The Boy from Home, 1927-1943
Demythologizing Edward Abbey starts at birth. Key to the persuasive myth that he created about himself, as reinforced in several of his essays and books, was the impression that he had been born and reared entirely on a hardscrabble Appalachian farm that had been in the family for generations, near a village with the strikingly appropriate and charming name of Home, Pennsylvania. In addition to book jackets, even Abbey's academic vita listed him as "born in Home." And in his private diary as late as 1983, Abbey whimsically recalled "the night of January 29th, 1927, in that lamp-lit room in the old farmhouse near Home, Pennsylvania, when I was born" (308). In fact, that night at 10:30, weighing in at nine pounds, three ounces, Abbey was born in the hospital of the good-sized town of Indiana, Pennsylvania, with doctor and nurse in attendance, as recorded on his birth certificate and noted in the baby book that his mother kept. Mildred and Paul Abbey's baby, the first of five who survived, went home not to any farm but to their small rented house on North Third Street in a cramped neighborhood in Indiana, the county seat of Indiana County, in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains fifty-five miles northeast of Pittsburgh.
Nor was Abbey's origin myth only a matter of his birthplace, for his family never lived on a farm until he was fourteen years old; instead, they migrated all around the county as the Depression arrived. Before moving closer to Home (a tiny, unincorporated village about ten miles north of Indiana) when he was fourand a half years old, his family stayed at several other places. These included two dwellings in Saltsburg, twenty miles southwest of Indiana, and a series of campsites across Pennsylvania and New Jersey in the summer of 1931. During Abbey's early childhood, his father was not a farmer but a real estate salesman, dealing in properties for the A. E. Strout Farm Agency.
The gap between Indiana and Home involves more than mileage: the larger county seat, in the valley, is the center of the county's commerce, whereas the little village, in the uplands, is merely a blip on Route 119, in a mostly rural county with one of the highest unemployment rates in Pennsylvania. But it was (and is) also beautiful countryside: rolling foothills, leisurely valleys carved by a meandering network of creeks and rivers, and everywheredespite the ravages of coal and logging companiestrees, trees, and more trees, both pines and an endless deciduous array. Indiana County enjoys one of the most beautiful autumns in the world. After the mild green summer, everywhere trees erupt into brilliant reds and golds. The long winter can be dark, but it is also marked by some brilliant winter days with blue skies and snow-covered slopes. It is often cloudy in this area, but when it does clear up, the sky becomes shockingly crystalline, with the stars brightly radiant at night in a way never seen in any city. And when spring finally arrives, it is announced dramatically by an ongoing, late-day chorus of frogs, the "spring peepers." In short, no place could be more different thanyet in its own way sometimes just as gorgeous asthe American Southwest that Abbey would make his transplanted home and subject.
As much as he liked to conjure up "Home" as his own personal origin myth, the adult Edward Abbey was aware that he had been born in Indiana. When accuracy was importantfilling out federal employment applications, for examplehe listed Indiana, not Home, as his birthplace. But "Home" sounded better on book jacketspart of the self-created myth of the man. Clarke Cartwright Abbey, his last wife, recollected that "he just liked the way it sounded, the humor of being from Home." He would always identify much more with the Appalachian uplands around Home than with the trade center of Indiana. People in this region seldom identify themselves as "Appalachian," but Abbey would understand that in truth Indiana County has much more in common with Morgantown, West Virginia, than with Allentown or other places in eastern Pennsylvania. He retained vivid memories of Indiana, describing it at the beginning of his significantly entitled book Appalachian Wilderness: "There was the town set in the cup of the green hills. In the Alleghenies. A town of trees, two-story houses, red-brick hardware stores, church steeples, the clock tower on the county courthouse, and over all the thin blue hazepartly dust, partly smoke, but mostly moisturethat veils the Appalachian world most of the time. The diaphanous veil that conceals nothing." His first book, Jonathan Troy, is set in Indiana, Pennsylvania (thinly disguised under the Native American name Powhatan), and its immediate surroundingsthe first novel with this particular setting by any author and Abbey's only book focused entirely on his home county.
Appreciating Abbey's imposing mother and father is a key part of understanding their son. He made them an important part of his story by writing about them frequently, and in their cases the reality lived up to the myth. Mildred Abbey (1905-88) was a physically tiny yet dynamic woman: a schoolteacher, a pianist, organist, and choir leader at the Washington Presbyterian Church near Home, and a tireless worker. As Abbey later told his friend Jack Loeffler, "after she put us brats to bed at night . . . our little ninety-eight-pound mother . . . would try to play us asleep with the piano. She'd be downstairs playing the pianoChopin . . . old hymns. And we'd be upstairs slowly falling asleep under the influence of that gentle piano music. I've been a lover of music ever since." He also inherited from her his preference for hills and mountains over flat country. Mildred wrote in her 1931 diary, as she wandered across Pennsylvania with her husband and three small children, "To me there isn't anything even interesting on a road on which one can see for a mile ahead what is coming. But there is something stimulating, even thrilling in a new scene that is revealed suddenly by a turn in the road or by reaching the crest of a hill." (Ed echoed her opinion almost exactly in an article written for his high school newspaper, when he was seventeen: "I hate the flat plains, or as the inhabitants call them, 'the wide open spaces.' In my opinion, a land is not civilized unless the ground is tilted at an angle.") She had learned her love of rolling hills, and of nature in general, growing up amidst the soft, pretty contours of Creekside, Pennsylvania, seven miles from Indiana.
Everyone knew Mildred as an outstanding, energetic person: "impressive," as her sister Betty George stressed. She was always active, running her busy household, continually involved in church and other volunteer work, and then, in her little free time, regularly out walking many miles all "over the hills, through the woods, and up and down the highway," as her second son, Howard Abbey, and many others recalled. People frequently remarked to Isabel Nesbitt, another sister, "Oh, we saw your sister walking up the railroad tracks up there by Home." Abbey later made this a key part of the character of his autobiographical protagonist's mother in the novel The Fool's Progress: "Women don't stride, not small skinny frail-looking overworked overworried Appalachian farm women. . . . But our mother did."
Late in her career of raising five children, Mildred returned in the early 1940s to her earlier job: teaching first grade. For a quarter century, she influenced many students in Plumville, five miles northwest of Home, until her retirement in 1967. Janice Dembosky remembered:
She loved us. She made learning fun. The history of the American Indians came alive for us when she told us stories and showed us arrowheads. She even enlisted the help of one of her sons to come in and show each and every one of us how to transform an oatmeal box into our very own Indian tom-tom! Even through the whoops and war dances that followed, she smiled her smile. . . . Mrs. Abbey showed us how the maple trees on her farm were tapped for the sap which she then turned into shining brown syrup and wonderfully sticky maple sugar candy for us to taste.
Mildred also took classes at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) until she was eighty, was active with Meals on Wheels, and did various other volunteer work. When John Watta, one of Ed's college classmates, suggested to Mildred later in life that she might want to take things a bit easier, she replied, "Well, there's so much to do, how can you?" Abbey's sister, Nancy, emphasized their mother's writing ability, her love of nature, and her courage:
When she was an elder in the church, and the Presbyterian church was considering homosexuals and their stance about homosexuality, my mother stood against all the church in her support for the rights of a gay or lesbian to be a minister. And people respected her so much that she was never ostracized for this view. They tried to understand her viewpoint because she was such a respected woman that they could really listen to her and hear her and think, "My goodness, there must be something to this if Mildred Abbey's saying this." She was revered in that way by people. Part of Ed's relish in being different also was supported so much by my motherher not trying to hold us at home or make us fit into the mores of that little community. That takes strength of character.
Iva Abbey, the wife of Ed's closest brother, Howard, called her "the best mother-in-law anyone could ever want" and "perfect," and she stressed that Mildred was proud of Ed's accomplishments yet also always insisted that "Ned," as his family and friends called Ed as a boy, "was just one son." Mildred made a point of writing to Bill, her youngest child, in his adulthood and after Ed's rise to fame, that "she was proud of all her kids."
In their youth, Mildred and Paul Abbey had met on the Indiana-Ernest streetcar in Creekside, a small town midway between Indiana and Home where both of them grew up after moving there in childhood from other counties in western Pennsylvania. Paul (1901-92) was born closer to Pittsburgh, in Donora. He liked to tell the story that he had been conceived after his mother, thinking that ten children were enough, showed some contraceptive medicine to her motherbut was told by her to "throw that devil's medicine in the fire." In 1908, when he was seven, he moved to Creekside after his father answered an ad to run an experimental alfalfa farm there. Paul remembered, "We had a team of horses and a riding horse and six head of cattle, and he rode the horse and herded the six head of cattle from down below West Newton up to this place here."
As a young man, Paul pursued many different working-class jobs, as he would continue to do all of his life. He spent some time out west as a ranch hand, and he worked in various mills in Ohio, Michigan, and western Pennsylvania and in the mine at Fulton Run near Indiana. He worked in his first mill at age sixteen, but, as he later reminisced, at twenty-six he "went on strike and I'm still on strike. I never went back." Paul's memories and mementos of the West were Ed's earliest boyhood incentives to go west, and his working-class defiance rubbed off on his son in a big way. He was tall, lanky, and stronglike his oldest son.
Paul left school at an early age but carried on a lifelong, voracious self-education. He could quote Walt Whitman by heart, and he became a devoted socialist in one of the most conservative counties in Pennsylvania. Whitman's advice to "resist much, obey little" became Paul's maximand Ed's. Howard Abbey described his father as "anti-capitalistic, anti-religion, anti -prevailing opinion, anti-booze, anti-war and anti-anyone who didn't agree with him"but also as a hard worker and very loyal and loving to his family and friends, a good singer and whistler, an openly sentimental but fun-loving man with a ready smile.
Paul also learned to overcome the racism that surrounded him while growing up in western Pennsylvania. In 1990, he recounted his youth: "Before I was a socialist, I belonged to the KKK. Back in that time, everybody was joining the KKKpretty nice guys in there. So, I joined up toojust a kid, you know. I went to one meeting and I heard the most miserable speech, from the lousiest guy I ever knew, telling us what we should do with the Jews, and the Catholics, and the 'niggers.' So I didn't stay in the KKK very long. Now I'm a life member of the NAACP." Working in factories as a young man, Paul soaked up labor radicalism. Eugene Debs was his hero.
He remained a devout Marxist and longtime subscriber to Soviet Life, right up through the fall of the Soviet Union at the end of his life. His political radicalism, opposition to organized religion, and independent streak rubbed off on his oldest son at an early age. In 1939, when Ed was twelve, his Uncle Franklin George and Aunt Betty George took him to the New York World's Fair. This was his first foray to the city that would subsequently fascinate him almost as much as the Southwest. He gazed upon the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty with wonderment. Ed immediately asked to see the Fair's Russian Pavilionan unusual interest for a young boy from a conservative, backwater areabecause his father had told him about it.
Around the same time, he stomped out of Sunday school near Home after the teacher replied to his questions by insisting that the parting of the Red Sea had really happened. Later, during high school years, when a car stopped illegally in the crosswalk in front of Ed and Howard, Ed climbed right over the car, walking across it, to the driver's amazement, while Howard walked around it.
Inheriting an independent streak also meant that key differences developed between father and son. Although Paul remained a lifelong teetotaller, the adult Ed became a heavy drinker. In response to Paul's belief that socialist state control of the means of production was the answer to poverty and oppression, his son would become an anarchist, an opponent of government and bureaucracy. The socialist school dropout's son would develop into the author of a master's thesis on anarchism. Yet much as Marxism served as his father's religion, anarchism and wilderness would become Ed's. He declared in Desert Solitaire, "I am not an atheist but an earthiest."
Abbey was also the product of class conflict resulting from the marriage of a mother from a more comfortable family and a father born and bred in humbler circumstances. Whereas Mildred was the daughter of a schoolteacher and a principal, Paul was the son of a modest farmer. Mildred's marriage to Paul on July 5, 1925, was unpopular in her family. She was the oldest of four sisters. Her father was not at all happy about her choice of a husband, convinced that he was not the type who would find a good job and give her a comfortable home.
Class conflict was indeed rooted far back in Mildred and Paul's contrasting family histories. Mildred's parents, Charles Caylor Postlewaite (1872-1965) and Clara Ethel Means (1885-1925), married in Jefferson County at the turn of the century, where "C.C.," as he was known, came from a family of farmers, and Clara's father, J. B. Means, was a businessman. A housewife and seamstress, Clara died in June 1925, shortly before Mildred's marriage to Paul, but C.C. remained for many years a dominant personality in his family and community. He had moved to Creekside to teach. The only male teacher at the school, he became its principal while continuing to teach; Paul Abbey was one of his students. Mildred's three younger sisters, Britta, Isabel, and Betty, married a bank teller, a housepainter, and an insurance salesman, respectivelysteady jobs rooted in Indiana.
C.C. was not predisposed to approve of his eldest daughter's marriage to an uneducated young man with questionable prospects, especially when it meant that she left her own teaching position in the adjacent town of Ernest to follow Paul from town to town as he changed jobs. Mildred's family lived in a house beside a church in Creekside; Paul's family, in a farmhouse outside the town.
Paul's parents, John Abbey (1850-1931) and Eleanor Jane Ostrander (1856-1926), were of immigrant backgrounds, whereas Mildred's German and Scotch-Irish ancestors had lived in Pennsylvania since the eighteenth century. John Abbey's father, Johannes Aebi (1816-1872), had come over from Switzerland in 1869, stepping off the ship Westphalia in New Jersey. He was followed two years later by his wife, Magdalena Gasser (1825-1880) and children, who journeyed to New York on the German ship Helsatia. The family settled near Ohiopyle in Pennsylvania's Fayette County, but Johannes died of smallpox soon thereafter, leaving behind a large family facing poverty. Eleanor, Paul's mother, was of French Huguenot extraction. Married in 1877, John and Eleanor had eleven children. In 1918, Eleanor wrote a poemthe earliest known literary text by an Abbeyaddressed to Paul, her youngest son: "Oh I love to hear your whistle / When you're coming home at night." Both of Paul's parents died within six years of his marriage to Mildred. Among Ed Abbey's grandparents, only C.C. lived on, until 1965, sternly disapproving of Paul Abbey and his kin.
Yet it was Ed's paternal ancestors, the mysterious Swiss natives whom he barely knew, who captured his imagination, as reflected in his 1979 essay "In Defense of the Redneck": "I am a redneck myself, too, born and bred on a submarginal farm in Appalachia, descended from an endless line of lug-eared, beetle-browed, insolent barbarian peasants reaching back somewhere to the dark forests of central Europe and the Alpine caves of my Neanderthal primogenitors." This pithy sentence well illustrates Abbey's selective mythmaking at work: not only does he imagine himself as born on a farm, but he also omits his respectable maternal heritage in favor of a romanticized image of his paternal line in hues as "dark" as possible. In the same essay he cites his own brother, Howard, "a construction worker and truck driver," as part of this heritage; early in life Howard was tagged with the nickname "Hoots," a Swiss version (originally spelled "Hootz") of his name.
Paul and Mildred were devoted, independent souls. They lived a difficult life, yet Howard stressed that they nonetheless provided as well as they could for their children, and he remembered dressing as well as his peers and not going hungry. Nancy Abbey, however, told me that her mother "scrubbed diapers on a scrub board for years for the first three babies," getting a washing machine only in the mid-1930s. When the family moved in 1941 to the country place that Ed later dubbed "the Old Lonesome Briar Patch," they got electricity but had no running water for a couple of years and no hot water until even later. Nancy added: "She was a frail little woman. She had two miscarriagesone between myself and Bill and one after Bill. My father just never saw any reason to make money. For him, life was just fine and I think maybe I, being a girl, may have felt more deprived than my brothers because I didn't have clothes like the other girls at school and things like that." Howard recalled that Mildred was "rather bitter during the Depression years, occasionally venting her frustration at us around her," but always did her best to make sure that the family survived and that the children had enough food and spoke proper English.
In the literature by and about Ed Abbey, his father is characterized almost solely as a nature-loving farmer and woodsman. Paul was both of those things, but he probably earned somewhat more money over a longer period of time selling the magazine The Pennsylvania Farmer, beginning in the Depression, and then driving a school bus for nearly eighteen years beginning in 1942. As Howard pointed out, as a schoolteacher Mildred "actually made more money than my dad did, probably."
Abbey misled everyone into believing that he was "born in Home," but he was very accurate in his more general recollection, in the introduction to his significantly entitled collection of essays The Journey Home, that "I found myself a displaced person shortly after birth." Indeed, he was "displaced" repeatedly, living in at least eight different places during the first fifteen years of his lifenot counting the numerous campsites that were his family's temporary homes in 1931. Like his younger brothers Howard and Bill, who outlived him, Abbey likely could not recall the actual places where he lived during the first four and a half years of his life, as the growing family migrated around the county early during the Great Depression. It was no accident that John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath was one of his favorite novels.
By the beginning of 1929, Paul, Mildred, Ed, and baby Howard (born August 4, 1928) had moved into a larger house at 651 East Pike just outside of Indiana. Until the stock market crashed in October 1929, Paul was doing fairly well. In 1990 he still proudly reminisced that, in 1929, "I sold more real estate than all the other real estate men put together in Indiana. . . . Hard times came along, and I started to sell a farm magazine, The Pennsylvania Farmer." Ed Abbey's childhood friend Ed Mears reported that his brother-in-law delivered milk to the East Pike house during this period and that, in 1930, Paul Abbey was unable to pay his milk bill and ran up a considerable debt at the rate of ten cents per quart. Finally, after he got his job selling the magazine door to door, he was able to pay off his accumulated milk bill of thirty dollars.
Unable to sell much real estate in 1930, Paul had to move his family to a cheaper rented house just outside of the smaller town of Saltsburg, and then later that year into a grim third-floor apartment in the center of Saltsburg. The family thus had less and less room as it grew; the third son, John, was born on April 21, 1930. Paul worked at a Singer sewing machine shop in Saltsburg, having earlier been employed by Singer in Indiana, but, in the depths of the Depression, business was poor. Mildred made all of the family's clothing herself.
For the Abbeys, as for the country, bad times grew worse. The Abbeys spent the summer of 1931 on the road, from May 25 until sometime in August. They drove from Indiana County eastward over the mountains to Harrisburg, then to New Jersey and back into Pennsylvania before returning to Indiana County, all the time living in camps as Paul picked up various jobs to try to support them while he competed in sharpshooting competitions. Mildred kept a remarkable diary of this trip. One of her most poignant entries was written somewhere in northeastern Pennsylvania: "As we drove under the big apple tree Hootsie said 'Wake up, Ned, we're home.' Poor little kids! They haven't been getting much of a show this past year. Ned gets homesick to live in a house, and frequently when we drive past an empty one he will exclaim hopefully, 'Momma, there's an empty house we could live in!'"
This is a special instance, rare in the very sparse direct evidence of young Ned's attitudes, of how different his boyish mindset could be from his well-known adult points of view. The adult Abbey would generally seem defiant and independent; the four-year-old Ned, from this account, wanted what every child does: a stable, safe home. Yet the migratory nature of his early youth established the same pattern in his adulthood. In some ways Abbey was very consistent from beginning to endhe was capable of saying or writing things in youth that he would still believe in middle agebut in other ways (like everyone else) he developed and changed considerably, and we need to regard his adult statements about his youth with caution.
On that summer trip in 1931, in any event, the facts are that the Abbeys headed eastward from Indiana on the Benjamin Franklin Highway (now Route 422) right past the birthplace of the area's other leading literary light, the essayist Malcolm Cowley. Two years earlier Cowley had vividly described his visit home, in a January 1929 article in Harper's. He emphasized how the woods had grown back following the years of intensive timbering before his departure for college in 1916, when "it was as if my country had been occupied by an invading army which had wasted the resources of the hills, ravaged the forests with fire and steel, fouled the waters, and now was slowly retiring, without booty." Even before the stock market crashed, the lumber company had left for Kentucky and "young men, the flower of their generation, tramped off to Pittsburgh or Johnstown to look for work in the mills." Returning home, Cowley climbed up into a tree and watched the Benjamin Franklin Highway rippling "with an unbroken stream of motor cars" in search of a living.
At the end of the summer of 1931, the Abbeys returned to Indiana County and moved into a house midway between Chambersville and Homethe first time they lived close to the village that their oldest son would celebrate. "Home" is indeed a real place with an appealing nameso appealing that in history it supplanted another, earlier place-name. At Kellysburg, founded in 1838, the post office came to be known as "Home" because the mail was originally sorted at the home of Hugh Cannon, about a mile away. The name "Home" stuck so well that eventually it replaced "Kellysburg" officially as the name of the village, though people often continued to refer to "Kellysburg," as did Abbey in his journal and manuscripts as late as the 1970s. Because the Home post office has rural delivery, whereas several other surrounding villages (such as Chambersville) do not, a number of people living not particularly close to Home are able to claim it as their address.
The appeal of the name "Home" in the Abbey family was expressed by Bill Abbey, who retired to Indiana County in 1995 after twenty-seven years of teaching in Hawaii. He was determined to collect his mail at the Home post office even while living several miles away, closer to a different post office. "I like the name 'Home, Pa.' I wanted that all my life," Bill remarked. "When I came back here, I really needed to get a Home, Pa., address because nobody believes it back in Hawaii. I have to deal with the postmistress at Home where...
Excerpted from Edward Abbey by James M. Cahalan. Copyright © 2001 by James M. Cahalan. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.