Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The Monkey Wrench Gang
The novel concerns the use of sabotage to protest ecologically damaging activities in the American Southwest, and was so influential that the term "monkeywrench" has come to mean, besides sabotage and damage to machines, any violence, sabotage, activism, law-making, or law-breaking to preserve wilderness, wild spaces and ecosystems.
Easily Abbey's most famous fiction work, the book's four main characters are ecologically-minded misfits — a Jack Mormon, a surgeon, his nurse, and a crazed Green Beret Vietnam veteran. Together, though not always working as a tightly-knit team, they form the titular group dedicated to the destruction of what they see as the system that pollutes and destroys their environs, the American West. As their attacks on deserted bulldozers and trains continue, the law's net closes in.
The book was praised for its erudition, flair, down-home wit, and the accuracy of its descriptions of life away from civilization (Abbey made the West his home and was a skilled outdoorsman).
Interestingly from a 21st-century viewpoint, the Gang in some ways bears little resemblance to the modern media's portrayal of environmentalists — they eat lots of red meat, drink beer and litter the roadside with cans, drive big cars, and so forth (Abbey's habits were reportedly similar). Also, Abbey's politics are not "bleeding heart" (as the characters dismiss liberalism): they attack Indians as well as whites for their consumerism, hold little regard for the Sierra Club, etc.
In The Monkey Wrench Gang, the enemy invading the American Southwest -- despoiling the land, befouling the air, and destroying Nature and the sacred purity of Abbey's world -- culminates in the gang's abject hatred of the Glen Canyon Dam which the monkeywrenchers long to destroy. Indeed Abbey's depiction of one of the heroes Seldom Seen Smith kneeling on the top of the dam praying for a "pre-cision earthquake" to remove the "temporary plug" of the Colorado River is one of the book's most memorable scenes.
Glen Canyon Dam created Lake Powell above the Grand Canyon. Lake Powell is, simply speaking, a flooded canyon - Glen Canyon. Environmental activists today work within the law for the decommissioning of the Glen Canyon Dam. Many environmental activists continue to promise Edward Abbey, who died in 1989, that the dam will soon be decommissioned and removed.
Overall, The Monkey Wrench Gang is a fairly depressing but extremely inspirational fictional work. The book may have been the inspiration for Dave Foreman's creation of Earth First!, a direct action environmental organization that often advocates much of the minor vandalism depicted in the book. (Earth First! claims to not be an organization and no longer publicly endorses damage to property as a valid tactic.)
One of the core messages in the book comes up perhaps three times during the adventures of the gang: Why are we doing this? Why are we risking prison, why are we risking being lynched or shot by construction site guards or other vigilanties? Why are we spending our time and our money in what we know is ultimately a futile effort to halt the destruction of our lovely and loved lands? The answer is given verbally once, but understood when later asked: "Somebody has to do it." In this Abbey is beseeching all who read his work to understand that the responsibility to safeguard and fight for our clean, wide open, unspoiled spaces is ultimately ours. The law-abiding among us can fight and struggle against The Machine, too. We can use our keyboards and telephones, and we can use our bank accounts to oppose The Machine instead of the monkey wrench. Futility be damned! It's our responsibility, he says, individually to fight and oppose the despoilment of our lands for the enrichment of the few - even when we ourselves are included in 'the few'.
From the National Observer: "A sad, hilarious, exuberant, vulgar fairy tale... It'll make you want to go out and blow up a dam."
From the New York Times: "Since the publication of The Monkey Wrench Gang, Mr. Abbey has become an underground cult hero."
From the Washington Post: "One of the best writers to deal with the American West."
Hayduke Lives - Continuing the story from where The Monkey Wrench Gang left off.
See Edward Abbey for a detailed list of Abbey's other works.
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