Ever since I decided to try my hand at writing, I've been curious - more than curious really - driven, to determine what makes us write. I may not be any closer to understanding this after reading "Confessions", but I do know that the need to express oneself this way is shared by many. Edward Abbey was one of those afflicted with the need to write. And in addition to all his many public works, Abbey kept a series of journals.
And so now we have "Confessions of a Barbarian", a compendium of Abbey's journals, gracefully and affectionately edited by David Petersen.
Here is a very rare opportunity to see into the mind of (at least near) genius - a graphic picture of a life, captured from young adulthood to until Abbey's death at the age of 62. (I say "near genius" because how one measures genius is certainly varied. I don't believe that Abbey thought of himself as a genius, and heaven knows, I sure don't want to offend him - not even now!) Here was a life richly experienced, analyzed, self-criticized, and most of all, transcribed - on and on, until the "kows" finally came home.
Contrast this with my review of "One life at a time, please", where I accused Abbey of not being quite honest. I stand by that statement, but here, in "Confessions", at least one mask comes off. Instead of one merely critical of the external world, we finally see the man critical of himself. He did write to make a buck. He wrote for many reasons. The point here is that he wrote.
Call Abbey what you will - environmentalist, philanderer, curmudgeon - all true from time to time. But Abbey was a writer, first and foremost. That is the one thing you can say about him that always holds true. He couldn't stay married. He couldn't take adequate care of his children (a self-confession - of sorts). His vision of paradise, such as it was, was inconsistent and self-defeating. He had racist, and anarchistic tendencies. (How common to have them - forgive us all - but how rare to find them in print!) But always he wrote. He wrote to himself. He wrote to the world. He wrote at times when he should have been taking care of the problems he was writing about. Books, letters, articles, and of course this journal. Abbey had the heart of a writer. He was, as they say, driven.
Abbey's favorite place was the western frontier. That's where he wanted to be with all his heart. And it was his favorite writing topic. It was more than a place and subject matter. It was his obsession. The West taunted Abbey like a seductive, young woman. (And we all know now how Abbey was attracted to young women!) The West's rich colors, profound relief, and intense climate were like an addiction, and Abbey soon mainlined himself. But as far as I can tell, that is the one thing no one seriously tried to talk him out of.
The West is big - or was anyway. Big enough to fill a young man with big dreams. As Abbey matured, his public works were driven toward a single theme: to communicate the tragedy of the closing frontier - the end of dreams.
In "Confessions of a Barbarian", this loss of dreams is finally overshadowed by the loss of the dreamer himself. I literally wept when I read the postscript (which was somewhat embarassing for me, being in a public place). But I share a sense of pride and dignity, because even though I never met the man, I know him. I know him well enough to understand the loss that Petersen feels. Yes, I know it. I dare you to read "Confessions" and not love this man.