“¿Que pasé, old comrade? I hope that all is well with you and yourn.” Ed Abbey to Ralph Newcomb, Jan. 22, 1968.
I recently completed processing a fine collection of letters to and from the writer Ed Abbey, and this collection is now available to researchers. It’s a small one-box collection containing about 100 items, but to my knowledge, most of this correspondence is only now being made available to researchers and I can only speculate on the contribution it may make to Abbey scholarship. However, having read most of them, I can say they show all sides of Abbey—his wit and his intelligence, his generosity and his arrogance. Certainly some of the letters will make you laugh, while others may make you shake your head in bewilderment, but you will know Ed Abbey better for having read them.
The correspondents include Abbey writing to Ralph Newcomb, Edward Hoagland and Dave Petersen; Bob Grant writing to Ralph Newcomb; and Doug Peacock writing to Edward Hoagland. All the correspondence relates to Abbey in some way, from memories of him after his death to discussing plans to go camping and hiking. One folder contains the exchanges between Abbey and Ken Sanders about the special edition of The Monkey Wrench Gang illustrated by R. Crumb, that Dream Garden Press published in 1985.
The collection also includes typed drafts of some of Abbeys’ work with handwritten and typed corrections and editorial changes: 74 pages of Confessions of a Barbarian, “The Treasure of Canyon Country,” an essay for the 1982 Wilderness Calendar, and Abbey’s “Greetings” for the Earth First! Festival held in Salt Lake City in 1983.
Reading actual letters is also a visual and tactile experience. Some of the correspondence is typed, some handwritten, some on mauve colored stationary, some on colorful artistic postcards, others on the Post Office’s standard issue cards, some hastily scribbled on torn pieces of paper. Some letters are crumpled and soiled, others come with hand drawn yucca and cactus.
It’s impossible to quote from these letters at great length, and difficult to summarize them. Let me just give you two snippets I found intriguing because of the way they illustrate how Abbey felt about himself, his reputation, and his life.
In Dave Petersen’s draft for his Writers’ Digest article about Abbey, he described Abbey as an “eminently successful novelist, natural historian, and magazine journalist.” Abbey crossed out “natural historian” and substituted the word “essayist.” (folder 13)
In a Jan. 15, 1983 letter to longtime friend Ralph Newcomb, written after his doctor had told him he had cancer and only six months to live to Abbey wrote, “I was staring Old Mother Death right in the face. (She has no eyes.)” Later in the same letter, Abbey said, “It’s a rich treasure, this brief but beautiful life on planet Earth.” (folder 4)
Abbey’s work is full of quotable sections, but I think that last one is becoming my favorite.
The finding aid for the Edward Abbey Papers can be located at: http://www.lib.utexas.edu/taro/tturb/00183/trb-00183.html