Of course Empire took its way westward, what other way was there but into those virgin sunsets to penetrate and to foul?
Pynchon: Gravity’s Rainbow
Near the end of The Great Gatsby Nick Carraway suddenly says: ‘I see now that this has been a story of the West, after all.’ It is a comment which might be made about American literature as a whole: writing about America turns out to be, in one way or another, writing about ‘the West’. America has always been some kind of ‘West’. Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman and others may have stayed in the East (relatively speaking), but they spoke and wrote endlessly about the West. Huck Finn decided to keep moving on, and what he talked about (if anything) when he lit out ahead of the rest, we can never know. When he took up the West, he gave up the book. It is a paradigmatic gesture of some consequence. The ‘Frontier’ closed down officially near the end of the 19th century, but that was hardly the end of ‘the West’. To a large extent, it shifted from geography to metaphor and memory, or perhaps it might be better to say that it lent itself to nostalgia and utopia (and nightmare). There were the literal Wests – first New England, finally, perhaps, California – but there also grew up an imaginative ‘West’ (or westering imagination) which could not be constrained within the known and domesticated domain of the given. It is this West of the imagination which the dreams and dreads of American writers of the last hundred years have set out to explore. Sometimes they settled there, sometime they fled in horror. For while there can be a sense of space which may promote a joyous sense of possibility and freedom, there is a related intimation of the void which can lead to the edgeless terrors of agoraphobia.
Some people actually did go West – most notably the Forty-Niners, a very mixed bunch with very mixed motives who headed for California in that year. They found gold or didn’t, as the case might be. So much, we may say, is history. But just as the West was indeed California, but also much, much more, so to be a Forty-Niner was also to participate in a certain ‘Forty-Niner’ state of mind (or fever of the imagination) which is crucial to an understanding of the history of America. More than any other country, America was both an invention and an adventure, and it appeared amenable to an endless number of imposed plots (topographically, it seemed to be the blank page willing to tolerate innumerable inscriptions). But it was not an emptiness. As it transpired, those ‘virgin lands’ turned out to be full of all kinds of traces and even plots (or apparently disturbing configurations of intent). It is entirely appropriate that the two dominant, or most recurrent, styles in American writing have been the rhapsodic and the paranoid.
Stephen Fender’s excellent book points directly to what we might call the organising ambiguity of American literature by bringing together in his title ‘plotting’ and the ‘West’. A specific geographical West, to be sure – his (superbly annotated) book concentrates largely on aspects of the Californian Gold Rush, and the ‘plots’ and maps and charts which emerged from that strange burst of national madness/euphoria/and often amazingly brave adventurism (‘rush’ is an appropriate word, for it seems that everyone was in some sort of a hurry, though, as Fender makes clear, they were by no means only after the loot – many of them were just, well, ‘rushing’). But the West is also America itself, and ‘plotting’ is much more than charting the best route from Salt Lake City to Sacramento. Let Fender make the crucial point: ‘The problem of plotting the West was, after all, only the distillation of the challenge, already recognised and accepted by the great mid-century American authors, of plotting new fiction in a new country.’ It is important to understand – if we are to perceive the relevance of Fender’s thesis – that just about from the start (after the War of Independence), America and American life struck writers (and others) as being at once too ‘plotless’ (or, as Washington Irving put it – before Cooper, Hawthorne, James and others – too lacking in ‘association’) and ‘stiflingly, even obsessively over-plotted’.
There is a relationship, in Fender’s reading of American literature, between plotting and landscape which can be oppositional, ambiguous, collusive, reversible – always crucial, if not always clear. Two quotations need to be given here. The first concerns all kinds of writing, including the frankly ‘popular’, about the West: ‘So the more plotless the landscape, the more plotted the writing. The paradox is easily explained by reference to that well-known anxiety which so often accompanies the exhilaration at escaping the constraints of home ...’ (the word ‘anxiety’ recurs in Fender’s book). This would seem to offer a fairly simple model: plotless landscape leads to anxiety which in turn leads to over-plotted writing. But it does not – and hardly could – remain as simple as that. So to the next quotation, which, refers to the various writings of the Forty-Niners: ‘for once the twin polarities of American unease, the fear of underplotting and the surfeit of overplotting, were experienced not in turn but simultaneously. The wilderness was manifestly devoid of “culture” in any sense: empty, unplanted, largely uninhabited; yet it had been described, even inscribed, and there were ample texts from widely circulated books to names carved on lonely, distant rocks to attest to that inescapable fact.’ So it was not so simple, since that ‘plotless’ Western landscape turned out to be a good deal more plot-saturated than many of those eager miners – pen, apparently, almost permanently, if anxiously, in hand – had anticipated.
For a whole generation of American writers (Eastern, of course), the very idea of an ‘unwritten’ ‘West’ was integral to the idea that there could be an autonomous, indigenous American literature. Not much new you could say about Rome, or London, or the Alps – all over-loaded, over-worded, to the point of sinkage. But the American West, well, there it was: it didn’t need refracting through European literary and aesthetic stereotypes. It was all magnificent poetry if you could somehow just get it into a book without refracting, deforming, diminishing, ‘mediating’ it. Just paginate the Rockies – or rather, let the Rockies paginate themselves. As it were. But the problem starts immediately the solution seems ready to formulate itself. Fender: ‘With the materiality of the West so ready to leap onto the page without mediation, what becomes of the writer? Why, he withers away of course, like the state or the priest in other apocalypses. So no realism, no romance, no professional author ... it could never happen literally.’ It couldn’t. But Fender is pointing to what might seem like an almost absurd notion, except that it was a notion that lived a buried, and not so buried, life in a lot of thinking about American literature in the 19th century – namely, that America could write itself. The idea becomes ludicrous as soon as it is formulated: ‘mediation’ did not disappear (literature being only another word for a certain kind of mediation), and the American writer did not ‘wither away’. Indeed, it would seem that in all sorts of ways he (and she) went forth and multiplied. The problem seems to have been, not whether they were to write about the magnificent/terrifying, under – plotted/overplotted American West, but how they were to write about it. Which brings us to the substance of Fender’s book. ‘Anxieties about plotting in the West, about how to inscribe the experience of transcontinental travel, are present in the journals, diaries and letters of the Forty-Niners: problems of how to write, about the efficacy of writing – and especially its more risky strategies such as metaphor and other figurative excursions ... in such an extreme setting, from which the physical signs of culture had fallen away, what hope was there for the verbal culture, even of the vernacular autobiography? The chief sign of this strain was a double style ...’
This ‘double style’ (not ‘alternative styles’, out ‘a fissure within a single narrative’) encompassed attempts at literary formality as well as a reaching out for naked factuality, an uneasy cohabiting of picturesque and scientific rhetorics, an unresolved fracture between fantasy and documentary. It is, in all its risks and reachings, contradictions and irresolutions, the American style, and Fender does very well to connect it with problems encountered by a variety of people who tried to find an appropriate way of writing about – ‘plotting’ – the American West. That these problems often proved intractable, even insoluble, points to one of the key sources for that kind of anguished energy which is so often a distinctive mark of American writing.
Chapter One draws on Washington Irving and on less well-known figures such as Timothy Flint and James Hall, and, taking up the fairly familiar point that when confronted by any new scene or phenomenon we need ‘reassuring frames’ or ‘focusing devices’, Fender shows in what ways such men ‘framed’ the West. An important contention is that, in a typical writer like Hall, ‘the West brought out a deep unease about the validity of metaphors.’ ‘Uneasiness’, ‘uncertainty’, ‘insecurity’, ‘anxiety’ – these and related words occur perhaps a little too often, underlining what I take to be one of Fender’s main points: that people trying to write about the West in all its amazing novelty found themselves betraying (distorting or losing) just that novelty by having seemingly unavoidable recourse to literary and aesthetic schema in various ways imported from the East (or, more generally, the left-behind, the previous, the too-familiar). One strategy was to resort to ‘the catalogue’, a kind of ostensive writing requiring a minimum of mediation: we know how important the device was for Whitman.
Even among early writers about the West, a rhetoric of ‘subjective responses’ was felt to be inadequate and inappropriate, and there was a tendency to turn to a more impersonal, self-authenticating ‘technical vocabulary’. It seemed to guarantee a kind of ‘object-ive’ writing which was otherwise constantly imperilled by all the other literature-soaked rhetorics currently available. A neat chapter on the explorer John Charles Frémont serves to make a similar point: Fender shows Frémont moving between picturesque modes of writing and scientific recording – ‘sometimes the oscillation between the two modes is nervously rapid’ (‘nervous’ – what else!). There is a detectable dissociation between description and measuring, and the rival styles seem to struggle with each other. Fender moves to a deft conclusion: ‘Frémont the frontier dreamer awoke into Fremont the patriotic surveyor.’ Many American writers have moved between dreaming and surveying as ways of responding to their land.
Two chapters on the Gold Rush are full of fascinating examples of the different ways in which people wrote (or tried to write) about the West. Fender has engaged in extensive research into journals, letters and other ephemera. Not too churlishly, I hope, I note that once again there is a lot about ‘plotless landscapes’ being ‘overplotted’ by earlier writers, and about an ‘absence of plots’ which provoked people into plotting for themselves. And there continues to be a good deal of ‘nervousness’ and ‘anxiety’ in the air – ‘anxiety produced by the paradox of culture and nature’, for example. I am not suggesting that this is wrong: rather, that it perhaps gets the emphasis a little off-key. It is as though the Gold Rush were primarily a rush-to-write (sometimes to be followed by a nervous retreat from writing) – whereas I am sure that many of the Forty-Niners were after the loot rather than ‘the letter’. In the next chapter, after a balanced consideration of some contemporary guidebooks, we find this: ‘even nervousness can be sustained for a season only, and the Forty-Niners would not have gone West in the first place if they had not tired of plots, including their own.’
At this point American history is beginning to sound rather like Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49 (a book to which Fender quite appropriately and imaginatively refers, though it may have tilted some of his other reading a little). This chapter also has excellent material on a number of women who wrote about the West. Fender points out how they noticed different things from the men; adjusted and adapted in different ways; expected – and accepted – different things from the West. It would seem that they related to a whole new reality principle in a new, sane, not to say impressively tough way. It is something of a relief to find that they did not seem prone to all that nervousness about plotting and figuration. If they didn’t always get on with the writing, they certainly got on with the living.
Fender considers what journalists made of California, and comes up with some really interesting aspects of the earliest work of Mark Twain. We know about his writing for the Virginia City Territorial Enterprise, and about how he cast around for a new comic style to exploit the incongruities generated by the attempts at civility, and the surrounding barbarism, in Nevada. But Fender has unearthed some new material and also indicates how Twain failed to find a style while he was actually in the West. What attempts to be satire seems constantly to get out of control. ‘Something always seemed to throw the narrative voice off: a pointed criticism turned into a sadistic fantasy; a subtle jibe exploded into a wild, irrelevant libel.’ Fender interestingly suggests, moreover, that Mark Twain always had problems when writing about women. The conclusion – that Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain had to go back East to learn how to write about frontier and Western experiences – is a good one, and it points a moral which extends to other American writers.
In his concluding chapter Fender cuts loose. There are comments on some of the classic American texts, informed asides about ‘pastoral’, and a final jump – through the paper hoop of Norman Mailer’s ‘faction’ – into the company of Thomas Pynchon and Thomas Berger. One of his propositions is that ‘as far as the intellectuals are concerned, the prophecy that a literature of the West would emerge to liberate America from European and “Eastern” stereotypes remains unfulfilled to this day.’ ‘The perennial prophecy has soured into a perennial critique.’ It would seem that a lot of that ‘anxiety’ which Fender detects in the early writing about the West can be traced to the fact that the writing was a kind of anticipatory Modernism: ‘the narrative becomes opaque ... as the “matter” dissolves, the manner becomes its own subject as of course it should in any meditation on “manners” in nature.’ But for all he intimates about the relationship (echoic and anticipatory, if not causal) between early writings about the West and ‘the modern hybrid novel’, I feel that he might have given a little more emphasis to the differences. Fremont is not Pynchon and Pynchon is not Fremont.
Fender observes: ‘I would like to argue that Flint, Hall and other writers in this tradition were taking risks in their prose beyond anything attempted by Irving and Taylor. They were trying to deal with a fear that gathered strength as the century progressed, that the West would disappear almost before it could be experienced and described.’ This fear – this story – is documentated by Lee Clark Mitchell, who is concerned with different phases of the various ‘preservationist’ efforts which took place in America in the 19th century. As is not unusual during imperialist movements, conquest led to a revaluation – nostalgic, utopian – of what was being conquered. ‘Against the dominant commitment to conquer the continent, then, a vigorous celebration of its untransformed virtues thrived.’ While the continent was being vanquished it was also ‘vanishing’, and it was a growing concern for that ‘vanishing wilderness’ (its landscape, its flora and fauna, its human inhabitants) which helped to develop a sense of ‘cultural pluralism’ – ‘a pattern that uniquely characterises an era in American history’. This meant that there were ‘profound ambivalences’ in the writers and writings about the movement into the West – as in Cooper, who warned, ‘Civilisation has a destroying as well as a creating power,’ but who could never himself resolve, or transcend, the mixture of progress and desecration which the movement West seemed to entail. To many perceptive people ‘taming’ came to seem indistinguishable from ‘exterminating’, whether that referred to the buffalo or the Indian. Mitchell deals with William Cullen Bryant, Frederick Lee Olmsted (concerned with the creation of Central Park), John Muir (Yosemite), Thomas Cole (it is a ‘question of vast importance how far it is practicable to restore the garden we have wasted’), Lyman Draper (‘delving and rummaging’ in the Allegheny region), Theodore Roosevelt, Frederick Remington, Owen Wister, George Catlin (racing against time, painting as many Indian tribes as possible), Albert Gallatin (‘father of American ethnology’, who collected native vocabularies), Thomas McKenney (who aspired to build up a comprehensive Indian archive), Seth Eastman, Joseph Sharp, William Henry Jackson, Adam Clark Vroman, Edward Curtis (these last three all photographers), and others.
The whole enterprise was beset by paradox. ‘The ideal American society ... needs continuous regeneration through contact with nature, but nature everywhere recedes before that society.’ Despoliation precedes preservation where it does not actually pre-empt or preclude it. The moral of this is clear – all too clear – as Mitchell spells it out: ‘the heavy costs that a technologically progressive civilisation entailed, especially vivid in the Western landscape, tested cultural allegiances.’ The more they discovered, the more they destroyed – but it is perhaps also true to say that the more they destroyed, the more they discovered.
An important phenomenon to emerge from all this was a sense of cultural relativism. Mitchell has a chapter on Melville, who was certainly one of the great early cultural relativists. Cooper was confident about the spread of ‘civilisation’, even if his work is full of doubts about its ambiguous blessings: but by the time of the late work of Mark Twain a full disillusionment has set in. And if white civilisation was turning out to be so dreadful, perhaps it might be a good idea to take another look at those other (non)-civilisations that the rapacious white man had ‘cleared’ out of the way in his ‘progress’. The word ‘culture’ underwent many transformations during the 19th century: but the present point – or problem – is that an awareness of cultural relativism seems to arrive just too late: ‘Ironically, acknowledgement of the viability of indigenous cultures ... gained acceptance just as American finally undermined most of those cultures.’ What Mitchell demonstrates – very well, I think – is that something serious happened to the ‘American mind’ as it started to try to preserve traces of what it was wiping out: cultural relativism, ‘more than inspiring envious admiration of native tribes, encouraged a devastating indictment of American society from the very perspective offered by tribal life’.