Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Edward Abbey on Cullowhee (and Sylva)

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.
-Edward Abbey

When I heard that Free Speech TV would be airing a documentary on Edward Abbey (1927-1990), I recollected that he had done a short, and unhappy, stint in the classroom at Western Carolina University.

I’m not familiar with details of how he came to Cullowhee. Abbey mentions a friend, and WCU faculty member, in that regard. His friend Al was, evidently, Al Sarvis, and it is reported that Abbey got him fired from Western shortly he himself left the University. In his eco-anarchist classic, The Monkey Wrench Gang, one of the lead characters is a Dr. A. K. Sarvis. Hmmm….

A volume of selections from Edward Abbey’s journals includes entries he made while living in Cullowhee. His daughter, Susannah, had been born on August 28, 1968, around the time that Abbey began teaching at WCU. Subsequent events were not as happy. From Confessions of a Barbarian:

October 8, 1968 – Cullowhee, North Carolina

Like a bloody idiot, I accepted a teaching job here at Redneck U. for monetary greed (and of course for other somewhat less-mentionable considerations – what Al, that sonofabitch, calls the fringe benefits – though I have yet to see any fringes); $7,800, or almost $1,000 per working month, good wages for me.

But oh! The horror the tedium the drudgery of academic life. How I despise it. How I loathe it. All those pink faces in the classroom three fucking hours, five fucking days per week. All them unspeakably truly hideous little bluebook themes (“How Reading Historical Novels Helped My Weak Eyes”).

All them fellow-faculty. (Except Al himself, the bastard, who dragged me here, of whom I never tire.) And the hours and hours of preparation, reading filthy garbage like Homer and Shithead Plato and Dante and that ancient archaic bore Wm. Shakespeare. The ceaseless pressure of the fucking job – no time to relax – always there’s tomorrow’s shit to prepare, to read, to grade, etc.

October 20, 1968 – Cullowhee

Haven’t made up the feeble mind yet if I’ll stick it out through winter, or quit at the end of this quarter. Judy is on my side, bless her sweet soul; it’s only us two (and Susannah) against all of them.

Of course, I could always shoot myself. But I haven’t even got a gun.

November 22, 1968 – Cullowhee

Done it. Gave “Model T.” Crum my resignation letter. Leaving here 12-10-68, back to Organ Pipe National Orgasm. What a rogue and peasant slave. Clown. Self-disgust and self-hatred cloud my mind (AH, SHIT!)

So, it was back to the desert Southwest for Edward Abbey.

When he arrived in Cullowhee, Abbey had just published Desert Solitaire, his account of two summers spent in the Utah canyonlands. But his next book project would bring him back to Western North Carolina in 1969, while writing the text for a coffee-table collection of Eliot Porter’s photographs of the Great Smokies, Appalachian Wilderness. Abbey’s scathing account of despoliation and commercialism in Appalachia counterbalanced Porter’s photos of pristine wilderness.

In an essay reprinted in The Serpents of Paradise, Abbey described his 1969 return to Cullowhee, beginning with the tourist purgatory of Cherokee, followed by a drive through Sylva:

Sylva must have once been a lovely town. Small, with a population of perhaps five thousand, nestle in the green hills below the Great Smokies, full of beautiful old houses, laved as they say by the sparkling waters of the Tuckasegee River, with the life of a market center and the dignity of a county seat, Sylva must have been beautiful. Now it is something else, for the streets are grimy and noisy, jammed always with motor traffic, the river is a sewer, and the sky a pall of poisonous filth. The obvious villain in the picture is the local Mead’s Paper Mill, busily pumping its garbage into the air and the into the river, but general traffic and growth must bear the rest of the blame.

When I commented to one of the town’s leading citizens, a fine old Southern gentleman, about the perpetual stink in the air, he replied, “Why, son, that there smells lahk money to me.” Smug and smiling all the way to the bank, where – I hope – he drops dead on the doorstep. Pascal said somewhere in words to this effect that in order to grasp the concept of the infinite we need only meditate for a while upon human stupidity.

Looking at the foul mess industry has made of a town like Sylva, I am also moved to reflect, once again, that capitalism, while it sounds good in theory, just doesn’t work. Look about you and see what it has done to our country. Mene, mene, tekel…

I don’t know. One suffers from hope….

Enough of these gloomy thoughts. We must hasten on to Tuckasegee, Judy and Suzie and I, to visit old Newt Smith and his marvelous chestnut pigpen again. And after that – home.

So, we’re left to wonder. Was it really that bad at WCU? Did Abbey not get in enough hiking while he was here? What WERE those less-mentionable fringe benefits? Who was that fine old Southern gentleman? What ever happened to Doc Sarvis? And what about Newt’s chestnut pigpen?

This, my friends, is local history. I hope we manage to preserve these stories before they are irretrievably lost.


Edward Abbey – A Voice in the Wilderness airs tonight at 10:00 on Free Speech TV and again Friday morning (December 5) at 6:00 AM.


kanugalihi said...

I well understand Abbey's discontentment with Sylva. I doubt he would be much impressed with it today.

One of the wonderful things about Ed was that he as never content anywhere but basking naked on a river bank like an otter, or miserly conserving his water ration while he baked in the desert sun. I disapprove of mantles such as "President" but if there were ever one worthy, it was he.

Thanks for this.

Anonymous said...

actually I believe Abbey's friend at WCU was Newt Smith, then and now a prof in the English dept...

Anonymous said...

It was Newt Smith, who is still here and remembers Abbey well. Newt has a good story about Abbey.

I bet he'd like Sylva better but the whole of Jackson County less. Pollutants and environmental have lessened, and he'd enjoy the increased diversity around town. We'd see him at City Lights, at Guadalupe.

He'd hate all the pavement and gated places.

Guesswork though, huh?

Newt said...

Ed did come here in the fall of 1968 at the invitation of Mabel Crum, Department Head of the English Department. He heard about it from his friend, Al Sarvis, another New Mexico friend (Doc is partially based on Al) who was in the Art Department then. Ed was not as miserable as he indicates. He hated teaching composition to students who could not write and who were not motivated to learn to write. Grading papers is a dull affair in that area. But his biggest issue was that the teaching and grading and a new daughter took away from his writing. He had been a part-time temporary ranger before and it gave him more time to write. When the permanent part-time opportunity came up, he jumped on it because it would take him back west and give him more time. Organ Pipe is a winter post so he would be warm there during winter months. But Ed loved the mountains and we partied a lot during those days. Intense walks in the woods talking about ecology, writing, and women. He came back several times.

Newt Smith

mike b said...

Abbey was a self righteous, self absorbed A-hole. I'm constantly amazed at the numbers of sycophants attracted to him.