The lives and legacies of two influential environmentalists.
Gessner (Creative Writing/Univ. of North Carolina, Wilmington; The Tarball Chronicles: A Journey Beyond the Oiled Pelican and into the Heart of the Gulf Oil Spill, 2011, etc.) weaves together biography, cultural criticism, travel and nature writing in this engaging record of a journey to discover the American West and two of the region’s most prominent celebrants: Pulitzer Prize–winning writer Wallace Stegner (1909-1993) and Guggenheim Fellow Edward Abbey (1927-1989). Besides reading the two men’s published works, Gessner visited the places in which they lived; interviewed family, friends, co-workers and students; and mined their manuscripts. Although both men felt passionately about the West and their commitment to environmentalism, they were starkly different: “Saint Wallace the Good” was the “intellectual godfather” of Western writers, “the man of order, the man of culture.” He taught at the University of Wisconsin and Harvard, founded Stanford’s creative writing program, patiently sat on environmental committees, and was a devoted husband and father. “ ‘Radical,’ ” Gessner discovered, “was a word he came to despise.” Abbey, scruffy and combative, was the “the man of wildness, the counterculturalist…serious about his anarchism,” who carried out—and incited—acts of environmental sabotage. Married five times and a desultory father to five children, he was “more beatnik than cowboy…right down to the jugs of wine and many women.” Yet for all their differences in style, they converged in recognizing the increasing vulnerability of the West to drought, fires, fracking and overwhelming tourism. They both battled romantic Western myths of cowboy culture and rugged individualism. Those myths and a “lyric celebration of nature,” Stegner argued, undermined effective environmentalism, which should be focused on practical steps for ensuring responsible land use.
Stegner and Abbey “are two who have lighted my way,” nature writer Wendell Berry admitted. They have lighted the way for Gessner, as well, as he conveys in this graceful, insightful homage to their work and to the region they loved.