David Gessner, author and professor of creative writing at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, spoke at the Museum of the Rockies on Oct. 1 as a part of the College of Letters and Science’s Western Lands and Peoples Initiative. Gessner’s talk was titled “Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and the Future of the American West.” Gessner’s latest book, “All the Wild That Remains,” focuses on these two Western writers, who were the focus of his talk.
Gessner began with a personal story of how he ended up in the West. Following a bout with testicular cancer, Gessner was accepted into the creative writing program at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Gladly leaving his hometown of Worcester, Mass., he drove his brother’s unregistered Buick west. Gessner recalled the euphoric feeling of seeing the Rocky Mountains for the first time, relating what he saw to Edward Abbey’s first encounter with the iconic western horizon.
Calling himself an “apprentice literary westerner,” Gessner became exposed to the literature of the West, including Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner. “I was learning my place but I was also reading my place,” Gessner explained.
These writers eventually became the focus of Gessner’s latest book, “All the Wild That Remains,” which he quoted throughout the talk. Discussing the biographies of both Abbey and Stegner, Gessner related these authors to their place and relationship to the west: “Abbey is one archetype of the West, the guy who comes from the East, sees those mountains and is born again. Stegner is born in the West and Stegner lives this migrant western childhood.”
Quoting pieces of Stegner, Gessner discussed environmental factors such as aridity and water, which Gessner relates to today’s situation. Also discussing Stegner’s political influence on western issues, Gessner recognized the true impact Stegner had. Relating to his own experience in nature, Gessner then discussed environmental issues facing the West by reading excerpts from “All the Wild that Remains,” bringing up issues like higher temperatures, pine bark beetles and snow pack, fires and carbon.
Moving to Edward Abbey, Gessner discussed Abbey’s intelligence and relation to the West as an author. Gessner explained, “He writes about the physical landscape in a way that for me makes me want to get out into it, still.” Abbey convinced people to commit acts of environmental terrorism and Gessner continued, “I’ve never seen literary influence at work the way I saw in Abbey.”
Gessner discussed what he has taken from Abbey and the bold tactics he used to advocate for his cause. Gessner said Abbey’s honesty was one of the most important aspects. “It’s a rare act to be able to make words on the page convey a personality and that to me is his genius.”
Comparing the two author’s, Gessner discussed their impact: “Stegner I think brings to the current world a way to think in a big picture way, remember largeness is a lifelong matter, of connecting the dots and thinking about the big picture West. Abbey brings kind of a refreshing boldness, honesty and courage that is exciting to me.”
Gessner ended his talk by discussing Stegner and Abbey’s deaths and their relationship to their overall influences. The Western Lands and People’s Initiative talks will continue through Dec. 3. Information on the speakers can be found at montana.edu/lettersandscience/west/lectures.html.