Throughout history there have always been controversial figure-heads of movements; whether its race, politics, the environment, universal suffrage, or illegal immigration; the list goes on. Some are decried as fanatics. Some are labeled as heretics, or hysterical. Some have been assassinated. Some lived full lives. A reigning feature has been a misunderstanding of a message, due to poor historical memory, or a lack of critical thinking. One of the most misunderstood figures of the twentieth century was the anarchist writer Edward Abbey.
The first of five children, Edward Paul Abbey was born on January 29, 1927 in the tiny village of Home, Pennsylvania. After learning to read when he was four, he became an incessant reader and, showing an ego that would prevail until the time of his death, lorded his intelligence over his siblings as he got older. His father, Paul Revere Abbey, exerted tremendous influence over the Abbey children with his radical politics and frequent Walt Whitman quotes. Howard Abbey, Edward’s younger brother, described their father as an “anti-capitalist, anti-religion, anti-prevailing opinion, anti-booze, anti-war, and anti-anyone who didn’t agree with him,” and would espouse the virtues of Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas, Soviet Communism, and “Big” Bill Haywood.
Prior to being drafted to fight in World War II at the age of seventeen in 1944, Abbey was struck with the family wanderlust and hit the road, hitchhiking across America. After making it to California, Abbey was taught how to hop a train from an old hobo, following fruitless attempts at hitching a ride in the blistering summer heat of the Mojave Desert outside of Needles. Two train-rides and a night in jail later, he was in Albuquerque buying a bus-ticket home. It was during those two train rides that the desert of the American Southwest and its vast open spaces found a permanent place in Abbey’s heart.
Two months after Edward Abbey was drafted, the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Abbey was spared from being part of an invasion of Japan, but he was “horrified by man’s lack of restraint in inflicting mass mayhem.” Abbey would spend his time in the military as an M.P. stationed in Italy until he was discharged in 1947, sans a good-conduct medal, a “fact of which he was proud.”
Following his discharge from the military, Abbey enrolled at the Indiana State Teachers College in Indiana, Pennsylvania. It was there, in 1947 at the age of twenty, that he first caught the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, after writing and posting a notice encouraging students and faculty members to burn their draft cards or return them to President Truman: “…this sounds like a foolish, crackpot scheme but it’s not. It’s much worse than that – it is a form of civil disobedience…when America’s government is diverting the major portion of its expenditures to armaments and our military leaders are trying to fasten permanent...