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Edward Abbey: Conservative Conservationist—and Controversialist

Edward Abbey never met a controversy he didn’t like.

Philosopher of the barroom and the open sky, champion of wilderness, critical gadfly, fierce advocate of personal liberty, Enemy of the State writ large: For 40-odd years, Ed roamed the American West, a region, he wrote, “robbed by the cattlemen, raped by the miners, insulted by the tourists.”  As he traveled, he stirred up trouble by, among other things, poking ungentle and sometimes dangerous fun at cowboys, Indians, women, Mormons, Hispanics, and, above all, the agents of supposed economic progress—realtors, captains of industry, county supervisors, car dealers, developers.  He was an equal-opportunity curmudgeon: Liberal and conservative alike felt his righteous wrath, which seemed to grow as the years piled on.  And he liked the fight, wherever it found him or he found it.  “Racial, sexual, cultural differences: forbidden ideas; we’re not supposed to think such things, much less say them out loud,” he grumbled in his journals, published in 1994 as Confessions of a Barbarian.  “Yet it is fun to bring them up.”

He has been dead for nearly 20 years, felled by a bad pancreas on March 14, 1989, but the shaken-hornet’s-nest legacy of his stands intact.  You can start a debate—and even a fistfight—anywhere from Missoula to Mexico City merely by mentioning his name.

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