After reading all his major works, I concluded about a decade ago that Desert Solitaire was Edward Abbey’s best, most interesting book. I’ve had my copy since high school, and carried it back to our cabin last week and read it cover to cover once again, in only three or four sittings. Less than 24 hours. It reaffirmed my opinion that Solitaire is Abbey’s best, and one of the most important books written in English in the last century.
When I first read it I was deeply taken by the moral vision and the way it was invoked, but had yet to see the Colorado Plateau for myself. Now I see the book rather differently, and having lived in Moab and country around it for a time has been crucial to this.
I’d recommend watching all three parts of this, to see all parts of Abbey, too bad the fourth part seems to have been lost.
One major change of perspective is my understanding of Abbey as an artist. In the ’67 introduction, Abbey writes that “…most of the substance of this book is drawn, sometimes direct and unchanged, from the pages of the journal I kept and filled through the undivided, seamless days of those marvelous summers.” (Touchstone 1990, p. xii) This statement combined with the innumerable protestations Abbey made later in life perpetuates the illusion that Solitaire was written in casual, hasty, even slipshod fashion. This is not the case.
There is abundant evidence that not only was the writing in Solitaire extensively refined, but that the book itself was arranged in a very deliberate manner. There are 18 chapters, in addition to the introduction, and they can be divided into six groups of three, each representing one of the months during which the narrative substance of the book takes place. “The First Morning” takes place on April first, “Cliffrose and Bayonets” begins on May Day, both “Cowboys and Indians” chapters as well as “Water” take place in June, “The Heat of Noon…” [midway through the seasons and the book] starts in July, and so forth. This structure means many things, foremost of which is that Abbey meant for both the structure and the substance of Solitaire to work towards his ends. For more Paul Bryant’s “The Structure and Unity of Desert Solitaire” is worth finding.
The literal substance of Solitaire may not have leapt unedited from journal to book, but it seems likely that the philosophical substance did. It remains the most coherent and concise expression of his systems of thought, and of a piece of social critique which Abbey touches upon in the third part of the above video, and which American environmentalism is still (!) struggling to embrace in mature fashion: that growth for growths sakes is deeply problematic. As Bryant concludes, “Abbey’s ideas did not become static after Desert Solitaire, but all lines of thought in his writings, fiction and nonfiction, can be shown to pass through this major work.” The political critique of growth as a personal quest was the theme of Abbey’s work, and insofar as this is the case Solitaire is where all inquiries must begin.