I frequently trade comical jabs with friends and family via e-mail correspondence and social media (surely indicative of my generation). Or, as my father playfully characterizes it, I “poke the bear.” Sometimes the bear remains blissfully inattentive to my prods, dozing peacefully in a state of hibernation. Other times, however, the bear comes alive with a frightening zeal, an act that sends me running for my life before I finally realize that I was merely “poked” back. Time has assured me that all relations of love, friendship, and kin attest to varying degrees of participation in this back-and-forth frivolity.
Such is the case of Edward Abbey, famously known in literary and activist circles as “Cactus Ed” due in large part to the mythology he himself helped to create. Abbey continuously redefines the hilarious, satirical, and biting feat that is “poking the bear” in numerous examples from his published writings, lectures, and interviews.
Throughout a series of postcards traded with Edward Hoagland, Abbey pokes and prods him about everything under the sun: recent stories in the media, Abbey’s distaste for the east coast literary establishment, and an apparently impossible explication of a passage from Thoreau. Just about every one of these postcards expertly demonstrates the Abbey mythos of “Cactus Ed.” And by the end, you’re either offended, perplexed, or silently chuckling to yourself.
However, my personal favorite by far is one of Abbey’s sign-offs. After stirring up years of playful argument with Hoagland, he ends his last postcard in the collection with the following:
Answer my letters, goddamnit, or Hell itself will haunt your dreams.
Needless to say, my response to the conclusion reflected none of the three possibilities above. For I was laughing hysterically in the altogether quietly-composed Holden Reading Room. Yet I’m sure that the collection staff knew what was going on. They had, after all, knowingly checked out the Abbey materials to me with grinning faces.