MAY 3, 2015
SOME WRITERS LIVE in optimal habitats that generate their best work. For Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey, that place was the vast, dry American West.
In 2012, with a box full of books riding shotgun, David Gessner drove from North Carolina toward the Continental Divide to find out just what it was about the landscape that had inspired each author. Gessner is known for upending common assumptions about nature writing. His essay collection Sick of Nature, for example, offers more humor, booze, and irreverence than you tend to find in most paeans to mother earth. With All the Wild That Remains, he continues to scout uncharted boundaries of genre as he seeks out the people and places associated with his literary forebears. He doesn’t merely collect reminiscences and revisit the famous sites; he asks these two essential voices to speak to the contemporary landscape:
What I came to believe is that, in this overheated and overcrowded world, their books can serve as guides, as surely as any gazetteer, and as maps, as surely as any atlas. It was thrilling, really, if you are allowed to use that word for reading. To see that as far back as fifty years ago Stegner and Abbey were predicting, facing, digesting, and wrestling with the problems that we now think uniquely our own.
What Gessner discovers is that both Stegner and Abbey have something relevant to say about fracking, severe drought, climate change, and a host of environmental problems that they might not have known in their own times but would have understood intuitively.
Yet as prescient as they were, as towering and influential as they continue to be (especially in the literary tradition of the American West), Gessner occasionally encountered outright ignorance as he began working on the book:
When I mentioned the names of these writers in the East, I sometimes got befuddled looks. More than once I had been asked: “Wallace Stevens? Edward Albee?” No, I would patiently explain. Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey.
A year ago I could have made the same mistake. A Midwestern transplant to the Pacific Northwest, I had not yet encountered either author in my education or personal reading. Gessner and All the Wild That Remains prompted me to explore their work and then enriched my understanding of it. If Stegner and Abbey are like rivers, then Gessner is the smart, funny, well-informed river guide who can tell a good story and interpret what you’re seeing.
Both Stegner’s and Abbey’s lives seemed naturally westbound. Born in Iowa in 1909, Stegner was deeply influenced by an itinerant childhood that took him to Seattle, Saskatchewan, and Salt Lake City, among other locales. Almost a generation younger, Abbey grew up in Pennsylvania and did not visit the Southwest until his late teens, but the experience was a kind of rebirth. Their lives had only a brief confluence, when Abbey spent two semesters as a fellow in the famous Stanford Creative Writing Program, which Stegner founded and where he taught through the 1950s and ’60s. But in spite of their lack of physical proximity, their lives and careers drew from the same source: the American wilderness.
And yet: whatever Stegner and Abbey had in common, could two authors have been more divergent in personality and style? Gessner catalogs the differences, from the seemingly superficial:
The split between the two men was right there in their haircuts: [Stegner] sporting a neat, coifed, ever-whitening mane, not a hair out of place, while [Abbey’s] hair grew ever longer, his shaggy beard ever shaggier.
To the personal:
In contrast to Abbey and his five wives, Wallace Stegner stayed married to Mary Page for his whole life.
To the critical:
Virtue, outside of the virtue of saving wild places, doesn’t have much of a role in Ed Abbey’s work, and do-gooders are frowned upon. Meanwhile, sensual pleasure, which plays such a large role in Abbey’s life and writing, goes virtually unmentioned in Stegner’s.
The contrast becomes even more pronounced when considering the ways that they celebrated and protected the wild. Abbey is perhaps best known as a proponent of eco-sabotage. His novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, in which a crew dismantles bulldozers, torches billboards, blows up train bridges, and plots the demolition of dams, has inspired countless followers. In a chapter dedicated to monkeywrenching, Gessner reveals how it grew out of Abbey’s own anarchist studies, and then recounts the mixed fates of individuals and groups, notably Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front, who adopted the novel as an instruction manual.
If Abbey was the countercultural icon doing his “nightwork” with gas can and tin snips, Stegner operated in broad daylight, and through the proper channels. He sought not to break but to make the law by helping to craft the beginnings of what would become the Wilderness Act. In addition, he often served as educator to government officials and decision makers, as with “The Wilderness Letter,” which was originally addressed to an outdoor recreation commission but has become a classic of environmental literature. Sitting in meetings, drafting legislation, is hard, boring work, but 50 years later, Gessner witnesses the evidence of Stegner’s efforts by visiting the parks and public lands of the West he helped create.
It seems that Stegner’s approach to wilderness conservation grew out of a much deeper lesson about the region. Having grown up in the West, he believed that survival in this spare and fragile landscape requires cooperation among those who share water systems. He initially developed and articulated these ideas in Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, his biography of the explorer and geographer John Wesley Powell, in which he recognizes the originality of Powell’s proposal to organize land use and government according to watersheds. Here’s Gessner on Powell’s vision:
It was a methodical, sensible, scientific approach, essentially a declaration of interdependence between the people and their land, and the miracle is that it came very close to passing into law. But of course it met with fierce opposition from those who stood to profit from exploitation.
Indeed, the history of land and water use throughout the West largely shows how rarely communities have grasped and adopted this message until scarcity forces it upon them.
And in contrast to this well-reasoned critique, here comes Ed Abbey, tossing beer cans out his window and ranting about Glen Canyon Dam. His sentences, as they go on and on, form a kind of song, a lyric that somehow reflects the beauty and severity, the sublimity and extremity, of the Southwestern landscape he loves and inhabits. Yes, his work is shot through with contradictory, even ugly, opinions, but he also teaches us how to fall in love with the ground beneath our feet.
“Abbey is more than any writer I know, this side of Montaigne, alive on the page,” writes Gessner toward the end of the book. Though Abbey often gets classified as a “nature writer” (a label he hated), Gessner makes a strong case for reconsidering his place in the overall tradition of literary nonfiction. (After reading Desert Solitaire, I’m surprised that one of those pieces didn’t end up in Phillip Lopate’s anthology of the personal essay.)
Early in his journey, Gessner gets an email from Terry Tempest Williams that flips the common assumptions about these two writers. “In so many ways Ed was the conservative,” she writes. “Wally, forever the radical.” Her paradoxical comment serves as a koan that Gessner wrestles with all the way through; each foray into new terrain, actual or biographical, brings a new vantage on the yin-yang qualities of his subjects. At times, Gessner does seem to favor the flawed but charismatic Abbey, but then he’ll find a hidden pass and drop back into Stegner country. In style and approach, the book emulates the spirits of both: one moment Gessner is waxing ecstatic over a desert rainstorm, and the next he’s gleaning sources in archives at the University of Utah.
And his prose mostly moves at a steady clip, not unlike the road trip upon which the whole narrative hangs. His conversational tone did occasionally leave me hungry for more nuanced considerations, especially when he moved toward broad assertion. “What does it really mean to live a wilder life?” Gessner asks and then answers: “One thing I think it means, simply put, is getting into the wilderness, or what wilderness is left.” Good advice, for sure, but given that the word “wild” appears in the title, I’m struck by how little Gessner explores the complex assumptions connected to its meaning. Often he dusts off — rather than reconceives — the notion of the wild as a pristine landscape divorced from the tainted human world where most of us live. Writers like Gary Snyder, environmental historian William Cronon, and even Gessner himself, in his earlier book My Green Manifesto, have shown us ways of finding the wild closer to home.
Before reading All the Wild That Remains, I’d wondered if Gessner would take a tip from Stegner’s Angle of Repose and ultimately turn his historical quest back on himself, applying what he learned to excavate his interior life. I didn’t necessarily want him to go as far as Geoff Dyer did in his book about D. H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, but I thought it would be fascinating to see the author burrow, in an essayistic fashion, further into the unknown; to penetrate the wilderness that always remains within. For the most part, this personal landscape is only hinted at: “If we are lucky, our reading and influences are like a vast underground root system, and about as easily deciphered.”
However, these points feel like quibbles raised in hindsight: while reading All the Wild that Remains, I was thoroughly charmed. It’s an admirable work, especially in its refreshing take on the literary biography. Much like Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, it eschews chronology for the essential waypoints in the authors’ lives. But it also resembles Paul Elie’s consideration of four Catholic authors in The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage, especially in the ways that it rubs together contemporary lives to yield insights that might not have been apparent otherwise. Unlike these books, however, Gessner narrates in the first person, weaving in travelogue, history, criticism, and glimpses of his own development as a writer. In doing so, he offers a welcome model for those venturing to understand their place, not just in the landscape but in the ecosystem of American literature.