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Indiana author pens Abbey bio

| Sunday, Oct. 21, 2001

Appalachia is almost a continent away from the deserts of Utah and Arizona where Indiana County native Edward Abbey gained fame as an environmentalist. According to local biographer James Cahalan, long after Abbey moved West, memories of this area and the golden waters of Crooked Creek ran deep in Abbey's veins.

Cahalan will sign copies of his book, "Edward Abbey - A Life," at the Book Nook, 711 Philadelphia St., 6-7:30 p.m. Thursday and 2-4 p.m. Saturday at Waldenbooks in the Indiana Mall.

The illustrated biography of Abbey, who is best known for penning "Desert Solitaire" (1968) and "The Monkey Wrench Gang" (1975), is a new release by the University of Arizona Press.

Cahalan, an English professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, wrote the biography after discovering that no one else in the Indiana area had already written one. The county is rich in history about the controversial Abbey, who was known for his radical environmentalist stances.

Edward Abbey was born at Indiana Hospital in 1927, the son of Mildred and Paul Revere Abbey. He gained a love for nature playing outdoors with his brothers as they grew up in what he called the "Appalachian East." He wasn't into political regions as much as geographical areas, Cahalan noted.

Abbey died in 1989 and was buried in a secret spot in Arizona's Cabeza Prieta wilderness.

Cahalan, who never met Abbey, moved to Indiana in 1984 and learned about the environmentalist from his South Fifth Street neighbor, John Watta. Abbey was a college classmate of Watta, both of them returning veterans attending Indiana State Teachers College in the late '40s. They shared English classes and had stories published in the same student publication. Later Abbey spoke in Watta's English classes at IUP.

Watta inspired Cahalan, who was unacquainted with Abbey's writings before moving to Indiana, to dig deeper. What makes "Edward Abbey: A Life" particularly interesting for western Pennsylvania readers are local ties Cahalan weaves through the book, both as biographical background and as elements in Abbey's own expansive works.

In "Appalachian Wilderness," published in 1970, Abbey described Indiana and surrounding areas vividly. In the midst of a section on the county's natural beauty Abbey inserted a description of "Crooked Creek, glowing with the golden acids from the mines upstream."

That's an illustration of Abbey's realistic humor, one of the things that pushed Cahalan to pursue writing his book. "He didn't pull any punches," Cahalan said.

In 1993, Cahalan taught the novel, "Fools Progress" at IUP, a book Abbey called his "fat masterpiece," to about 45 students in a literature class for non-English majors, Cahalan said.

Some students in the class had connections to Abbey and most were intrigued with the way Cahalan had them walk around town to view sights Abbey thinly disguised in his novel. One of those is the bridge crossing midair from the old county courthouse to the former county jail, which Abbey called a "bridge of sighs."

"They loved the book," Cahalan said. "That was a turning point and hooked me."

After writing a few magazine articles on Abbey, Cahalan took a sabbatical from IUP and traveled to Arizona to research his book.

Cahalan continues to include readings from Abbey in his literature class and, since completing his book, also teaches a doctoral seminar on biography. One of his graduate students, David Pozza, ended up writing his doctoral dissertation on Abbey.

Cahalan says one of the best parts of this project was interviewing so many interesting people - ranging from Abbey's surviving brothers in Indiana County to other writers who knew him such as novelists Leslie Marmon Silko and Larry McMurtry, the poet Gary Snyder, and essayist Wendell Berry.

"And then there was the Sherlock Holmes aspect of my research, trying to keep track of Abbey, who was continually on the move, lived and worked in so many different places, and was married five times," Cahalan said.


Abbey last traveled to Indiana in 1988 for his mother's funeral after she was killed in a car accident outside of Clymer. The author, who wrote more than 20 books, sometimes exaggerated to hammer home a point and liked the romance of saying he was born in Home, a few miles up the road from Indiana toward Marion Center.

Cahalan says in the introduction to his book that one of his jobs as a biographer is "to separate fact from fiction and reality from myth ... I have to tell readers that Edward Abbey was not born in Home, Pennsylvania; he resided in several other places before his family moved close to Home. And he never lived in Oracle, Arizona. Yet he convinced almost everyone he had been 'born in Home,' and 'lived in Oracle.'"

Cahalan writes, "I live outside of town in woods that are reclaimed acres of a mine where Abbey's father worked seven years before his famous son was born. In addition to my interviews in the area, countless bike rides all over Abbey's home territory have helped to impress on me both how well he knew it and how much it remained a part of him."


Among those praising the biography is film actor and director Robert Redford, who writes, "Cahalan tells the whole story and he tells it exceedingly well. From Abbey's unforgettable boyhood in the Appalachian East to his rambunctious adulthood in the Southwest, this legendary character comes to life in a way not often seen."

In 1995 Redford, who knew Abbey, wrote a letter in support of the historical marker for Abbey that was approved by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and dedicated in September 1996 in the village of Home by Cahalan.

Also praising the book on its jacket is folk singer and composer Pete Seeger, who writes, "Ed Abbey was one of the extraordinary people of the 20th century, trying to figure out ways for this planet to survive. This book will help you know him."


After graduating from Indiana High School in 1945, serving in the U.S. Army in Italy during 1945-47, and attending Indiana State Teachers College in 1947, Abbey moved to Albuquerque in 1948, earning his bachelor's degree at the University of New Mexico in 1951 and his master's degree there in 1960.

He spent most of the rest of his life in New Mexico, Utah and Arizona, celebrating the canyon country of southeastern Utah in "Desert Solitaire" and inspiring radical environmentalist activists with "The Monkey Wrench Gang."

Abbey eventually settled in Tucson, where he became a professor of English at the University of Arizona in the 1980s.

In November Cahalan will fly to the Southwest to sign books in cities in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. On Nov. 17, he will sign books in western Pennsylvania at Barnes and Nobles on Route 30 in Greensburg from noon to 2 p.m., and at Barnes and Nobles on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill from 3 to 5 p.m.

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