Anxiety of Influx

Tony Tanner

  • Plotting the Golden West: American Literature and the Rhetoric of the California Trail by Stephen Fender
    Cambridge, 241 pp, £15.00, January 1982, ISBN 0 521 23924 9
  • Witnesses to a Vanishing America: The 19th-Century Response by Lee Clark Mitchell
    Princeton, 320 pp, £10.70, July 1981, ISBN 0 691 06461 X

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’.

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