Edward Abbey’s FBI File

THE FILE BEGINS in 1947, when Abbey, just twenty and freshly back from serving in the army in Europe, posts a type-written notice on the bulletin board at the State Teacher’s College in Pennsylvania. The note urges young men to send their draft cards to the president in protest of peacetime conscription, exhorting them to “emancipate themselves.” It is at this point that Abbey becomes “the subject of a communist index card” at the FBI, and from then until the end of his life the Bureau will keep track of where Abbey is residing. They will note when he heads west and when, as acting editor of the University of New Mexico’s literary magazine, The Thunderbird, he decides to print an issue with a cover emblazoned with the words: “Man will not be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest!” The quote is from Diderot, but Abbey thinks it funnier to attribute the words to Louisa May Alcott. And so he quickly loses his editorship while the FBI adds a few more pages to his file. Also quoted in full in his files is a letter to the editor of the New Mexico Daily Lobo, in which he writes: “In this day of the cold war, which every day shows signs of becoming warmer, the individual who finds himself opposed to war is apt to feel very much out of step with his fellow citizens.” He then announces the need to form a group to “discuss implications and possibilities of resistance to war.”

The files contain interviews with fellow students and teachers at the University of New Mexico, who talk of Abbey’s “instability and poor judgment,” with one interviewee saying that, as an editor, Abbey showed “a stubborn ego, a taste for shocking the reader, a lack of maturity.” Abbey, according to other colleagues, was “indiscreet in his individualism” and “demonstrated a somewhat radical rebellious quality . . .” Though the interviews are mildly damning, no one questioned the subject’s loyalty to his country.

One wonders how Abbey would have fared these days. Would the FBI, or the NSA, have simply kept tabs on him or actually called him in for questioning? So many of his views, and so much of his personality, match just the sort of profile we have come to associate with our rather broad definition of domestic terrorism. It isn’t just his gun advocacy, or his monkey wrenching. It’s his belief that wilderness is a place where the last free men can retreat when the tyrants take over. He writes:

Democracy has always been a rare and fragile institution. . . . As social conflict tends to become more severe . . . there will inevitably be a tendency on the part of the authoritarian element—always present in our history—to suppress individual freedoms, to utilize the refined techniques of police surveillance (not excluding torture of course) in order to preserve—not wilderness!—but the status quo . . .

It’s a type of sentiment that anticipates our government’s reaction to 9/11. Thoreau said that under a government that unjustly imprisons its own, “the true place for the just man is also a prison.” Prison is exactly where Abbey’s monkey wrenching and FBI record might have landed him in today’s world.

Abbey’s beliefs in freedom and resistance, and his message of aggressive nonconformity, of screw-you freedom, were perfect for the ’60s and ’70s. But it’s hard to imagine that the same message would get a similar reaction today, or to see, at least at first, how his spirit might be adapted to fit our times. For instance, isn’t monkey wrenching dead as a legitimate possibility for the environmental movement? I must admit that in my own grown-up life as a professor and father I don’t blow a lot of things up. For most of us who care about the environment, Wallace Stegner provides a much more sensible model.

But I don’t want to be so quick to toss Abbey on the scrap heap. If the times have changed, Abbey’s ideas about freedom have in some ways never been more relevant. Many of the things that he foresaw have come to pass: we currently live in an age of unprecedented surveillance, where the government regularly reads our letters (now called e-mails) and monitors our movements. Abbey offers resistance to this. Resistance to the worst of our times, the constant encroaching on freedom and wildness. He says to us: Question them, question their authority. Don’t be so quick to give up the things you know are vital no matter what others say.

David Gessner is the author of nine books, including All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West and My Green Manifesto. Gessner has won the John Burroughs Award for Best Nature Essay, a Pushcart Prize, and inclusion in Best American Nonrequired Reading. He is the founder of the journal Ecotone.

Comments

  1. Pingback: Ed Abbey’s FBI File « Bill and Dave's Cocktail Hour

  2. Interesting that you lump these two environmental stewards together. I’d never considered their lasting legacies could even out, nor there effectiveness against today’s big machines. One question, or comparison might be, who affected the most change. I’ll argue the dangerously “indiscreet in his individualism” Abbey was twenty times more influential in raising environmental awareness and political consciousness in others. But maybe that’s because I never read the quieter Stegner. But in the classic tortoise versus hare mentality, I’m just beginning to see Stegner’s relevance.

    Additionally, today’s governmental monitoring, observing, overseeing, and censoring is benign compared to those of the anti-communist fifties, sixties, and seventies. Although Abbey’s advocation of terrorism, would bring the swift and mighty boot of Homeland Security smashing through his front door, confiscating his hard drive today, I think as a society we are much more tolerant, embracing, of free-thinkers!

  3. One need not wonder how Abbey would have fared; one need only look at his heirs in the burgeoning grassroots reaction to a complacent mainstream environmental movement. Our monkeywrenching may be mainly confined at the moment to words (including words compiled into legal briefs) rather than physical sabotage, but the intent is the same, and the effect is sometimes greater.

    If Ed were alive today he’d be working with groups like Western Watersheds, Basin and Range Watch, and the Western Lands Project, and the larger groups would still be calling him (in Gretel Ehrlich’s summation) “nasty and unconstructive.”

    Ed was one person. There are hundreds of us now, perhaps thousands. We’re changing the world. Come on in, David; the water’s fine.

  4. I am fan of Abbey’s work, but all indications are he was an anti-social, cranky ,rabble rouser. It might charitably be said he did not suffer fools gladly. Any guy who was married five (?) times has some interpersonal challenges. I have no doubt that his fellow students’ comments were fair and accurate. I also have no doubt that he cut down a billboard or two in his time or “The Monkey Wrench Gang” got the attention of the FBI. He lived large and by his own terms, but I agree that does not make him a terrorist. He was just a trouble maker ahead of his time.

  5. “indiscreet in his individualism”

    I wish every human being was.

  6. Back around 1956-7, I worked for Western Electric Defence Projects in New York City, worked on writing training manuals for DEW Line, our radar network in the Arctic, which was getting built to spot Russian bombers coming over the pole. To get the job I had to be cleared for Secret. Somebody told me I’d have a hard time getting this clearance, since I had bern a merchant marine officer for the previous ten years, and all that foreign travel would make the FBI (or whatever government agency gave the clearances) wary of me, because “nobody would know” what I’d been up to in all those foreign countries. Somewhat to my surprise, however, I was cleared.
    For about a year, my desk was right in front of Ed Abbey’s, who was working in the same project. You’d never guess, from some of the information given here, that he had been given the same clearance. Somebody, somewhere in the government has made a sensible decision.
    Good man, Ed. I liked him.
    Charlezzzzz

  7. In 1982 Abbey himself obtained his FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act and found it “disappointing—130 pages of tedious dithering” about his 35-year-old anti-draft letter. He’d have preferred that they’d paid more attention to his later monkeywrenching and, most importantly to him, his writing. Was he a terrorist? Certainly not: http://www.abbeyweb.net/articles/mwgmovie/. Thanks, David, for getting the source of The Thunderbird quotation right, as Diderot; everyone else (except for me in my biography;-) misattributes it to Voltaire. As for connecting Abbey to Stegner, his teacher at Stanford in 1957 (as he was also Wendell Berry’s, a year later), when Stegner was unable to attend the May 1989 wake for Abbey, he sent a letter, noting that Abbey’s “books were burrs under the saddle blanket of complacency. . . .He had the zeal of a true believer and a stinger like a scorpion when defending the natural, free, unmanaged, unmanhandled wilderness of his chosen country.”

  8. Jim,
    I wish I could take credit for making the Voltaire/Diderot catch but that was courtesy of sharp-eyed Orion editor, Kristin Hewitt. And a great catch it was as it was also in time to make the correction for the book! And yes, Stegner was (almost) always generous toward EA, which is interesting since Abbey was just the type (see Ken Kesey) to get under his skin. I think it was having the land as, no pun intended, common ground that did it. As you know, Abbey did not always reciprocate in kind, including his NYTBR review where he accused WS of “an excess of moderation.”

    Chris, I hear you. The practical limits of word count make this a less nuanced discussion than it is in the book, where I talk to Tim deChristopher and a Utah FBI agent, among others, about the current state of monkeywrenching/advocacy. And one of my personal hopes for the book is that it will lead to my getting my feet, and other parts, wet.

  9. P.S. I am in no way saying that Abbey was a terrorist. The question is whether he would be defined as one. To paraphrase my (retired) FBI contact, “At one point it got so even the guy down at the local land trust would have fit the government’s new definition of terrorist.”

  10. I prefer to use a rather old fashioned term for Ed and one he might even like. I think of him as an “outlaw”. This is one who’s core beliefs and actions are not limited by laws (correctly statutes). He chooses to live outside the law when it negatively effects others, is obviously wrong and leaves no other recourse. In my definition, this is different from a criminal who uses violence to harm innocent people, steal property, etc., for his own personal gain. Terrorists are just criminals using threats and killing of innocents to a larger scale. Ed never harmed anyone or stole any property. He only damaged the tools that were damaging OUR environment. Ed respected life in all it’s forms right down to the smallest insect crawling in his desert trailer. Ed was no terrorist…..

  11. How did you get a hold of Abbey’s file? FOI request?
    Thanks for a nice little essay on a favourite writer of mine.
    C

  12. From the book:
    It is a tricky business being an Ed Abbey fan these days. We shift toward uneasy ground. Because Abbey is no longer just a writer whose books you read; he is a literary cult figure who has followers. The skeptical reader recoils: “Oh, I don’t want to be part of that.” But clearly Abbey lives, at least in the West. Fresh off the press just that week was an article in the Mountain Gazette, a journal in which Abbey himself often published, in which M. John Fayhee, the editor, took no small delight in mocking the Abbey fandom: “They wore clothing that looked like what Abbey wore. They drove vehicles that would meet with Abbey’s approval. They tossed beer cans out of truck windows because Abbey did.” This hit a little close to home. I thought back to my days in Eldorado Springs and remembered the cans of refried beans I ate, part of the official Ed Abbey diet. I fear I was, unbeknownst to myself, a sort of groupie.
    It is easy to mock the more rampant Abbeyites. But the tendency to attach ourselves to writers is a not entirely unhealthy thing. Fandom may be laughable but it has its purposes. Stegner wrote of Bernard DeVoto that “father hunting had almost been a career for him.” He meant that DeVoto sought out older writers, and was eager to sit at their knees. He did this with Robert Frost, whom he first believed was “living proof that genius could be sane,” but whom he eventually broke from with the words: “You’re a good poet, Robert. But you’re a bad man.” Stegner in turn would look to DeVoto as a model, a father of sorts, though a father with the wild streak of an adolescent son. It is easy to dismiss these relationships as mere hero worship, as Oedipal. But what underlies it is something better, I think. A hunger for models. For possibilities. For how to be in the world.

  13. Why is there a big picture of David Gessner at the top of an article about Ed Abbey? Does anyone else think that’s weird?

  14. Apart from whether he would merit surveillance by the NSA, FBI and CIA, I’m more interested in where Abbey would fit on today’s political spectrum. He could be xenophobic as any Tea Party conservative when it came to U.S. immigration policies (especially toward Mexico). He was as pro-environment as any ardent leftist — but reflexively anti-government. He could seem politically progressive, but he detested what he called “the doctrinaire buzz saws of chicken shit liberalism.” Now, as then, I don’t think he would’ve felt at home in any party but his own. And I can’t think of a notable writer today who would so fearlessly stand and fall by his controversial beliefs as Abbey did.

  15. It would seem that Abbey would be jailed or even killed by now for his writing and actions or maybe just starved/got sick and ignored. Do we really want to defend the wilderness? For how many minutes?

  16. For anyone interested in more on Abbey, his writing and his environmental politics there is a chapter entitled “Monkey Wrenching, Environmental Extremism, and the Problematical Edward Abbey in my book “Voices in the Wilderness: American Nature Writing and Environmental Politics (Hanover, N.H.: University of New England Press, 1996). A version of the chapter also appeared in Southwestern American Literature a few years earlier.

  17. I’d like to have met him. I often wonder if I have an FBI file as I have a MA in Social Ecology.

  18. Don’t forget Abbey hatched “Earth First.” Now that was a really wonderfully radical rag! Dave Foreman did a great job of being editor. I was lucky enough to have them accept one of my poems way back when the publication was just a few photocopies pages each edition. Abbey needs no excuses. It is an honor to be slandered by the land rapists that you might have “an uncontrolled ego.” A controlled ego in the face of the developers and clear cutters is nothing more than anti-American! Abbey lives on in the street theater of America that puts fear and loathing into the hearts of the land barons and large corporations who treat the earth as exclusively theirs alone. Viva Edward Abbey! Now that the majority of large trees are gone from our forests in America (an article just yesterday appeared) what would have been better, a thousand year old forest still growing on the slopes of the Rockies, or a couple of spikes?

  19. I’m happy to say that I took Ed tree spiking (for research!). He was a good man to have for a friend and always laughed at the reactions to the literary persona he created.

  20. I almost cried when I learned of Ed’s death, nearly 26 years ago now. We’ll never see another like him. I want a bumper sticker that says “Ed Abbey was right.”

  21. Chris,

    I’m with you. If you go to my website you’ll see a picture of Ed, not me. And that is not a picture of me really anyway, but of someone much younger. (One note of interest about the photo however: It was taken by the great writer Reg Saner on September 11, 2001 atop Mt. Audubon in the Indian Peaks Wilderness. We found out about the attacks right before we left for the hike in the early morning.)
    Best,
    David G.

  22. I, then an 18 year old river guide, met Ed Abbey at Ken Sleight’s house in Green River in ’73, and seventeen years later found myself writing in the shadow of a house he would never occupy high above Moab off the Castle Valley Road.

    Ed was a flash flood. He was thunder and lightning, an illuminated thunderhead. He personified for me the country that he did so much to save. Wallace Stegner was a misty summer rain in Vermont. Not as visceral as Ed, more cerebral and strictly literary. Separated by a generation, their ‘ends’ were the same, their ‘means’ as unique as each of them.

  23. Regards Mexico I do recall his writing a bit about what to do with someone who is truely an illegal immigrant from Mexico. As a gun owner he did have a reaction that shocked readers perhaps with the idea that any one turned away at the border should be given a rifle and a case of ammunition to allow for the fixing of that which is wrong in Mexico in the traditional way. He certainly would have been not a fan of the elites in Mexico and their form of autocratic rule. I’m even sure he would have written a few words about Carlos Slim….

  24. I think the conclusions you reached about the article I penned in Mountain Gazette about the more amusing/perplexing/sycophantic aspects of the Tribe of Abbey are something of a generous stretch. (It should be noted that the article you quoted from dealt equally with the Tribe of Hunter S. Thompson, which displays many of the same hero-worship characteristics of the Tribe of Abbey.) Being positively influenced by a writer is one thing; lifestyle emulation and mimicry is quite another.

  25. Mr. Fayhee,
    I understand your criticism and share it to a degree. But I’m a fan (yes, fan) of my long-ago college prof Walter Jackson Bate, who thought that what we often call hero-worship deserves a better name, at least in younger readers and writers. As you point out, the benefits of emulation in writers is obvious–as in any other field we need to imitate to grow and if we’re any good we quickly leave many of those influences behind. But I could also see a reader/non-writer at first trying on (and maybe later feeling foolish about) some of the “superficial” aspects of a writer’s personality, but then eventually getting at something deeper. An example of the superficial would be driving an old truck and tossing out empties because Abbey did. But the deeper, which could be going on at the same time, would be developing an environmental conscience, or maybe even, taking the lesson not to be more like Abbey, but to be more honestly like oneself. Maybe that’s tad idealistic, but I think there’s something there….
    David G.

  26. Abbey was the great white hunter of affectation, pretension, and fakery and it didn’t matter who it was. If he sniffed it out, he would let go his literary Clovis spear-pointed atlatl and land it into your side. Despite not always able to face the flaws in his personal life, he played an important role in our society by barring the truth to people and systems that existed only on a superficial level and in many cases, these systems harmed the environment and the common good. He was a compulsive truth seeker, the kind America doesn’t allow to exist anymore.

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