Special Report

The Myth of the New West

The region is dirt dry and as combustible as a match, but its literary scene is very Green -- just so New York won't ignore it.

By 6.13.02

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The West's contemporary regional literary scene is known for taking itself seriously. It's a case of a cultural reaction to a place that is the most mythologized of any in America, coupled with a romanticism about big skies and wide open spaces. Throw in the environmental debate and you have the makings of an old myth morphing into a new one. A myth of a New West to replace the old Hollywood one where John Wayne, Alan Ladd or Gary Cooper rode off into the sunset after defeating the Indians or vanquishing the bad guys. Now the good guy-bad guy roles are reversed, and the bad guys are the conservatives.

The Godfather of the New Myth was the late Wallace Stegner (1909-1993), probably the finest writer the American West ever produced, but one ironically relegated to minor status by the snooty New York literary establishment for the perceived sins of regionalism (it's interesting that Southerners such as William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor were never tarred with this brush), and equated with horse opera hacks he detested like Louis L'Amour. In 1972, Stegner's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Angle of Repose had not even been reviewed by the New York Times, and the then Sunday Book Review Editor John Leonard penned a nasty piece implying that John Updike's Rabbit Redux should have won. It was a sordid affair, and reinforced Stegner's loathing of East Coast culture snobs.

Though Stegner was himself a liberal and mostly agreed with the politics of those aforementioned elitists. He was an Adlai Stevenson-JFK cheerleader whose low point was Ronald Reagan's election in 1980. Stegner was an ex-Sierra Club board member who actually believed that Reagan's Secretary of the Interior James Watt was more of a threat to Western civilization than Leonid Brezhnev.

The author has influenced a generation of writers in the West who have learned from his mistakes, and kowtow to the literary establishment. Basically telling them what they want to hear so the reviews will be kind, thus reinforcing new PC myths about the West to the satisfaction of liberal urban intellectuals who don't otherwise have a clue.

Much of the precarious living I make as a freelancer comes from reviewing books about the West, especially for the conservative press. So I have a good handle on the regional literary scene, and over the years I've discovered that the writers promoting the New Myth are not an homogeneous entity, but are made up of a number of Schools. Maybe the most prominent is the Environmentalist School, in that all others seem to defer to it. In other words, the literary West is predominantly Green. The Left's main criticism of the century and a half settlement of the region is the perceived degradation of the environment (though the displacement of "Native Americans" is a pea in the same pod). This has given us a trite and oft used phrase: "the extractive West," a term that implies that people who make a living on the land -- ranching, farming, harvesting timber -- are evil. Those awful conservatives again.

The Green West is best personified by the late Edward Abbey (1927-1989). Abbey has been called "the Thoreau of the American West" (Larry McMurtry). His reputation rests on Desert Solitaire (1968), a memoir of his wanderings in the Southwest while employed as a ranger in Arches National Monument (now Arches National Park) in Utah before the advent of what the author called "Industrial Tourism." Four volumes of essays (Beyond the Wall, Down the River, One Life at a Time, Please, Abbey's Road) complement the book. Abbey's eight novels (The Brave Cowboy, Black Sun, Fire on the Mountain, Hayduke Lives, among others) are frankly bad and populated by sketchily-drawn caricature characters, and are primarily vehicles for Abbey's enviro-activism better executed in a more forthright way in Desert Solitaire and the essays.

Abbey's best known novel, The Monkey Wrench Gang (1975, and still in print) is a narrative train wreck, but has a unique place in the history of American letters because it was the first book to advocate -- and is an excellent how-to manual for -- eco-terrorism. In it, four characters (George Washington Hayduke, Bonnie Abbzug, Doc Sarvis, Seldom Seen Smith) meet on a river rafting trip, share their alienation toward modern society and their anarchic sensibilities, and decide to put their theories into practice with a sabotage campaign targeting the works of Man in the Southwest, notably with a scheme to blow up Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. Their idealistic goal is to "murder machines, not people."

If the latter quote sounds familiar, it's because we hear variations of it in the media all the time. With their arsons and tree-spikings, pulled-up survey stakes and cut barbed wire fences - modern eco-terrorist groups such as Earth First! (co-founded by Abbey, by the way), the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), along with their financial backers, including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), look to The Monkey Wrench Gang as their Bible. The title even inspired "monkey wrenching," the phrase used as the general rubric for what all these groups do.

Abbey's legacy -- whether he would accept it or not -- is that of an American Bakunin, whose spoiled, upper middle-class, well-educated and nihilistic disciples vandalize remote logging sites or set fire to a McDonald's in Tucson or a Starbucks in Seattle. Little did this son of the Pennsylvania coal fields realize that one day he would be a patron saint of anarchy-chic, and achieve cult status bordering on the messianic (the story goes that upon Abbey's death, some of his friends took his body and buried it in a secret and remote place in the southern Arizona desert). All this is interesting in light of the world we live in today, post-September 11.

An Abbey apostle -- but not personally -- would be Rick Bass. Though Bass seems to shun the anarcho-types (he has never written anything in their support, to my knowledge), he is nonetheless a fervent Green. At 44, he has already churned out some eighteen books. He is also a regular contributor to Audubon, Sierra, and other enviro journals. Like Abbey, his fictions (Where the Sea Used to Be, Platte River, The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness) are marred by advocacy, with simplistic characters delineated either good or evil to compliment Bass's clichéd Green worldview. And like Abbey, his nonfictions (The Ninemile Wolves, The Lost Grizzlies, The Book of Yaak) are more genuinely rendered, but unreadable in that Bass is one of those writers who throws in everything, sparing not even the kitchen sink for understatement. His prose is convoluted and preachy; he always tells, never shows. But he enjoys cult status, and his vast readership forgives his literary sins by being oblivious to them.

Bass also has a pretentious side. Early on in The Lost Grizzlies, he laments the dilapidated condition of his venerable pickup truck, and hopes it doesn't break down as he travels from Montana to Colorado to meet other Greenies to search for rare bears in the San Juan Mountains (in the end they don't exist). This from a man with royalty checks clogging his mailbox because his books have never gone out of print. He could afford five brand new pickups if he wanted them. He's also fond of telling readers that he lacks electricity in his cabin in Montana. Yeah, sure. Bass is so unpretentious in his Enviro-political correctness as to be very pretentious.

Bass and Abbey's readers remind me of kids I used to know in college in the 1970s. Everybody who was in school then remembers them. Counterculture connoisseurs, they preferred Kerouac, Kesey, Burroughs, Brautigan and Vonnegut to Shakespeare, Joyce, Melville, Tolstoy, Flaubert, and Faulkner. Though a college education today is such a mindless horror that I would imagine that they're not even bothering to read Brautigan and Vonnegut anymore. If they did they would at least have a sense of humor.

And so it is in the Green West, where Luddite hacks tripping on utopian fantasies torment us with turgid humorless prose.

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.