Coulombe, Joseph L. Mark Twain and the American West. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003. Pp. 181. Cloth. $29.95. ISBN 0-8262-1461-4.

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The following review appeared 24 March 2004 on the Mark Twain Forum.

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Reviewed by
Nicolas Witschi
Western Michigan University

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.