The massive droughts and forest fires that have scorched large swaths of the American West over the past decade would not have surprised Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner, two of the region’s greatest 20th-century authors. Stegner was prophetic in articulating the defining scarcity of the environment west of the hundredth meridian: “The primary unity of the West is the shortage of water,” he wrote. Abbey, meanwhile, blamed the greed of those settling the West rather than the landscape itself; he saw in developers a blind pursuit of growth that resembled the “ideology of the cancer cell.”
These two men are the contrasting heroes of a profoundly relevant and readable new book by David Gessner: All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West. In this artful combination of nature writing, biography, literary criticism, and cultural history, Gessner studies two fascinating characters who fought through prose and politics to defend the fragile ecologies and transcendent beauties of the West.
The book is structured as a road trip, and Gessner notes the irony of guzzling gas to retrace the lives and works of two preservationists. But the contradiction is also in the spirit of Edward Abbey, who tossed beer cans from his pickup truck and claimed that the highway, not his littering, constituted the real defacement. A littering environmentalist, a philandering family man, and a Westerner raised in Pennsylvania, Abbey was a catalog of contradictions and inconsistencies. Gessner glosses this complexity with a hopeful spin: “He is a big fat hypocrite and he admits it, and there is something cleansing about this... It does offer the hope that one does not have to be pure to fight.”
This is good news; there would be few activists in the world if any hypocrisy invalidated their achievements. Though Abbey’s passion is easy to admire, his methods were often wildly unorthodox. His novel "The Monkey Wrench Gang" celebrates the particular brand of idealistic sabotage that Abbey and his friends largely invented: they sawed down billboards, poured sugar into the gas tanks of bulldozers, and schemed to blow up bridges. These tactics typically only delayed development, but they thrust environmental issues into the national conversation and focused public attention on the despoliation of fragile ecosystems.
Wallace Stegner took a more measured approach to both life and conservationism. In fact Abbey criticized Stegner for his “excess of moderation.” But Stegner was undeniably effective. He not only worked on legislation that became the landmark 1964 Wilderness Bill, he also helped to create Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. Unlike Abbey, Stegner had the patience to do the unglamorous work of sitting on committees, meeting with politicians, and galvanizing public support. Writing novels was his deepest pleasure and aspiration, but he regarded environmental activism as an essential duty.
Eastern intellectuals often ignored and belittled Stegner and Abbey. The New York Times Book Review didn’t even review Stegner’s 1971 novel, "Angle of Repose," but they did find the space for an essay that objected to the book winning the Pulitzer Prize. Both men resisted designation as merely regional writers, arguing that the real provincialism belonged to those critics who, in Stegner’s phrase, “make the New Yorker’s mistake of taking New York for America.”
A devoted readership in the millions is one measure of both men’s literary influence. Gessner notes that nearly every park ranger in the American West has a dog-eared copy of Abbey’s classic nonfiction book "Desert Solitaire," a meditative account of the year that Abbey spent as a ranger at Arches National Monument near Moab, Utah. And his works still occupy whole shelves at the Moab local bookstore, where he’s by far the best-selling author.
Stegner, in turn, exercised a whole other order of influence. After founding Stanford’s Creative Writing Program in 1945, he taught many future luminaries who attended the program: Ken Kesey, Larry McMurtry, Raymond Carver, Wendell Berry, and Edward Abbey, to name a few.
One advantage of writing biography about subjects who lived recently is that surviving friends and family can supply fantastic source material. Gessner chats with Wendell Berry in Kentucky, visits in Utah with the man who inspired the character Seldom Seen Smith in "The Monkey Wrench Gang," and drives to Stegner’s old house in California. Gessner is a dedicated sleuth and an engaging guide to the human and natural terrain.
He also moves beyond Stegner and Abbey to report on recent transformations in the land that they loved. Especially interesting is his account of Vernal, Utah, a fracking boomtown where property taxes and crime have risen in tandem with employment created by the new industry. Air quality has suffered, and millions of gallons of water are used in the process of extracting oil. The distribution of profits from the industry is highly unequal, its long-term viability dubious, and its environmental impacts disturbing.
Gessner places Vernal in the context of a broader historical trend of extracting wealth from Western states. Agriculture, mining, ranching, tourism, and fracking all reflect a particular view of the West as a resource-rich land of promise and plenty where anyone can strike it rich. This mythology of the West dangerously obscures the fact that its resources are finite and its ecosystems fragile.
Like the best works of Stegner and Abbey, Gessner’s book sands away the varnish of legend that casts the West in the unlikely role of American Eden. With human populations exploding, rivers dwindling, fires raging, and wildlife forced into ever smaller pockets of wilderness, the American West needs to move beyond deceptive myths of boundless plenty and heed what the philosopher Santayana once called “the sadness and discipline of the truth.”