American Solitude: Self-Mythologizing in Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire — Marya Hornbacher

In American solitude narratives (as in many American novels), the speakers are often possessed of characteristics we associate with the iconic (and, as icon, metaphoric, and thus fictive), American figure of the individualist—self-reliance, bravery, independence of thought, freedom of movement, a purposeful lack of ties that bind. The American mythos is bound up in this character: the self-made man, explorer, mapper and namer of the furthest frontier.

The character of Edward Abbey, conjured by the author of the same name, is presented to us as a literally self-made man. He has neither past nor future, is without precedent or predecessor, source or influence, context or apparent first cause. This a priori self is, of course, a peculiarly American invention: the iconoclast, the loner, the literal and intellectual pioneer. Abbey’s quest—a sort of anti-heroic counter-quest. The voice of Edward Abbey’s classic memoir is not so much singular as polyphonic. It is a distillation of voices that together evoke an era, a culture, and belong to an easily recognizable character: the American Man. It is a curious admixture of the suave, mannered voice of the early male film stars, the grumble of the solitary backwoods curmudgeon, and the roar of the would-be revolutionary. He is part 1960s Angry Young Man, part Go West Young Man, part Marlboro Man.

The west itself, the frontier of things, the brave young man pitting himself against heaven and earth—Abbey’s telling of this familiar story is beautiful, and in many ways very wise; but it is a story of men among men, explicitly so: “Why, we ask ourselves, floating onward in effortless peace deeper into Eden, why not go on like this forever? True, there are no women here (a blessing in disguise?), no concert halls, no books, bars, galleries, theaters or playing fields, no cathedrals of high learning” (160). Here Abbey places women on the scale of human culture, of “amusements”—inessential to the business of living, of seeking and questioning and unearthing cosmic and earthbound truths.

it is clear that Abbey intends the book, like the character himself, to have an unmediated quality, a rawness, capable of reaching the reader at a deep and visceral level.

The carefully curated presentation of the narrator is particularly apparent in the narrative’s lack of direct self-reflection. Perhaps because I am reading this in a different era, accustomed to different memoir tropes, I might expect to find pockets of self-disclosure, a context within which the reader could place Abbey and the story he tells. There is no such personal context. There is no backstory, no explanation or reason given for his journey, no justification of himself or his desire or decision to spend months as the sole human inhabitant of hundreds of square miles of desert.

Abbey’s purposeful skimming over of personal stories or details is consistent with the character’s self-mythologizing, and is essential to the book’s function as an American creation myth. Abbey presents himself as entirely independent of past or future, as a figure forged by experience; his ideas and perceptions, we are to understand, are his own:

“I want to be able to look at and into a juniper tree, a piece of quartz, a vulture, a spider, and see it as in itself, devoid of all humanly ascribed qualities, anti-Kantian, even the categories of scientific description. …I dream of a hard and brutal mysticism in which the naked self merges with a non-human world and yet somehow survives still intact, individual, separate. Paradox and bedrock.” (5-6)

Through naming comes knowing; we grasp an object, mentally, by giving it a name—hension, prehension, apprehension. And thus through language create a whole world, corresponding to the other world out there. Or we trust that it corresponds. Or perhaps, like a German poet, we cease to care, becoming more concerned with the naming than with the things named; the former becomes more real than the latter. And so in the end the world is lost again. No, the world remains—those unique, particular, incorrigibly individual junipers and sandstone monoliths—and it is we who are lost (256-57).

There are echoes here of the French and Spanish Surrealists’ theses of what a modern mythology might be. Louis Aragon and Andre Breton in particular felt that a fundamental purpose in the “surrealist project” was to discover a means by which modern writers and writing might rid themselves of dependence upon all previous mythologies of culture and self; they wanted to prove that a creation myth, an original narrative self, a figure of “modern man” that was not in any way derivative of historical notions of selfhood, character, or story, could be described, or, ideally, embodied, in surrealist poetry and prose. While Aragon later argued that he’d proved it was not possible to divorce oneself from preexisting cultural and historic mythologies[1], he and his cohorts did in fact create a character of the intellectually and historically self-created man in the flaneur. While English lacks a name for the iconic American character, I would argue that this figure—whatever we call him—is as powerfully fixed in the American literary tradition as the flaneur is fixed in the French.[2]

Perhaps every culture has mythology of itself, a narrative in which it stars and by which its character is defined. If so, the mythology upon which many American writers draw, and which they necessarily keep inventing, is a creation myth, one which posits a kind of a priori country, divorced from and unsullied by all the mythologies that precede it. In this mythology, the reader encounters, again and again, a character who is not so much a Self as a persona, a projection of cultural ideals: self-reliant, individualistic, independent, unfettered, entirely free. These ideals are ones that are, denotatively or connotatively, associated with masculinity; even their Latinate etymology fixes them as masculine, the antithesis of that which is dependent, contingent, or trapped.

The American canon was largely written by a class and race of men whose freedom was assumed and nearly absolute. The cultural mythos upon which American writers draw—and the literary tradition by which we are created and which in turn we create—show the imprimatur of those authors even now.


[1] A case he made upon completion of his experimental novel, Holy Week (1961). The fact that the novel was completed at all, he argued, was proof that there could be neither a surrealist novel (it remains one of the only examples of the genre by the self-described Surrealists, in any country; the notable exception is Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood (1937) which she did not consider a novel) nor a creation myth of modern man: both, he said, could only exist if they were never completed.

[2] The much later appearance in French literature and pop culture of the flaneuse, or female flaneur, is largely derivative, both etymologically and iconographically.


Marya Hornbacher is an award-winning essayist, journalist, novelist, poet, and the New York Times bestselling author of five books. Her writing appears regularly in literary and journalistic publications around the world. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in the New York Times, Crazyhorse, AGNI, Gulf Coast, The Normal School, Fourth Genre, DIAGRAM, and many others. She is the recipient of the Annie Dillard Award for Nonfiction and the Fountain House Humanitarian Award for her activism. She teaches in the graduate writing programs at the University of Nebraska.

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