Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor
Plotting the Golden West: American Literature and the Rhetoric of the California Trail. By Stephen Fender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981. Bibliographical essay. 241 pages. $24.95.
Reviewed by Karl Keller, professor of English, San Diego State University, and author of critical works on American literature to 1900.
At the outset of his brilliant account of the early literature of the American West, Stephen Fender tells an anecdote of a family going to see the Grand Canyon. They stand on the rim looking at slides of the scene through a view-finder. It has been “plotted” for them and so they experience it as both fact and fiction.
“The West” has always been a coherent confusion of fact and fiction. And so, Fender shows, has the literature of the West, particularly those writings of about three decades from Frémont to Twain to John Muir, which articulated the life of the California Trail, whether viewed afresh or viewed á view-finder.
Paradoxically, the writings of the California Trail turned out to attract more antique literary conventions, in fact to have been more heavily “plotted,” than those writings of the more settled regions of North America. The more plotless the landscape, the more plotted the writing. “The most plotless of American landscapes,” Fender argues, “had been overplotted before the forty-niners arrived to see it for themselves. They were strange; they looked familiar.” The hope that a literature of the West would emerge to liberate America from European and Eastern traditions and stereotypes was never really fulfilled—even to the present day.
The old, familiar formulae of frontier romances, created in this country mainly by Fenimore Cooper and Washington Irving, were at odds with the attempts to embrace the raw factuality of the Trail. This “double style,” this “polymodal discourse,” this “genuine dialectic,” this “tension,” this “strategy of the double style,” this “accidental congruity of forms,” this “breakdown [of] the generic barriers between fact and fiction” (to use Fender’s large analytical terms) was, like the rest of life in the West, a search for forms that respected both the cultural materials of the old and the natural materials of the new. A writer in early California may have faced the East in much that he did, but his body, his life, and the life of his writings were often genuinely of the West. He had both a view and a viewfinder.
During the great trek of 1849-50 there was a virtual explosion of vernacular autobiography—letters, journals, diaries, travel accounts—which chronicled countless individual experiences of crossing the plains, mountains, and deserts to California. Many of these made epics out of commonplace experiences, much as Eastern stories about the frontier had done. Their anxiety amid unfamiliar landscapes made familiar frames and focussing devices necessary. Yet because of the profuse factuality around them, they weren’t wholly at ease with the metaphors and fictions they were expected to be living. Sometimes they impaled themselves on stock culture; sometimes they were authenticated by simple accuracy. Their voices shifted between the formal and the vernacular.
What began for many forty-niners as formal conquest of the continent ended up as individual California holidays, testing events against the archetypes and qualifying myths with the actual. Frémont climbed the Rockies as if they were an antitype of the Alps, only to find and catch a bee at the highest point; both marvels became modes of expression. The Eastern pastoralism of explorers and trekkers alike was both a grid to place over the wilderness and license to describe it anew. One Joseph Warren Wood described a scene on the Trail at first in terms of “the strange creations of fancy which give Alladin’s lamp such wonder-working powers” and then finally gave up such a formula and exclaimed: “You can conceive them to be just what you please.” Official guidebooks of the travelers soon yielded to the practical language of experience. Even Mark Twain, arriving in Nevada with certain satiric expectations, learned to ignore gradation of speech for a voice from his own experience. Becoming suspicious of the plots, those of the California Trail who wrote began to plot for themselves. This result was to Fender, “the true voice of the vernacular West.”
Gold Rush journalists like Leonard Kip, J. D. Borthwick, Bayard Taylor and Louise Clappe best represent those caught in the California paradox of balancing the stylistic prototypes of the East with the intense factuality of the West. The language of Eastern convention and the concrete facts of the West gave their writings awkward proportions but also drama: the picturesque vs. the picaresque, the model vs. the melodramatic, the systematic vs. the wild. California taught them a rhetoric of place.
As it did Mark Twain, Fender’s prime example of the programmed writer is shaped by the Trail. Most conventional satiric modes of writing were stillborn in the West. As soon as Samuel Clemens the romancer learned “Washoe wit,” he became the visionary, the misanthrope, the artful greenhorn, the detached observer, the hoaxer, the Mark Twain of Roughing It and thereafter. The Easterner gone west gained experience and a fancy even if he had to go east to find respectable expression and a respectable publisher for it.
This attractive shift between East and West, between tradition and vernacular, between expectation and surprise, between plotted rhetoric and rhetorical plotting, between failure to make a truly Western writing and success at it, between the cooked and the raw gives us, in Fender’s mind, a single valuable tradition in American letters. Fender makes it valuable by extending it back to the writings of the Spanish explorers and forward to modern works like The Executioner’s Song, The Crying of Lot 49, and Little Big Men—even when the connections are more fun than final. He makes it even more valuable by seeing the immense variety and the great extremes of the Trail writings whole—even if he must sometimes equivocate and generalize grandly to do so. And finally, he makes it still more valuable—albeit still tenaciously more suggestive than sure—by making a single life out of history and literature.