he didn't get to many of the social activities that were going on." But Abbey was not afraid to stand out, Bence adds. "He was kind of like the hippie of his day: having work shoes and just dressing a little more down. I recall his hair as always being askew -- like under no control whatsoever. He didn't care." Leonard Abrams says, "I can still remember Ed Abbey wearing Norman Thomas buttons to school."

Abbey had switched from Marion Center High School to Indiana High for several reasons. Longtime friend Ed Mears says that Abbey didn't like walking to Marion Center and could get a ride to Indiana High. Nancy Abbey expects that her brother would have preferred the increased cultural stimulation of Indiana. Clarke Cartwright Abbey, his widow, remembers him saying that he switched high schools in order to get more writing classes.

Abbey's double distance as a country boy coming in from 8 miles away to Indiana, and his remarkable intellect even at a relatively early age, increased his alienation. "I don't think anybody in our class," says Gene Bence, "ever got to know Ed Abbey really well. And I think it's because, intellectually, he was on a plane above us." Judy Moorhead recalls: "The one statement I remember Ed Abbey making was in a science class. We were talking about atoms; in those days no high school students heard very much about atoms. And Ed said, 'If anybody can ever split the atom, they'll unleash all kinds of power.' He was aware of these things before the rest of his classmates."

"... up a red-dog road and under a railroad trestle through a tunnel in the woods" (Abbey's description in Appalachian Wilderness) was the route to the family's beloved Indiana County homestead dubbed the "Old Lonesome Briar Patch." Here Howard Abbey is seen driving away from his childhood home.

Abbey wrote in his journal in 1954: "High school -- Indiana, Pennsylvania; four years of intellectual adventure and social misery" (Confessions, 118). Actually he attended Indiana High for three years, having transferred after a year at Marion Center, which was closer to the family home (dubbed by them as the "Old Lonesome Briar Patch"). His reputation at Marion Center High was much the same. "He was pretty much a loner," Ed Mears comments. "He didn't mingle a lot. He wasn't an enemy of anybody. But he didn't have a lot of friends." Adds Ivan McGee, a year ahead of Abbey at Marion Center (and later the executive director of the Historical and Genealogical Society of Indiana County): "I always felt him sort of an intellectual student. I mean bright, intelligent -- probably did not fit in too well with a lot of his classmates."

Abbey's future career and interest in writing began during high school. His first known publications appeared when he was 14 and 15 years old: an anti-Hitler editorial, "America and the Future," in the Marion Center Independent in December 1941, and "Another Patriot," a short story in a spring 1942 Marion Center High School compendium of student writings and news.[33] Both are forgettable boyhood wartime writings, though "Another Patriot" is early evidence of Abbey's flair for the dramatic, with his protagonist diving into the ocean in front of an oncoming German torpedo to sacrifice himself and save his ship.

Actually Abbey had "published" at an even earlier age, charging his siblings a penny to read "this wonderful comic series of `The Adventures of Lucky Stevens,'" recounts Nancy Abbey. Lucky Stevens "was born this baby that cracked open whiskey bottles with his teeth and drank it down, and he decided to leave home at an early age. I remember there was this one hobo king who had a thumbnail that was like a dagger. Lucky Stevens had to fight to the death with him."

Next section: The Attraction of the West and Abbey's Summer 1944 Trip


[31] Confessions of a Barbarian: Selections from the Journals of Edward Abbey, 1951-1989, ed. David Petersen (Boston and New York, 1994), 246-47; hereafter cited as Confessions.

[32] Quoted by James Hepworth, "The Poetry Center Interview" [Tucson, 1977], Resist Much, Obey Little: Some Notes on Edward Abbey, ed. Hepworth and Gregory McNamee (1985; Tucson, 1989), 44. My quotations from other people about Abbey are from my own interviews (unless otherwise cited). as follows: Bill Abbey (27 Oct. 1995), Clarke Cartwright Abbey (6 Feb. 1996), Howard Abbey (18 Oct. 1995), Nancy Abbey (2 Dec. 1995), Leonard Abrams (22 Sept. 1995), Eugene Bence (22 Sept. 1995), Sam Furgiuele (17 Nov. 1995), Betty [Elizabeth Postlewait) George (27 Oct. 1995), Raymona Hull (29 Jan. 1996), Ed Mears (4 Oct. 1995), Ivan McGee (13 Sept. 1995), Judy Moorhead (22 Sept. 1995), Gurney Norman (18 Dec. 1995), Ken Sleight (17 Jan. 1996), and John Watta (18 May 1995). I am extremely grateful to all of these individuals, each of whom gave generously of their time and knowledge.

[33] My thanks go to Ivan McGee, former executive director of the Historical and Genealogical Society of Indiana County and a contemporary of Abbey at Marion Center High School, for lending me these two articles.

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