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Edward Abbey: A Life

by James M. Cahalan.

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Setting the record straight on a contentious literary icon

He was a hero to environmentalists and the patron saint of monkeywrenchers, a man in love with desert solitude. A supposed misogynist, ornery and contentious, he nevertheless counted women among his closest friends and admirers. He attracted a cult following, but he was often uncomfortable with it. He was a writer who wandered far from Home without really starting out there.

James Cahalan has written a definitive biography of a contemporary literary icon whose life was a web of contradictions. Edward Abbey: A Life sets the record straight on “Cactus Ed,” giving readers a fuller, more human Abbey than most have ever known. It separates fact from fiction, showing that much of the myth surrounding Abbey—such as his birth in Home, Pennsylvania, and later residence in Oracle, Arizona—was self-created and self-perpetuated. It also shows that Abbey cultivated a persona both in his books and as a public speaker that contradicted his true nature: publicly racy and sardonic, he was privately reserved and somber.

Cahalan studied all of Abbey’s works and private papers and interviewed many people who knew him—including the models for characters in The Brave Cowboy and The Monkey Wrench Gang—to create the most complete picture to date of the writer’s life. He examines Abbey’s childhood roots in the East and his love affair with the West, his personal relationships and tempestuous marriages, and his myriad jobs in continually shifting locations—including sixteen national parks and forests. He also explores Abbey’s writing process, his broad intellectual interests, and the philosophical roots of his politics.

For Abbey fans who assume that his “honest novel,” The Fool’s Progress, was factual or that his public statements were entirely off the cuff, Cahalan’s evenhanded treatment will be an eye-opener. More than a biography, Edward Abbey: A Life is a corrective that shows that he was neither simply a countercultural cowboy hero nor an unprincipled troublemaker, but instead a complex and multifaceted person whose legacy has only begun to be appreciated.

The book contains 30 photographs, capturing scenes ranging from Abbey’s childhood to his burial site. 360 pages.

James M. Cahalan is the author of six previous books, including Double Visions: Women and Men in Modern and Contemporary Irish Fiction. He is Professor of English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and sponsored the Pennsylvania state historical marker for Abbey in Home.

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Edward Abbey : A Life


"This is the real thing. This is what we've wanted to know. Abbey in the altogether—a chronicle of the writer we love." —Edward Hoagland

"James Cahalan has written a lucid, impressive biography of that singular American, Edward Abbey. Those who love Abbey's books will find much to interest them here." —Larry McMurtry

"Cahalan fills a huge gap in our understanding of Abbey, his devotion to writing, his kindness and generosity, and affection for his fellow writers. A good job and a definitive biography." —Ann H. Zwinger

"For those who want to defend wilderness and those who love good writing, the story of Cactus Ed Abbey's life as told by Cahalan will engage and inspire, with as insightful a look at the times as it is of the man. Cahalan tells the whole story and he tells it exceedingly well. From Abbey's unforgettable boyhood in the Appalachian East to his rambunctious adulthood in the Southwest, this legendary character comes to life in a way not often seen." —Robert Redford

"Ed Abbey was one of the extraordinary people of the 20th century, trying to figure out ways for this planet to survive. This book will help you know him." —Pete Seeger

"Finally, we join the fury boiling beneath the cool, clear language of Edward Abbey's published words. The best trail guide for tracking the hungry life of that fabled masked man clutching a monkey wrench." —Charles Bowden

"Cahalan takes us miles beyond our cherished, simplistic notions of Edward Abbey as a gravel-witted maverick, crusading for nature. . . . No work on Ed Abbey is more worth the reading." —Gary Ferguson, author of Walking Down the Wild: A Journey through the Yellowstone Rockies

"This [biography] should be definitive for many, many years. . . . I surmise that at this point [Cahalan] is the leading Abbey scholar in the country." —Ann Ronald, author of The New West of Edward Abbey

"I can't imagine anyone getting much closer to Abbey. This book seems right." —Thomas J. Lyon, editor of The Literary West: An Anthology of Western American Literature

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