Edward Abbey's geography of freedom: A writer's attempt to live in Jefferson's promised land

Date of Completion

January 2005


Biography|Religion, History of|History, United States|Literature, American




Edward Abbey grounded his narratives in Thomas Jefferson's nationalistic masterplot, a plot we live whenever we act out our political belief that all humans are created free and equal, and have been endowed by "Nature's God" with the natural rights to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Through the cultural diffusion of the materialist theology implicit in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson instituted a national religion that is etiologically rooted in the ancient Stoic precept that God and nature are synonymous. Abbey's greatest work, Desert Solitaire is masterpiece of American literature because, in it, he dramatizes this Jeffersonian spirituality through a first person narrative---a spirituality that regards nature as an active presence in the world, recalling the earliest nature in the Western tradition, the Roman goddess Natura, who 'gave birth' (natus). The popularity of Desert Solitaire and Abbey's other works can be attributed to his expertise at telling stories that revivify Jefferson's vision of America as a promised land where citizens experience God as nature. Providing a detailed analysis of the ways that Abbey linked the wilderness and "Nature's God" to his own character, in both his personal life and the four major publications of his early career, this study defines his peculiarly American genius, and expands the epistemological foundations for Americanist and environmental literary criticism. ^