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Barbara Schmidt <[log in to unmask]>
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Wed, 24 Mar 2004 09:12:27 -0600
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The following review was written for the Mark Twain Forum by Nicolas Witschi.



Coulombe, Joseph L. _Mark Twain and the American West_. Columbia:
University of Missouri Press, 2003. Pp. 181. Cloth. $29.95. ISBN

Many books reviewed on the Forum are available at discounted prices from
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Reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum by:
Nicolas Witschi
Western Michigan University

Copyright (c) 2004 Mark Twain Forum. This review may not be published or
redistributed in any medium without permission.

Looking to avoid service in the Civil War, Sam Clemens followed his brother
to Nevada, where he soon decided upon writing as a full-time career. The
odd mixture of privation, amusements, and mentoring he experienced first in
Virginia City and then in San Francisco had the catalytic effect of shoving
young Clemens, almost despite himself, into what has at times been called
the period of Mark Twain's apprenticeship. Or so the story goes. Mindful of
this narrative, Joseph Coulombe's _Mark Twain and the American West_
revisits the western aspects of Twain's early development, offering
interesting and at times thought-provoking interpretations of the impact
that little-known Twain writings from his Nevada and California days
(largely letters and journalism) had on his life and works as a whole. More
specifically, by identifying traces of those earlier works in a number of
Twain's later, more canonical publications, Coulombe hopes to prompt a
re-evaluation of the ways in which the West mattered to Twain, as both
regional experience and literary subject matter. Perhaps most
tantalizingly, _Mark Twain and the American West_ offers the proposition
that Twain was not shaped by the West nearly as much as he shrewdly used
regional assumptions and stereotypes "to create and then revise a public
image that . . . redefined American manhood and literary celebrity" (3).
Drawing on recent scholarship on masculinity in nineteenth-century America,
Coulombe hopes to locate Twain's use of the West as part of a larger
national discourse about what makes the man (and the author), which in turn
might dramatically affect our understanding of Twain's more canonical
southern writings.

Coulombe's methodology is fairly direct: first, with chapters on early
Clemens letters, western Twain journalism, and _Roughing It_, he seeks to
establish what he calls Twain's understanding and manipulation of those
"common notions of the West" (41) that involve the social functions of male
authors and, more generally, of masculinity; second, he traces patterns,
assumptions, and ideas found in these early writings in such
quintessentially southern Twain texts as _Life on the Mississippi_, _The
Adventures of Tom Sawyer_, and _Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_. A final
chapter on Willa Cather argues for the continued influence of those
patterns and assumptions. The assertions of this book should compel a
measure of interest among Twain aficionados. Where it gets into trouble,
however, is in its treatment of evidence.

By definition, this sort of scholarship, especially that of the first two
chapters, requires attention to cultural and discursive contexts, at the
very least to provide evidence of the assumptions that, according to the
thesis, Twain smartly employs to their fullest advantage. Unfortunately,
Coulombe seems to take it largely on faith that when he notes Twain's
manipulation of "common notions of the West," the reader will know what he
means by "common." Coulombe does allude briefly and repeatedly to the
masculine ideals held by Theodore Roosevelt (4), and he does cite generally
descriptive scholarly assertions about the evolution of anxieties about
manhood in American culture. However, the lion's share of the cultural and
discursive context that Coulombe offers in support of his readings of Mark
Twain's western writings comes from Twain's western writings. This tactic
becomes much more useful, and justified, in the latter half of the book,
when the focus shifts to the vestigial traces of Twain's Nevada and
California writings in later texts. But as one reads chapters one and two,
in which the reader is asked to witness the emergence of an early Twain
persona in deliberate response to regional and cultural attitudes, little
substantive evidence of those attitudes beyond Twain's own words are to be
found. Where, for example, is Dan De Quille, far and away the most
significant stylistic and thematic influence on Twain in Virginia City?
Where are Mary Hallock Foote, Helen Hunt Jackson, and Kate Field, magazine
writers and novelists who told much of the late nineteenth-century what the
West was "really" like and, hence, had a tremendous impact of what the
"common notions" in fact were? Where are Clarence King, John Muir, and Bret
Harte, whose books about being a man in the West also achieved bestseller
status? Harte and Muir are each mentioned briefly, in a few sentences each;
the remainder of the names listed here make no appearance at all. (Where,
for that matter, is the scholarship on Twain and/or the myth of the West by
such writers as Paul Fatout, Edgar Branch, and Richard Slotkin?)

This problem of evidence in the first two chapters is exacerbated by the
argument's tendency to elide matters specific to the publication record of
Twain's early journalism. For instance, in the middle of a discussion of
the western journalism that seeks to establish the extent to which Twain
gave his western readers exactly "what they wanted" (31), Coulombe quotes a
passage from an article Twain placed in _The New York Weekly Review_,
without identifying it as such. At the very least, this sort of regular
disregard for the specifics of regional publication proves confusing and
misleading (indeed, Coulombe's only sources for early Twain writings are
the Iowa-California _Early Tales and Sketches_ set and the Library of
America's _Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches, and Essays_; where Twain
actually published most of his early journalism is rarely mentioned). The
second chapter, which discusses _Roughing It_, does offer a number of
useful formulations that are not entirely dependent on issues developed out
of an interpretation of letters and journalism, most particularly its
reading of Twain's representations of the violence of words. This is,
unfortunately, but another tantalizing assertion, one not fully articulated
in the end, in that Coulombe's discussion engages Twain's language almost
exclusively at the level of content. Coulombe does a wonderful job pointing
out where Twain's Nevada tales discuss the violence that language is
capable of, observing that "Throughout _Roughing It_, Twain described
writing as a violent act in order to build a link between western outlaws
and western writers" (64) (alas, Coulombe also never gets around to noting
Twain's joke about the physical dangers posed by an unsecured dictionary
during the brothers' bumpy cross-country stage ride). More significantly,
however, the analysis fails to approach Twain's prose at the level of form.
That is, to really make the case that Twain represents, as far as his
persona manipulation is concerned, a new breed of western-identified outlaw
writer, it still remains for Coulombe to demonstrate that Twain's prose not
only talks about language as being violent but also commits actual violence.

One more point about Coulombe's treatment of _Roughing It_ should be noted,
and that is his curiously autobiographical treatment of the text. In one
brief passage, Coulombe observes that "While readers might chuckle at Sam's
romantic imaginings, Twain himself defended him against most charges" (55).
Usually referred to as either "the narrator" or sometimes the "tenderfoot"
or "innocent," the narrator of _Roughing It_ is now a character named
"Sam." Coulombe offers no hint of a reason for treating the narrator of
_Roughing It_ with this unprecedented name (indeed, the name "Sam" appears
nowhere in the book at all). In this light, it can at times seem downright
weird to read of the author of _Roughing It_ as Mark Twain, which
establishes a case in which a purportedly real author named Twain has
carefully crafted a fictional persona known as Sam, thereby reversing much
of what scholars have come to think about the Clemens-Twain duality. At the
very least, this reversal founded upon the assumption of _Roughing It_'s
autobiographical integrity warrants some explanation from Coulombe.

To be fair, not all of the problems with this text may be entirely
Coulombe's fault. An alert reader of this book will wonder, for instance,
at the editorial guidance its author received when she or he notices that
the chapter-by-chapter breakdown given at the end of the "Introduction"
copies almost verbatim lengthy passages from the first few paragraphs of
each of the chapters. Which is to say, once one is fully into the book, the
"Introduction" strikes one less as a concise and compelling synthesis of
the argument and more as a cut-and-paste, last-minute and, hence, much less
effective summary. Similarly, a number of footnotes throughout the book
repeat supplementary information across chapters, with a few doing so,
again, almost verbatim. No doubt many books, perhaps especially those that
begin as dissertations, at one point or another are put together in this
way. Any university press editor who allows such an unfinished, not yet
fully integrated text to move through production, though, would do well to
read a bit more carefully.

Far and away, Coulombe's most interesting and thought-provoking chapter is
the fourth one, entitled "Mark Twain's Native Americans and the Repeated
Racial Pattern in _Adventures of Huckleberry Finn_." This chapter seeks to
establish a pattern of racial identification in Twain's career-long
treatment of Native Americans that has its corollary in how Huck responds
to and identifies with Jim. Describing a movement moving from "neutral
association, sympathetic identification, vestigial prejudice, [to]
emotional abandonment" (107), Coulombe argues that Twain lends these very
emotional stages to Huck, up to and including the evasion chapters. This
argument provides the best and most compelling reading of a canonical Twain
novel in the context of positions and ideas staked out in earlier western
writings (Coulombe cites such works of Twain's as "The Noble Red Man" and,
of course, _Roughing It_, as well as other journalistic descriptions of
Indians). This chapter succeeds where the others, unfortunately, come up
short--it provides an interesting, debatable argument with an appropriate
measure of evidence and citation. It seeks to contextualize Twain within
Twain, and it does so well.

In his concluding chapter, which argues for Twain's direct influence on
Willa Cather's Nebraska fiction, Coulombe plainly and confidently asserts
the following: "Twain and Cather were the first two American fiction
writers who explicitly re-created their own authorial awakening. Twain
recorded his rise to prominence as a writer in _Roughing It_--further
shaping his authorial ascent in _Life on the Mississippi_--and Cather
mirrored the process in _The Song of the Lark_ [published in 1915]" (144).
It would appear as if Coulombe has forgotten here about several
significant, antecedent novels in the American Künstlerroman tradition,
texts such as Jack London's _Martin Eden_, Mary Austin's _A Woman of
Genius_, and, prior to Twain, Herman Melville's _Pierre_ (published,
respectively, in 1909, 1912, and 1852). And if, by following Coulombe's
lead in recognizing in this category an ostensibly non-fictional tale of
artistic self-realization by a writer who also wrote fiction, then _The
Education of Henry Adams_ and perhaps even the "Custom-House" introduction
to Hawthorne's _The Scarlet Letter_ also come to mind (published in 1907
and 1850). Admittedly, this last point may very much seem like nitpicking.
However, the flatly erroneous assertion about Twain's and Cather's
accomplishments in a specific genre points once more to a regrettable
tendency of _Mark Twain and the American West_ to generalize without
sufficient forethought or support. This tendency ultimately undercuts what
might otherwise be persuasive insights that have the potential to
reconfigure much of what scholars make of Twain's western years. Coulombe
is quite correct when he asserts "It is time that we pay more attention to
the influence of western ideals and stereotypes on the writings of Mark
Twain and his literary descendants" (159). Sadly, Coulombe's own effort,
although a good start, does not yet fully answer the call.