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This essay explores a narrative conflict between selfhood and ecology in Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire in order to gain an understanding of how New Left thought—specifically, its politics of direct governance and individual authenticity—has left an impression on literary representations of nature and wilderness. Abbey’s seemingly apolitical stance is deceiving, given his pursuit of the alternative social structures and self-fulfillment crucial to New Left politics. If Abbey shares the New Left’s intellectual lineage and its distrust of state apparatuses, however, he does not necessarily consider authenticity a politically useful value, especially for environmental thinking.

This article advances two closely intertwined arguments. First, I contend that when married to an ecological paradigm, the rhetoric of authenticity deployed by utopian liberation discourse of the 1960s ultimately collapses distinctions between individual and ecosystem. Second, I read Abbey against this backdrop to suggest that, far from uncritically celebrating nature’s purity, nature writers of the era crystallize this confusion as a representational tension between self and system that results from the commingling of appeals to authenticity and ecological interconnectivity. Abbey comes to understand his personality as a matter of style and effect rather than authenticity, precisely because his interest in his environment leads him to believe that essence amounts to matter, and an identification with matter alone would diminish the very personality that loves and aims to care for the environment in the first place. As a result, Abbey performs a compelling critique of authenticity’s rhetorical usefulness to environmentalism.