Walden and Desert Solitaire
As similar as “Civil Disobedience” and The Monkey Wrench Gang are in terms of themes and activism, Thoreau’s influence on Abbey is most pronounced in the comparison of Thoreau’s greatest work, Walden, and Abbey’s personal desert meditation, Desert Solitaire. The publication of Desert Solitaire first drew critics’ eyes to Abbey’s connection with Thoreau, and it caused Abbey to be labeled “a road company Thoreau” by Clifton Fadiman (Cahalan 163). From that point in his career, Abbey was often equated with Thoreau, and though it took many years, Abbey “encouraged the use of ‘the Thoreau of the American West’ as a blurb on the hardback jacket of Beyond the Wall” (Cahalan 163). Abbey would quickly change his mind about this comparison to Thoreau, but it has followed him, for good reason, throughout his career. Beyond the texts’ similarities in construction and subject matter, they are grouped together as “Solitude and Backcountry Living” in Thomas Lyon’s “Taxonomy of Nature Writing” (278), and they both reveal the authors’ personas and great truths about modern society and natural living.
Walden and Desert Solitaire head down the trail toward natural truths together from the very beginning in terms of their organization and set up. Both works are separated into several vignettes that express the personal experiences of the writers. Nestled within each of these chapters are themes of man’s communion with the natural world, modernization, and the freeing effect that can come with isolation. Both texts also have a similar introduction that sets up the vignettes and gives the reader an idea of the author’s state of mind and reason for writing. Thoreau begins with, “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” (1), and Abbey follows a similar style in his introduction when he writes, “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” (xi).
These introductions, though seemingly simple and straightforward, serve important purposes. They introduce the idea that these books are going to be deeply personal, and that they are going to be accounts of the authors’ first hand experiences in their chosen settings. The introductions also give the reader a sense of location and place from the very start. The reader can picture Thoreau’s secluded cabin next to the peaceful shores of Walden Pond in Massachusetts, as well as the vast, sandy expanse of land that Abbey makes his home. The introduction of location also gives the reader an idea of what sort of challenges each writer may face as the seasons change around them.