The Brave Cowboy: A Closer Look at Modern Life

Edward Abbey’s second novel, The Brave Cowboy, is intensely critical of modern life. The book celebrates wide-open spaces and freedom through consistent comparison to an adjacent reality: the hustle and bustle of the city. As the novel continues, we experience the challenges and constraints that Abbey connects with modernity, which Abbey deems unfortunate but unavoidable.

Abbey criticizes modern American life because he believed that wilderness should go “beyond the human” (Minteer). In The Brave Cowboy, Abbey champions a natural environment in which one can reflect without distraction, one of the common themes in the book as he laments a growing dependence on mechanical elements. As Abbey expressed in another work in 1982, Down the River, a connection to the environment is sacred because “loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need — if only we had the eyes to see” (Minteer). Abbey shows us that meaningful, private reflection is challenged by life led in an industrialized society; he characterizes the earth as a living, teaching entity.

Abbey begins The Brave Cowboy with an ode to what he loved dearly: wide-open, undisturbed land. The prologue lovingly explores the beauty of the West, and a specific valley “where phantoms come to brood and mourn” (Abbey 7). Abbey describes the desert, writing “The river flows past the cornfields and mud villages of the Indians, past thickets of red willow and cane scrub oak, through the fringe of the white man’s city […] beyond Thieves’ Mountain far to the south and vanishes at last into the dim violet haze of distance” (7). As soon as the main character, Jack Burns, approaches the first signs of civilization, Abbey introduces litter and detritus: “Horse and man passed other signs and stigmata of life: the petrograph of a wild turkey chiseled in the stone, a pair of tincans riddled with bullet holes of various caliber, brass cartridge shells, an empty sardine can dissolving in rust. They were nearing civilization” (7). Abbey introduces a creeping sensation that decay is closing in on Burns as he gets closer to the city, and we even feels resistance from his horse as we get closer: “Whisky stepped onto the hard asphalt, tossed her head and stepped back, fighting the reins” (25).

When Abbey introduces a city in The Brave Cowboy, he makes it clear that the buzz and bustle is damaging. He describes the city as “sunburnt” (124) and full of distractions, consistently referencing noise pollution and distracting city lights:

The gloom was far from complete: the four-lane highway that wound through the bottom of the pass was alive, crawling, itching with motor traffic — and endless procession of tiny points of light proceeding like beads on a thread through the darkness, passing and repassing, vanishing, reappearing, fed into the night from apparently inexhaustible sources (267).

It’s not only the presence of city lights that cause frustration, but the presence of any light that is manmade or artificial. It becomes the enemy, such as when the helicopter crashes, and the “big main rotor [was] still turning, winking light” despite its obvious failure: Abbey makes it clear that these artificial elements are never to be trusted (232). Previously, Burns is frightened by a flashlight in the desert while he tries to “lay low.” As Abbey describes: “Then he saw and almost felt a beam of light that swung quickly in the air over his head, danced over the leaves of the cottonwoods and disappeared” (203).

There are even colors that Abbey suggests are dangerously too modern, and one of these is yellow. Yellow is a spontaneous and sometimes unstable color. In fact, studies show that the overuse of yellow can be troublesome to the mind (Precision Intermedia). Yellow can affect focus and make it more difficult to concentrate, which coordinates with Abbey’s view of highly disturbing city life. As an attention-getting, disturbing color, it features regularly in The Brave Cowboy: when Bondi looks outside the jail cell, Abbey describes the “yellow rectangles of lighted windows, all the multiple refractions of the great American night” (58). He references “yellow murk,” and also includes a strong description of urban life at the end of the novel: “The urban streets are a chaos of sound, color, and movement: ‘Blue, red, yellow, flashing and dancing […] while the blue red yellow shrieks of neon” (280-281). These elements distract the individual from the contemplation that Abbey believes is so vital.

In fact, Abbey does not only identify certain colors with artificial and natural elements, but he compares color palettes of the city to that of his preferred environment, nature. The city is often described as having disjointed, harsh color schemes or, conversely, being washed of all color. The city seems to bustle but has no soul, while the desert offers stunning vistas and surprising signs of natural life. One of the most powerful descriptions of the countryside can be found when Burns travels the canyon: “Unexpectedly, the view opened wide and the whole western world lay before him: the canyon dropping down step by step like an imperial stairway for the gods, the gaunt purple foothills, the mesa rolling out for miles, the faint gleam of the river” (201). Even this tableau has the power to transform the city into something beautiful — at a distance: “The vast undulant city ten miles away, transformed by the evening dusk into something fantastic and grand and lovely, a rich constellation of jewels glittering like the embers of a fire” (201).

Abbey makes it clear that modern, industrialized life is no place for contemplative thought. His protagonist finds peace and quiet in the desert, and seeks it as a refuge. Burns, even without his sleeping bag and on the run, finds a moment of quiet comfort in his favored habitat: “He belched, lying on his back, and considered the possibility of not going after his mare and his equipment. […] Burns puffed again on the pipe, watching the gray smoke drift up toward the stars” (200-201). Abbey writes that the silence of the desert is a “perfect dome” and treasures the “vast silence” that makes up “the desert and the river and the valley” (15). Nature connects each element, while the noise and commotion of the city is seen as disjointed.

Lastly, Abbey emphasizes the importance of nature by having it tower over artificial elements. Abbey describes the mountain’s presence, and in the beginning of the book, highlights its “must not be ignored” nature:

The mountains loomed over the valley like a physical presence, a source and mirror of nervous influences, emotions, subtle and unlabeled aspirations; no man could ignore that presence; in an underground poker game, in the vaults of the First National Bank, in the secret chambers of The Factory, in the backroom of the realtor’s office during the composition of an intricate swindle… (19).

Abbey insists that nothing can overshadow the mountain, and that everyone feels it, whether they’re even really aware of it or not. The mountain is a penultimate feature of the environment and is all-seeing, achieving a god-like quality. Manmade features are dwarfed by the magnitude of the mountain, like when we see a truck traveling across the desert: “The distance and the silence, the grotesque disproportion between the small dark agitated object and its enveloping continuum of space and silence, gave its activity an absurd, pathetic air” (20).

Abbey, by rejecting his intense passion for nature and accepting that change is inevitable, probably selected a realistic conclusion to his novel. In it, Burns and his horse are hit by a truck filled with toilets. This jarring scene in which civilization comes into contact with Burns’ peaceful, simple ways is an unforgettable message of the struggle for coexistence, and perhaps the futileness of those efforts.

Abbey’s ending to The Brave Cowboy holds a special place in history. Abbey’s environmentalist stance was part of a new movement that celebrated the individual while warning about the damages our modern life could cause – often irreparably – to wildlife. Some claim that his stance on the environment can be linked to today “Anthropocene” movement, which indicates that, due to the impact humankind has had on plant and animal species, we have transitioned into a new era. While the waters are muddied, and the debate continues, this issue points to one of Abbey’s biggest concerns: that humans have damaged our planet so greatly that we may be forced to close one chapter in natural history, and open another (Stromberg 1).

The Brave Cowboy illustrates the importance of maintaining a positive relationship with nature, and not allowing modern life to poison our day-to-day. Even Abbey recognized that there is balance to be struck in our modern lives, stating that we needed “moderate extremism” and “the best of both worlds” (Minteer). Abbey supported responsible change, but seemed disappointed by what that meant in modern life, stating: “Simply because humankind have the power now to meddle or ‘manage’ or ‘exercise stewardship’ in every nook and cranny of the world, does not mean that we have a right to do so. Even less, the obligation” (Minteer). And while the city in The Brave Cowboy is seen as dangerous and distracting, Abbey’s message through his collective works is slightly more hopeful: that there is a possibility to coexist with nature while maintaining our modern lifestyles. This is far more realistic, and seems as though it could be possible. While perhaps the extreme rejection of all things modern is an unsustainable and unrealistic expectation, we can all take the time to appreciate the gifts that nature gives us: the capability of contemplative thought, breathtaking views, and freedom. Regardless of what happens to Jack Burns at the end of the novel, the message is still clear: there’s bravery in never giving up.

Works Cited

Abbey, Edward. The Brave Cowboy: An Old Tale in a New Time. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics Edition, 2016. Print.

“Business, Sales and the World Wide Web Are In Color.” Precision Intermedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Apr. 2017.

Minteer, Ben A. “Why Edward Abbey Still Matters.” Earth Island Journal 15 May 2015: n. pag. EarthIsland.org. Web. 12 Apr. 2017.

Stromberg, Joseph. “What Is the Anthropocene and Are We in It?” Smithsonian 1 Jan. 2013: n. pag. Web. 9 Apr. 2017.