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

by James M. Cahalan

Part II, Section 6 : Appalachian Themes


Even those who knew Abbey only out west have recognized, as his fellow Western writer and friend Chuck Bowden put it, that "he was basically a hillbilly from Appalachia who knew how to write, who wanted to restore some hollow up in the mountains."[51] Ken Sanders agrees that "Ed was a hillbilly at heart." Abbey's close friend Ken Sleight, the river guide who was the model for the character Seldom Seen Smith in The Monkey Wrench Gang, tells me that Abbey "had a fond memory of his childhood right on up .... He was returning to his roots, so to speak, when he bought some property here in Pack Creek," near Moab, Utah. At Pack Creek, he wanted to live on the land, as the Abbey family had back home at the Old Lonesome Briar Patch, and he wanted "a place for his family. He'd always think of his family. He really liked families," Sleight adds. Another close friend, the painter John Depuy notes that Abbey "really loved ... village society especially. He grew up in a village. He was at heart -- he and his family were at heart -- Appalachians."[52] Yet another good friend, the writer Terry Tempest Williams, agrees: "I think he always had a nostalgia for Home. Home, Pa. Appalachia. Because I think Edward Abbey was a man of Home ultimately."[53] Clarke Cartwright Abbey similarly tells me,

He never really forgot who he was and where he grew up. He said a lot of times that he was an Appalachian hillbilly who grew up in a very poor family. And I don't think that part of his life ever left him, and he never wanted it to. He never forgot it. He was always looking for someone back east, in Pennsylvania, that he had known as a child. He craved a contact from college or high school back east and was always very excited when he would get a letter. I think he got a letter from a schoolteacher of his. That meant a lot to him.

It is striking how frequently Abbey refers to his Western Pennsylvanian background not only when he is writing directly about it, but even in writings set in the West that have been considered only in the contexts of Western and environmental literature.[54] He could be as far away as Norway, writing in his journal in 1952 during his Fulbright year, when a scene reminded him of home: "Green grass, black cows, board fences, big shiny milk cans by the road in front of every farmhouse, just like rural Pennsylvania. In fact, from what I've seen so far, Norway looks amazingly like parts of Pennsylvania.... When the train stops you can smell the manure -- strong powerful stuff, makes me nostalgic. Must be planting time in Pennsylvania. The folks there must be busy, perhaps hopeful, emerging from dreary winter" (Confessions, 61).

He remarked that seeing a swan fly in England was "as likely an event as an Allegheny pig-iron barge taking off for a spin over the Triangle around three o'clock in the afternoon on Mother's Day" (Confessions, 88). Writing in his journal while sailing in the North Sea, he wrote of "the source, where the earth is dark and fruitful, and the hills green, and where love began and must always return. Not where I now belong, but where I am always welcomed, no matter how evil I become; not where I choose to live, but where I must continually return, if I am anything at all. Far from there, long away I easily remember my home. Yes, yes, I think of home, I think of Home" (Confessions, 77-78).

Such an attachment was not merely the homesick diary writing of a young man, but a lifelong theme in all of his works. As Doc Sarvis remarks in The Monkey Wrench Gang, "The best men, like the best wines, come from the hills."[55] When Sandy tells Will Gatlin, the protagonist of his novel Black Sun, "Gatlin sounds like a hillbilly name," he agrees: "It is, it is."[56] In Desert Solitaire, it takes little to shift Abbey's mind from Utah back to Western Pennsylvania: "Raised in the backwoods of the Allegheny Mountains, I remember clearly how we used to chop blocks of ice out of Crooked Creek, haul them with team and wagon about a mile up the hill to the farmhouse and store them away in sawdust for use in the summer. "[57] On the very first page of that book, Abbey affirms that while the area around Moab is one of the most beautiful places on earth, others include "a gray gothic farmhouse two stories high at the end of a red dog road in the Allegheny Mountains" and "a view down Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn." When asked about being pegged as a Western writer, Abbey remarked in 1977 that instead of producing more Western novels, "I'm trying to write an Eastern."[58]

Edward Abbey's knowledge of the area around Crooked Creek provided for the setting of the novel The Fool's Progress.

Indeed, Indiana County was not Abbey's only Eastern place, for he also spent several stretches of time in the late 1950s and early 1960s in Hoboken and Jersey City, New Jersey, trying to write, working in a welfare office, and living with his second wife, Rita Deanin, a native of the area. He appears to have been nearly as attached to "Hoboken" as a place name as he was to Home, Pennsylvania, and Oracle, Arizona. This wilderness writer surprises the reader in the essay "Freedom and Wilderness": "When I lived in Hoboken, just across the lacquered Hudson from Manhattan, we had all the wilderness we needed."[59] In a poem entitled "Manhattan at Twilight, Seen from the Palisades," he asked: "Who would believe the city could be so lovely?"[60]

Gurney Norman, a novelist from Kentucky, tells me, "I don't think that it's ultimately fruitful to try to set up an opposition between the Appalachian region of Abbey's boyhood and the far West of his later life. It isn't that there is a contest. It's about completing a picture rather than starting a fight. There is no split; it's just that the linkages have not been made manifest." I agree with him. Norman grew up in Hazard, lived in California for quite a few years, and eventually resettled in Lexington, where he teaches at the University of Kentucky. He is one of the Appalachian writers and thinkers who see "Appalachian" as a term applicable not merely to the mountain region running from northern Georgia up through Western Pennsylvania, but also as descriptive of frontier modes of thinking that link, not separate, the Appalachian East and the wild Southwest. After all, Western Pennsylvania was once our frontier. Our rivers run west. Scholars of the far West's literature identify as the first Western novel a book set and published in Pittsburgh: Philadelphia native Hugh Henry Brackenridge's Modern Chivalry, serialized in the Pittsburgh Gazette beginning in 1781.[61] And Abbey had long been preceded as a Western Pennsylvanian pioneer to the West by much earlier explorers who followed the rivers west as described, for example, by botanist and geologist Edwin James in his Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, performed in the Years 1819 and '20, under the Command of Major Stephen H. Long (1823).[62]

Abbey was himself such a trans-Appalachian, pioneering thinker and writer, and the son of an Indiana County woodsman who had worked on a ranch in Montana. He uses the words "Appalachia" and "Appalachian" much more frequently than "Pennsylvania" and "Pennsylvanian" in his writings, according to the thinking he expressed in a 1985 interview: "I prefer to think in terms of bioregional rather than political boundaries. Arbitrary lines drawn on a map don't mean much to me."[63] In many ways, Indiana, Pennsylvania, has much more in common with Morgantown, West Virginia, than it does with York or Allentown. Abbey recognized this bioregional and socioeconomic fact when he set The Fool's Progress in West Virginia as his thin disguise for his native Western Pennsylvania. Both his 1986 notes on his trip through West Virginia and the version of them that made it into The Fool's Progress show that he was attached to Appalachia, but felt no need to romanticize it. Here's the full context for the quotation that I've borrowed for the title of this article: "The foothills of Appalachia at last. Now we're getting somewhere.... A lounging sullen homicidal primitive in every doorway. My people. Each backyard sports a clothesline strung with the honest tattered garments of the poor" (459, 460). Gurney Norman reacted to this passage as follows:

That's totally fair. Think of a Native American novelist like Scott Momaday He's perfectly free to say that "I drove back onto the reservation and in every doorway there was a drunk, mean, violent Indian. My people." He's free to say that. Black people use the word "nigger" all the time. And it's legitimate. It's within the culture. It's what people do. It's in the social competition of the mainstream that more tender sensibilities exist. That same set of words could be used to exploit you.

Abbey tried to rediscover his Appalachian roots by buying land at Pack Creek, Utah, and elsewhere in the West, and he had a cabin built, behind his home just outside of Tucson, in which he did all of the most important writing of his later years and in which he chose to die. In The Poetics of Appalachian Space, Parks Lanier emphasizes the Appalachian cabin as a key to Appalachian identity.[64] Reviewing the history of his native region in Appalachian Wilderness, Abbey stressed that "each householder built his own home .... Such cabins, when properly built, would last for a century (75). He disdained the "immobilized mobile homes" that he saw people living in in Indiana County during his visits back home. Hayduke exclaims in The Monkey Wrench Gang, "Let them build houses that will last a while, say for a hundred years, like my great-granpappy's cabin back in Pennsylvania" (210). Indeed, Bill Abbey hypothesizes that his brother may have named Hayduke partly after the Duke family of Home. There is one actual "Hayduke" in the Pittsburgh telephone directory and several people in Western Pennsylvania with the name "Hyduke."

This article has only scratched the surfaces of the deep, extensive roots of Edward Abbey's life and works in Western Pennsylvania. And we have begun to appreciate Abbey as an important writer and thinker. He had a great sense of humor; the comic vein in his writing endears him to me. But Abbey was also the author of a master's thesis on philosophical anarchism, and he was dead serious in his life and writings about defending the wilderness. "Keep it like it was," he wrote in The Journey Home (145) -- encapsulating both his comic and serious sides, as he often did, in a single pithy statement. Clarity is one of the strongest, best qualities of his writing, which has gathered quite a following of readers and admirers throughout the West and around the world. Here in Western Pennsylvania, it's time for more people to read Abbey's books, recognize his achievement, and understand and take pride in how thoroughly rooted he was in his native region. In the process, we can learn much about ourselves, as residents of Appalachia (rather than just Pennsylvania) who are connected to the rest of the world -- especially the natural world.

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Notes

[51] Interview with Eric Temple, April 1992. I am grateful to Mr Temple for sending me a copy of this interview and the others cited below. His video Edward Abbey: A Voice in the Wilderness (1993) is an excellent resource and is available from Back of Beyond Bookstore in Moab, Utah, whose manager, Josť Knighton, has also been very helpful.

[52] Temple interview, April 1992.

[53] Temple interview, April 1992.

[54] See my article "Edward Abbey, Appalachian Easterner" in Western American Literature 31.3 (Nov 1996), 235-53, in which I examine Abbey's writing in more detail.

[55] Abbey, The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975; New York, 1976), 168.

[56] Abbey, Black Sun (1971; Santa Barbara, 1990), 60.

[57] Abbey, Desert Solitaire (1968; Tucson, 1988), 87.

[58] Quoted by Pamela Bothwell, "Novelist, Environmentalist Edward Abbey Says 'I'm A Wild Preservative'," Greensburg Tribune-Review, 2 Jan. 1977, n. p.

[59] Abbey, "Freedom and Wilderness, Wilderness and Freedom," in The Journey Home, 227.

[60] Abbey, Earth Apples (Pommes des Terre): the Poetry of Edward Abbey (ed. Petersen; New York, 1994), 56.

[61] Martin Bucco, "The Development of Western Literary Criticism," A Literary History of the American West, ed. James H. Maguire, et al. (Fort Worth, 1987), 1283.

[62] Edwin James, Account of an Expedition from Pittsburgh to the Rocky Mountains, Performed in the Years 1819 and '20, Under the Command of Major Stephen H Long, 2 vols. (Philadelphia, 1823).

[63] Quoted by David Petersen, "A Conversation with Edward Abbey" Basin and Range, Aug. 1985, 10.

[64] Lanier, introduction, The Poetics of Appalachian Space (Knoxville, 1991), 1-9.

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