Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 15, 2015

The Life, Loves, Wars and Foibles of Edward Abbey

Filed under: anarchism,Counterpunch,Ecology,Film,literature — louisproyect @ 12:56 pm
Monkeywrenching the Machine

The Life, Loves, Wars and Foibles of Edward Abbey


Fifty-three years ago, long before I had heard of Edward Abbey and Abraham Polonsky, I saw a film titled “Lonely are the Brave” that was based on Polonsky’s adaptation of Abbey’s novel “The Brave Cowboy”. The film remains one of my favorites of all time with Kirk Douglas’s performance as a fugitive on horseback trying to elude a sheriff played by Walter Matthau permanently etched into my memory.

Many years later I would have the pleasure of hearing Abraham Polonsky speak at Lincoln Center at a screening for “Odds Against Tomorrow”, a film for which he wrote the screenplay three years before “Lonely are the Brave” but for which he did not receive credit. Using a “front” of the sort Woody Allen played in Walter Bernstein’s very fine movie about the witch-hunt, Polonsky was taking a first step toward reestablishing himself as a screenwriter.

In the panel discussion following the screening, Polonsky was asked whether he had problems writing a script with criminals as central characters when he spent so many years in the Communist Party and still retained progressive politics even after his resignation. He replied that American society itself was criminal and that the film’s characters were just trapped within the system.

“Lonely are the Brave” was by contrast a film with a most sympathetic character, a cowboy named Jack Burns who provokes a bar fight just to land in jail to help break out his old friend, a sheep rancher who has been arrested for sheltering undocumented workers from Mexico. I had no idea at the time how radical the film was, an obvious result of Edward Abbey’s ability to make such an outlaw look like a saint compared to the corporate malefactors that were destroying America’s greatest asset: its wilderness.

The very fine new documentary “Wrenched” that is available from Bullfrog Films is a loving tribute to Edward Abbey’s life as an artist and activist as well as a very astute assessment of Earth First!, the radical environmentalist group that was inspired by Abbey’s writings. Directed by ML Lincoln, a young female director and activist since her teens, it is a follow-up to her first film “Drowning River” that recounts the struggle against the Glen Canyon Dam in Arizona that found a fictional counterpart in Abbey’s most famous novel “The Monkey Wrench Gang”, from which her new film derived its title.

We learn that Abbey, who was born in 1927, became drawn to anarchism at a very early age under the tutelage of his aptly named father Paul Revere Abbey who was both a socialist and an anarchist—and obviously from a different ideological tradition than the one to which Abraham Polonsky belonged. As he matured and began to develop his own worldview, the son obviously aligned completely with anarchism, a result of his commitment to preserving wilderness—a goal unfortunately that has not been fully appreciated by Marxists, as I will explain later on.

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  1. Ed Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire” is a masterpiece of and his semi-autobiographical “The Fool’s Progress” and other writings place him in the top tier of American literature. His recipe for living deserves mention: “One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast….a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.”

    Comment by Joe Costanza — May 15, 2015 @ 1:50 pm

  2. Wasn’t it Dalton Trumbo who did the adaptation of Lonely are the Brave?

    Comment by srogouski — May 16, 2015 @ 4:09 am

  3. Yeah, I screwed that up. That will remind me to fact-check my articles in the future even though I am very familiar with the territory.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 16, 2015 @ 12:51 pm

  4. I am amazed to hear an edward abbey novel was the inspiration for ‘lonely are the brave’. wow, the things I don’t know!
    I would also add the polonski style of screenwriting was always more ‘in your face’, more preachy in a sense, than trumbo’s
    more oblique approach in LATB.
    Here we have the conflict mediated thru the eyes of the wily sheriff (introducing walter mattheau!) to great effect. The film also set up a structural dramatic archetype that was totally revolutionary for the time, then
    eventually co-opted by the right for such extravaganzas as Rambo, etc., in the eighties.

    Comment by chris hanlon — May 16, 2015 @ 1:50 pm

  5. First Blood as a ripoff of Lonely are the Brave. Yes. I can see that.

    Comment by srogouski — May 16, 2015 @ 3:13 pm

  6. “I would not hold this against Edward Abbey. History will judge him as a prophet of life in balance with nature and not as an anti-immigration zealot.”

    We should evaluate the two and try to understand the grievousness of the error and the consequences of it that reverberate to this day. David Brower made the same mistake, and the fact that Foreman, Abbey and Brower are all guilty of it is indicative of a serious problem within the radical environmentalism of their time. Instead of making common cause with people who were experiencing the environmental and economic destruction of their communities, facilitated by US capital and militarism, all three saw them as a threat, as agents of further natural destruction. In effect, they blamed the victims instead of reaching out to form an alliance with them, as some labor unions did.

    Comment by Richard Estes — May 17, 2015 @ 1:10 am

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