Seminar in Composition
24 September 2014
As stated in the prompt, Abbey references literary works quite frequently. While each work has a different connection to the book, they all play an important role in helping the reader understand Abbey more clearly. The two works I have decided to focus on are The Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin and On Desert Trails , a collection of works by Everett Ruess. In the chapter “Episodes and Visions” Abbey asks the reader a few rhetorical questions. He states, “There are mountain men, there are men of the sea, and there are desert rats. I am a desert rat. But why? […] The majority of the world’s great spirits, from Homer to Melville and Conrad, have felt the call of the sea and responded to its power and mystery[…] The desert, however, has been relatively neglected” (298-299). After Abbey briefly states why he loves the desert so much, he claims the desert is not entirely ignored and lists several works in which others have explored the desert.
Among these works is a piece titled The Land of Little Rain by Mary Austin. This book is similar to Desert Solitaire in that it is a collection of short stories and essays. Austin writes about the people and the environment of the American Southwest. One main similarity I noticed between the two writers is how they portray the desert. They use the contradicting statements. When Abbey talks about plant life in the desert he refers to the cactus by saying, “The cactus of the high desert is a small grubby, obscure and humble vegetable associated with cattle dung and overgrazing, interesting only when you tangle with it the wrong way. Yet from this nest of thorns, this snare of hooks and fiery spines, is born once each year a splendid flower” (Abbey 29). The cactus plant can be very harmful, yet the flowers growing from it are beautiful. The same idea of beauty and harshness is displayed by Austin when she professes, “There are hills, rounded, blunt, burned, squeezed up out of chaos, chrome and vermilion painted, aspiring to the snow-line. Between the hills lie high level-looking plains full of intolerable sun glare, or narrow valleys drowned in a blue haze. Where the mountains are steep and the rains heavy, the pool is never quite dry, but dark and bitter, rimmed about with the efflorescence of alkaline deposits” (Austin 1). She pushes the reader away from the idea of comfort in the desert, but still presents the thought of beauty and hope. Abbey and Austin use contradiction to help the reader fully experience the desert. In my opinion, I believe Abbey pulls his style of writing from Austin’s work.
Another book briefly mentioned by Abbey is On Desert Trails. This book is a collection of Ruess’ writings, which were compiled after his disappearance. Ruess traveled through the American southwest by himself. His disappearance is still a mystery to this day. However, the similarities I noticed between the writing of Abbey and the writing of Ruess is their animosity towards the human lifestyle. As Ruess states in the last letter he writes to his brother, dated November 11, 1934, "I have not tired of the wilderness; rather I enjoy its beauty and the vagrant life I lead, more keenly all the time. I prefer the saddle to the streetcar and star-sprinkled sky to a roof, the obscure and difficult trail, leading into the unknown to any paved highway, and the deep peace of the wild to the discontent bred by cities." It appears as though Ruess’ lifestyle inspired Abbey. We see the same feeling of enmity towards human lifestyle in Desert Solitaire. Abbey remarks, “My God! I am thinking, what incredible shit we put up with most of our lives – the domestic routine (same old wife every night) […] the foul diseased and hideous cities and towns we live in, the constant petty tyranny of automatic washers and automobiles and TV machines and telephone!” (Abbey 193). They both have an uncommon, overflowing love for the desert. Neither Ruess nor Abbey wants to conform to the traditional style of living. While slightly over exaggerating, they both present clear arguments as to why they feel this way.
While Abbey refers to many songs, books and poems, I believe On Desert Trails and The Land of Little Rain have an undeniable impact on Desert Solitaire as a whole. Abbey’s perspective and writing style reflect the two works and give background to Abbey’s decisions.
Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wildrness. New York: Ballantine, 1968. Print.
Austin, Mary. The Land of Little Rain. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library. Web. 23 Sept. 2014. <http://web.archive.org/web/20110212071837/http://etext.lib.virginia.edu/etcbin/toccer-new2?id=AusRain.sgm&images=images/modeng&data=/texts/english/modeng/parsed&tag=public&part=1&division=div1>.
"Everett Ruess Quotes." Good Reads. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 Sept. 2014. <http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/445669.Everett_Ruess>.