It was soon after the American Revolution that Thoreau, one of the most influential literary figures of the 19th Century, questioned the effective freedom and happiness of American citizens. The Declaration of Independence stated that all men have some unalienable rights among which “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (Jefferson) are to be found. According to Thoreau, people “have no time to be anything but a machine” (5). In other words, work has dehumanized people preventing them from enjoying their lives, friendships, and “true integrity day by day” (Thoreau 5). The condition of the laboring man takes one back to the British tyranny of the past or even worse, a kind of self-enslavement in which Americans become their own victims. Thoreau proposes a return to a primitive state in contrast with the industrial revolution and the emerging capitalist system which threaten man’s individuality and liberty. By naturalizing the capitalist ideology, society has made Americans believe that they are free, but actually, they have been enslaved by their own sense of duties and obligations to conform to societal expectations.
Almost two centuries later, Edward Abbey condemns the mainstream society for being too attached to this same consumerist ideology. He believes in the need to abandon the stress of everyday life and reunite with nature, which is too exploited especially in favor of a tourism that does not value it. Thoreau’s influence on Abbey is extremely evident on the topic analyzed in Desert Solitaire, yet it is also evident on the style that Abbey uses in the book. Upon publication, both Walden and Desert Solitaire were originally greeted with unenthusiastic responses, so that both books built their audiences over a period of years, however, slowly gathering fans until they we are at last recognized by the mainstream culture (Fischerová 12). To the journalists, Abbey has dismissed Desert Solitaire as an uninspired patch job by saying, I wanted to be a fiction writer, a novelist. Then I dashed off that Desert Solitaire thing because it was easy to do. All I did was copy out of some journals that I’d kept. It was the first book that I published that had any popularity at all, and at once I was put into the “Western Environmentalist Writer” bag, category, pigeon hole. I haven’t tried very hard to get out of it. I’ve been making a pretty easy living at it since then (Hepworth 39). This seems to be a primary difference between Abbey and Thoreau. Though still an avid outdoorsman, Abbey is essentially a professional writer, he makes his living out of his pen. Thoreau, on the other hand, failed to be recognized during his lifetime as a successful writer (Schneider). Yet from their writings, both Thoreau and Abbey appear to be motivated not by social values, but, instead, by more individual and transcendental forces, as compared to those of the masses.
In both Walden and Desert Solitaire, Abbey and Thoreau portray themselves as observers who are aware of, and in harmony with, nature and natural laws, even when nature can be terrifying. Thoreau writes, I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion (Walden 173). This passage can be compared to Abbey’s observation, as he writes of a search to find a missing hiker: The plow of mortality drives through the stubble, turns over rocks and sod and weeds to cover the old, the worn-out, the husks, shells, empty seedpods and sapless roots, clearing the field for the next crop. A ruthless, brutal process – but clean and beautiful. A part of our nature rebels against this truth and against that other part which would accept it. A second truth of equal weight contradicts the first, proclaiming through art, religion, philosophy, science and even war that human life, in some way not easily definable, is significant and unique and supreme beyond all the limits of reason and nature. And this second truth we can deny only the cost of denying our humanity (242). Both Thoreau and Abby acknowledge a basic truth, a beauty which is found, paradoxically, in the amoral cruelty of existence. Both men can be viewed as nonconformists: the figures that emerge from both Walden and Desert Solitaire speak with such individual voices that each seems striking when compared even to one another.
In shape and structure, however, both books bear a striking resemblance to one another. Both are rejected from journals (Fischerová 32); both are accounts that describe in detail thoughts and observations made during an extended stay in the wilderness by Thoreau in the woods of New England, and Abbey in the desert of the American Southwest. Not coincidentally, each writer begins and ends his narrative in similar fashion. Walden, for example, starts like this: When I wrote the following pages, or rather the bulk of them, I lived alone, in the woods, a mile from any neighbor, in a house which I had built myself, on the shore of Walden Pond, in Concord, Massachusetts, and earned my living by the labor of my hands only. I lived there two years and two months. At present I am a sojourner in civilized life again (107). Abby, on the other hand, starts his book saying, About ten years ago I took a job as a seasonal park ranger in a place called Arches National Monument near the little town of Moab in southeast Utah. Why I went there no longer matters; what I found there is the subject of this book (ix). There is a sense of wonder, an amazement at both the simplicity and complexity of nature, which seems to permeate the whole of both books. Henry Thoreau spent a little over two years in the cabin he built on the side of Walden Pond. Edward Abbey worked as a ranger, living alone in the middle of the Utah desert, for three seasons.
In both Walden and Desert Solitaire, however, the passage of time seems compressed, truncated from the actual number of days that actually pass. Neither book is, indeed, arranged in a strict, noticeable, chronological manner. The ideas considered, the observations documented, aren’t so much interlocked with one another and presented in order, like a logical argument, as they are interchangeable, universal and, at the same time, separate from one another. For instance, Abbey writes what is essentially a series of nature lectures, philosophical reflections, anecdotes, and polemics, none of which seems to occur in any particular order. A number of events described in each book, as well as the conclusion each author draws from them, are extremely alike. Thoreau, for example, describes a battle between two species of ants. When it is over, he feels as though he has witnessed, in a microcosm, a war which becomes, ultimately, a metaphor for “the ferocity and carnage, of a human battle before my door” (276). Similarly, in Desert Solitaire, Abbey observes the mating dance of a pair of gopher snakes, an event which urges him to reconsider the sense of continuity found in nature, and man’s place in the order of things: In the long hot days and cool evenings to come I will not see the gopher snakes again. Nevertheless I will feel their presence watching over me like totemic deities, keeping the rattlesnakes far back in the brush where I like them best, cropping off the surplus mouse population, maintaining useful connections with the primeval. Sympathy, mutual aid, symbiosis, continuity (23). Like Thoreau does with the ants, Abbey sees in the snakes a connection between man and nature, and the inherent mystery therein. In a passage that could just as easily been written by Thoreau, he explains: How can I descend to such anthropomorphism? Easily – but is it, in this case entirely false? Perhaps not [. . .] I suggest, however, that it’s a foolish, simple minded rationalism which denies any form of emotion to all animals but man and his dog. This is no more justified than the Moslems are in denying souls to women. . .All men are brothers, we like to say, half-wishing sometimes in secret it were not true. But perhaps it is true. And is the evolutionary line from protozoan to Spinoza any less certain? That also may be true. We are obliged, therefore, to spread the news, painful and bitter though it may be for some to hear, that all living things on earth are kindred (23-24). Both writers certainly recognize and acknowledge the animal within themselves, the animal instinct that lies in every man.
Under similar circumstances, both Thoreau and Abbey come face to face with the wildness, with the primitive desire to kill, in their own souls. Fischerová suggests that Thoreau’s section titled “Higher Laws” is much alike Abby description of his walk home from the country road (45). Thoreau writes of an impulse with which he was seized one night as he returned home, As I came home through the woods with my string of fish, trailing my pole, it being now quite dark, I caught a glimpse of a woodchuck stealing across my path, and felt a strange thrill of savage delight, and was strongly tempted to seize and devour him raw; not that I was hungry then, except for the wildness which he represented (260). By the same token, Abbey displays a similar desire; he sees a cottontail rabbit and decides to kill it. What motivates him echoes Thoreau, For a moment I am shocked by my deed; I stare at the quiet rabbit, his glazed eyes, his blood drying in the dust. Something vital is lacking. But shock is succeeded by a mild elation. . .I continue my walk with a new, augmented cheerfulness which is hard to understand but unmistakable. What the rabbit has lost in energy and spirit seems added, by processes to subtle to fathom, to my own soul (38). Each man possesses an innate wildness, a primeval instinct which is in harmony with nature and, eventually, with man himself. Thoreau’s desire and Abbey’s deed both take us back to the terrible and mysterious, yet beautiful, meanness which both Thoreau and Abbey find in nature.
On the whole, the influence that Thoreau has had on Abbey, both on the style and on the content, is undeniable. It is also undeniable, however, the fact that both Walden and Desert Solitaire are texts born from the need to denounce a society that was increasingly favoring capitalism at the expense of nature, and at the expense of a life in conjunction with nature. Both books can be considered an extremely modern social criticism, despite having been written in two different centuries and being chronologically distant from us.
Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire a Season in the Wilderness. Ballantine Books, 1985. Fischerová, Anna. “The Legacy of Henry David Thoreau: The Influence of Diary Prose on American Environmental Thought.” Theses, Masaryk University, 12 Dec. 2010, theses.cz/id/m91255/. Hepworth, James. “The Poetry Center Interview.” Resist Much, Obey Little: Some Notes On Edward Abbey. Eds. James Hepworth & Gregory McNamee. 1985. 33-42. Jefferson, Thomas. “The Declaration of Independence.” Historic American Documents. Lit2Go Edition. 1776. Web .