Dislocations

Stephen Fender

  • Landscape and Written Expression in Revolutionary America: The world turned upside down by Robert Lawson-Peebles
    Cambridge, 384 pp, £35.00, March 1988, ISBN 0 521 34647 9
  • Mark Twain’s Letters. Vol. I: 1853-1866 edited by Edgar Marquess Branch, Michael Frank and Kenneth Sanderson
    California, 616 pp, $35.00, May 1988, ISBN 0 520 03668 9
  • A Writer’s America: Landscape in Literature by Alfred Kazin
    Thames and Hudson, 240 pp, £15.95, September 1988, ISBN 0 500 01424 8

What constitutes an American writer’s landscape? In Great Britain it’s common to refer to ‘Brontë country’ or ‘Hardy country’. The Lake District belongs to Wordsworth more than to any landowner. But ‘Hemingway country’? He lived in at least thirty parts of the United States, not to mention Cuba, Paris and the Riviera. Stephen Crane’s birthplace is now a children’s playground in New Jersey, William Faulkner’s a Presbyterian parsonage. The Oxford Illustrated Literary Guide to the United States, from which these titbits come, provides further unwitting refutations of its own project, which is to fix American writers in their proper locales: ‘It was while walking home with a student one evening that [Wallace] Stevens ... spoke of his recent poem, “Notes toward a Supreme Fiction”. “I said that I thought we’d reached a point at which we could no longer really believe in anything unless we recognised it was a fiction.” Exactly. The ‘place’ was Hartford, Connecticut, but it could have been anywhere.

When the American writer travelled to the west of his or her more settled home, dislocation turned into disorientation. Since the settlement of the North American continent proceeded roughly from east to west, the ‘West’ was a cultural as well as a geographical experience. To Mark Twain, whose letters from Nevada and California form the bulk of this long-awaited and deftly-annotated edition by the Mark Twain Project at Berkeley, the West presented economic and social, as well as physical, hazards. For most of the writers represented in Lawson-Peebles’s study, too, the confrontation posed problems of style. Only in Kazin’s wide survey are American writers at ease in their surroundings.

A common response to the unexpected is a retreat to a hardened form of the familiar. Faced with landscapes that seemed to dissolve – topographies that outran the proportions of the European garden, social and political structures overturned by New World settlement and finally by revolution – Europeans and Americans alike sought inappropriately to re-impose the formal structures left behind them in their travels through space and time. Robert Lawson-Peebles’s word for this dialectic is ‘redcoatism’, after the practice of British regiments in the French and Indian War of lining up in bright scarlet uniforms only to get picked off by their assailants hiding behind trees. But the American Army itself became more regimented in this Old World sense as the Revolutionary War progressed. When, after they had gained their independence, the much more bloody revolution in France seemed to offer more radically terrifying precedents for the development of the infant American Republic, and Edward Genêt, France’s first minister to the United States, began to enlist Americans in the work of spreading revolution in Europe, American thinkers and writers came to react against the world they themselves had turned upside down. They did this, according to Lawson-Peebles, by fleeing to one of two contrasting stereotypes with reference to which Europeans had invented America: the utopian model of a pre-lapsarian Eden or the dystopian miasma of Buffon, Per Kalm and the other theorists of the degeneration of transplants.

The flight from fact to concept affected all branches of American culture. The geographer Jedediah Morse, who once planned a comprehensive study of the immense variety of the North American continent, wound up producing a survey – largely of other people’s observations – which recast the country into a Never-Never Land he called Fredonia. Europeans ‘have too often suffered fancy to supply the place of facts’, he wrote in the radical year of 1789; by 1810 he had come to think of the American hinterland, which he had never visited, as providentially shaped: quartered symmetrically, like some Medieval Mappamundi, by the two axes of the ‘Shining Mountains’ and the Mississippi River. The lexicographer Noah Webster began by embracing the possibilities of American neologism. Where Europe had ‘grown old in folly, corruption and tyranny’, he wrote in 1783, the American language should allow new usages to reflect its young and vigorous political institutions. Later, he became obsessed with the ‘disorder’ of American politics and language. By 1824, he was advocating linguistic identity with Britain.

Lawson-Peebles’s most extensive and interesting exploration of his theme centres on the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, who accessed over a third of the country’s land area in one purchase from the French, then ordered it to be surveyed by a government expedition led by army captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. For Jefferson, American topography was material proof of his country’s promise. His Notes on Virginia, ostensibly an answer to queries put to him by the Marquis de Barbé-Marbois, is also a robust answer to Buffon and the other degenerationists. Both the variety of American species and the sizes of individuals outrun their European counterparts, as he shows through comparative tables.

On the other hand, Jefferson was highly attentive to the proprieties of European landscape analysis. The famous descriptions in Notes of the natural stone bridge over a branch of the James River, and of the passage of the Potomac through the Blue Ridge Mountains, establish the picturesque by means of cunningly juxtaposed evocations of the sublime and the beautiful. (The first of these terms, perhaps because American topography was supposed not to inspire it, is insinuated rather than claimed outright.)

European terminology would prove less useful in the actual business of surveying the Louisiana Purchase. Although Jefferson sent Lewis to the University of Pennsylvania to pick up the latest information on the natural sciences before undertaking his exploration of the unknown territory, and although the expedition was to be equipped with recently-invented equipment, including a new kind of airgun and packets of friction matches, developed expressly for this occasion, Lewis’s education in landscape description was to be less up to date. Jefferson encouraged him to immerse himself in his own library, extensively stocked with books written by Europeans on the subject of the American Far West. One of these was deemed so important that Lewis took it with him on the expedition. This was The History of Louisiana – a natural history and topography of the Louisiana Purchase, the better part of what is now the Middle and Far West of the United States – by the French engineer, Antoine Le Page du Pratz. Among Pratz’s inviting bits of information on the unknown country by which Lewis and Clark were about to be misled was the statement that the journey by foot took only five days from the headwaters of the eastwards-flowing Missouri River to those of the Columbia, which ran to the Pacific. What Pratz was saying, in other words, was that the continent was navigable from east to west, apart from a brief portage, and that the fabled North-West Passage was all but a reality. For the Frenchman, the American West was not just a topography to be observed and recorded, but ‘a charming country, which might justly furnish our painters of the finest imaginations with genuine notions of landskips’. When Lewis got to the falls of the real Missouri, from which no Columbia beckoned westwards, he was unable to decide whether the scene was ‘sublime’ or ‘beautiful’. As a result, he broke off his voluminous journal in mid-sentence.

It is a good story, told well. Lewis was an explorer, not a tourist; the Great Falls had never been described before; no ‘history’ made them accessible through the mechanism of 18th-century Associationist psychology; Lewis could not, therefore, treat them as Salvatore Rosa could treat the Alps. There is a difference between ‘solitude’ as evoked by the English Romantics and ‘solitude’ as evoked by, say, Fenimore Cooper. (Compare the word as it is used in the Prelude and in The Deerslayer.) But whether Lawson-Peebles is right to claim that Lewis was finally broken by his inability to describe the new in old terms – i.e. that his failure to publish his journal and his eventual (probable) suicide stemmed from that crucial failure at the headwaters of the Missouri – is another question. Lewis’s subsequent slump may have been nothing more, or less, than the anti-climax which many people experience after a burst of intense, dangerous activity, especially when the occasion producing the initial steeled response has fallen out of the public attention. A veteran of the Vietnam War might feel, and act, the same.

One should be careful, too, in the interpretation of American texts which break off without completing whatever argument or story they seem to be engaged in. Lewis’s abrupt hiatus may or may not have registered a ‘failure’ of some sort, but what about Jefferson’s conclusion to Notes, suggesting that his ‘sketch’ of Virginia must remain provisional? ‘Jefferson’s attempt at an imperial text had failed,’ writes Lawson-Peebles, ‘because it was too limited for its purpose.’ I cannot see how Notes can be described as a failure, either in its immediate purpose of informing a French nobleman about the author’s country or in its wider strategy of ‘boosting’ America’s prospects. From the very beginning, the explorers of the New World expressed American topography in terms of its natural bounty catalogued as trees, fruits, fish, fowl and so on. Frequently the series was left open: ‘and divers others, &c’. This device expressed the limitless fecundity of New World nature (compensating for its lack of culture, no doubt) and also the inadequacy of an Old World vocabulary wholly to account for it. Jefferson’s unfinished discourse was not a ‘failure’ to accommodate new perceptions to old formulae, but a rhetoric developed precisely to express that disjunction. The same may be said, with a little stretching, of that great American aesthetic invention: the long, open-ended poem of Whitman, Pound and Charles Olson. Jefferson’s insistence on the provisional nature of Notes is, like the title of Wallace Stevens’s monumental ‘Notes toward a Supreme Fiction’, a sly boast about the inability of formal systems to keep up with the fecundity and fluidity of his subject-matter.

In other words, there may be times when silence, even a silence as abrupt as Lewis’s, is the appropriate response, the only way in which to dramatise the disorientation of space and sensibility that occurs when culture meets nature. What, after all, is the experience of the cultivated explorer in the natural topography of the American West? It is of a new reality challenging a set of preconceptions. The interaction, not some positivistic thing in itself ‘out there’, constitutes the experience. ‘A wilderness renamed is still a wilderness,’ writes Lawson-Peebles in apparent agreement with John Quincy Adams and Joseph Hall, both of whom had scorned the ‘edenic’ fables told about the West. But is it? Yes, in the sense that you can still starve or freeze or get eaten in it. But we’re talking about writing and reading here. To an audience familiar with the King James Bible, the word ‘wilderness’ is rich with associations – among them, the idea of spiritual regeneration following a season of deprivation.

It is in this wider context of initiation – the ritual of a passage through an ordeal into a higher state of awareness – that Lawson-Peebles’s case-histories ought to be set. The anxiety felt by early American intellectuals went beyond their concern at what the French Revolution might mean for the young republic, even though a surprisingly large number of them did have at least one unpleasant encounter with Citizen Genêt. They were worried about the whole project of a ‘republican culture’. Was the phrase an oxymoron? Could there be an ‘American gentleman’? Could there be an ‘American literature’? These questions, earnestly debated in contemporary British and American quarterly magazines, were related, since it was then assumed – and still is, by some people – that a hierarchy of inherited privilege was the only way to guarantee, if only for a few, the untroubled leisure necessary to the production of literature. ‘Literature’ then meant book learning in general, not just poetry and fiction: so even to the more practical-minded the issue was a serious one.

More generally, the intellectuals of the young republic were either immigrants themselves, like Crèvecoeur and Tom Paine, or brought up in a society conditioned by the communal experience of immigration. Before they made a revolution in the public sphere of society and politics, they or their forebears had made private reformations in their own lives: jumped off for the unknown, risked present comfort (even if only the comfort of the familiarly-rooted) for future gains. America is often said to be one large middle class: if it is, it is because Americans made themselves middle-class by becoming American. Built into the American programme is the pattern of gratification deferred until the day when private ownership would confer independence: economic, social and ultimately political. But between the old feudal existence and the new bourgeois enterprise came, not the turmoil of revolution, but (in personal terms, at least) the equally radical experience of uprooting, travel and speculation. That is why adolescence, in which the emigrant adventure is replicated in all of us, has a special place in popular American fiction. It is also why travel in the West, and the attempt to describe it, has always been so strongly encoded in American writing, miming within its texts the common experience that defined the culture.

Mark Twain, for example, was formed in the ambiguous atmosphere in which Western exploration stands in for the founding American ideology, and is experienced as a form of adolescence. Born as Samuel Clemens in 1835, the young Mark Twain grew up in Hannibal, Missouri, the river port from which the Forty-Niners shipped their animals and equipment west to St Joseph for the start of the transcontinental trek to California. Clemens himself, however, first left home to go east: to New York, Philadelphia and St Louis, where he worked as a typesetter. His letters from these cities, as well as later from New Orleans while he was learning to be a pilot on the Mississippi, are what one might expect from an intelligent, highly literate, self-educated young man, who already knows what will make a good story in the local paper. They are rather sober, a bit like travel journalism, which, indeed, some of them became when his brother Orion published them in his newspaper. One lectures solemnly on the ‘rich ... historical associations’ of Philadelphia; another provides a local-colour sketch of the New Orleans Mardi-Gras. Experiences on the river get little mention – but then few letters from this period survive, probably because most of them were private, not printed in the papers. ‘I cannot correspond with a paper,’ he wrote Orion and his wife Mollie in March 1858, ‘because when one is learning the river, he is not allowed to do or think about anything else.’

In 1861 something happened that would give Samuel Clemens the exalted fancy, high humour and elevated seriousness that we now know in Mark Twain. He went west, ostensibly as assistant to Orion, who had been appointed Secretary to the Government of the Territory of Nevada. The Civil War had put an end to commercial traffic on the river. Clemens was out of a job. Besides, the Nevada silver rush promised a quick return on what family money – including proportions of Orion’s salary – could be diverted for the speculation.

The content (of course) but also the tone and general quality of writing are totally different in Clemens’s letters from Nevada. Many of them are feverish communications about mining investments: hurried instructions to contractors, desperate pleas for more money from Orion. Other letters, sent to his mother and married sister, now living together in St Louis, dwelt on the conditions of his life in Nevada. These are highly uneven in tone, reflecting both homesickness (requests for news and impatience at the torpor of the mails) and the bravado of newly-asserted independence. He rejoices in the bizarre topography of Nevada: its odd plants that seem to thrive in the desert climate, the ‘prodigious mountains’ whose ‘vastness’ makes his ‘soul [expand] like a bladder’ and from the summit of which the territorial capital, Carson City, looks so ‘insignificant’ that ‘you are seized with a burning desire to stretch forth your hand, put the city in your pocket, and walk off with it.’ The river is ‘20 yards wide, knee-deep’, and ‘looks like it had wandered into the country ... and got lost, in its hurry to get out again before some thirsty man came along and drank it up’. Everything is out of scale. Even Carson ‘City’ consists only of frame houses, ‘unplastered but “papered” inside with flour-sacks’. ‘As to churches, I believe they have got a Catholic one here, but like the one the New York fireman spoke of, I believe “they don’t run her now.” ’

It was, of course, no place for a woman. ‘Any of you ... may live in California,’ he wrote his mother and sister in February 1862, ‘for that is the Garden of Eden reproduced – but you shall never live in Nevada ... But Lord bless you, a man enjoys every foot of it.’ As his mother becomes, in his imagination, so delicately Eastern as to be almost European, addressed increasingly often as ‘Madam’ and even ‘Ma mère’, so he becomes rougher, tougher, better-adapted to the Western environment. ‘Why, I have had my whiskers and moustaches so full of alkali dust that you’d have thought I worked in a starch factory and boarded in a flour barrel.’ He has been initiated through the ordeal of the undomestic, the scaleless, the unexpected, the untraditional – in other words, through raw nature – into the sodality of manhood.

Any parent of a teenage son will recognise in this double tone of homesickness and fierce independence the characteristic accents of adolescence. But Samuel Clemens was 26 years old when he wrote this letter, and had already left home twice before – first to make his way as a journeyman printer, then (as he was to tell it later in Life on the Mississippi) to be initiated into the mysteries of navigating one of the longest inland waterways in the world. Yet when his mining prospects were clearly not working out, and Orion wrote home that Sam might consider looking for another job on the river, he responded to the suggestion with a furious outburst to his sister:

What in thunder are pilot’s wages to me? ... It is singular, isn’t it, that such a matter should interest Orion, when it is of no earthly consequence to me? I have never once thought of returning home to go on the river again ... My livelihood must be made in this country – and if I have to wait longer than I expected, let it be so – I have no fear of failure.

Clemens couldn’t go back to the river because that would have been to admit that all his mining prospects had failed. More important, for Clemens the journey west had been a rite of passage, and no such rite can be reversed. The pattern for it had already been established (for him) by the Forty-Niners and the lively travel writing – Bayard Taylor’s Eldorado, for example – produced by the California Gold Rush. It was a ritual, too, in the sense of being another of those perennial recapitulations of the central myth: so powerfully did his experience in Nevada, with its grotesque cultural and natural topography and its dizzying rise and fall of mining stock, dramatise the American founding experience of uprooting, disorientation and speculation, that Clemens went through adolescence all over again.

During this period, but only as a makeshift at first, he began to write humorous sketches for the local papers, using for the first time his famous pseudonym. It was not always easy to get the tone right, though. His burlesque on a local fund-raising effort for the Union Army medical services suggested that the money had got diverted to a ‘miscegenation society’ in the East. This may have been a subtle dig at Southern prejudice (Southerners sometimes accused Northern abolitionists of promoting intermarriage between blacks and whites), or it might just have been a lazy-minded gag from someone who was himself not wholly free from Southern prejudice. In any case, it mightily offended the ladies of Carson City, including Mollie Clemens, who had organised the affair. After all, there were women in Carson City. Despite the hazards, they had made their way across the plains and established a defensively genteel society quite at odds with the Western tough-guy atmosphere which formed such an important part of Clemens’s ritualised image of the West.

He gritted his teeth and apologised to the ladies, both privately and in the columns of the Territorial Enterprise. ‘Those ladies have seduced from me what I consider was a sufficient apology,’ he wrote to Orion in May 1864. ‘They got out of me what no man would have ever got, & then – well, they are ladies, & I shall not speak harshly of them.’ But meanwhile he had got himself embroiled in a public argument with the editor of a rival paper, an argument whose culmination he must have felt was more in keeping with the rough setting: a challenge to a duel. Who challenged whom, why the affair never came to the point of danger, is now lost in the welter of conflicting accounts of the occasion left by Twain and others. One thing, however, is clear from contemporary newspaper comments: the whole episode was soundly ridiculed from Gold Hill, Nevada to Mariposa, California.

Clemens left Nevada abruptly. For the next few years he was to eke out a precarious living as a reporter in San Francisco. On a visit in 1853 San Francisco had seemed an excitingly cosmopolitan bolt-hole from Virginia City and Carson. By the end of 1865, as he told Orion, all he wanted was ‘to go back to a Christian land once more’. A month later, he wrote his mother and sister: ‘My life is so uneventful. I wish I was back there piloting up and down the river again. Verily, all is vanity and little worth – save piloting.’

Matched against the American pattern, Samuel Clemens failed as a emigrant to Nevada. He failed to adapt to his new environment; he found no silver; his comic writing didn’t get the laughs he expected. As a result, the ancient, founding discourse was broken off, just as suddenly as Meriwether Lewis’s journal had been broken off, half a century before, at the Great Falls. Yet what a productive interruption. ‘I have had a “call” to literature, of a low order – i.e. humorous,’ he said in a letter to Orion during that bleak period in San Francisco at the end of 1865. ‘It is nothing to be proud of, but it is my strongest suit.’

Disorientation is as far from Alfred Kazin’s theme as his latest book is from the atmosphere of the scholarly monograph. A Writer’s America is an act of celebration in the mood of Carl Sandburg or Walt Whitman in the Leaves of Grass poems written before the Civil War. Reproductions of engravings, oil paintings, photographs establish landscapes of prairie, city, woodland and precipitous waterfalls – not to mention people in the rich social settings supposedly missing from the American scene. Between the pictures, the responses of writers to their surroundings alternate between exhilaration and relaxation, even in the West. Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer, which concluded with a vision of man reverting to frontier savagery in the Revolutionary War while Crèvecoeur himself high-tailed it back to Europe, is described as an ‘unqualified picture of primitive America as an egalitarian paradise’. The Lewis and Clark expedition is represented in the words of Clark’s diary, not Lewis’s. Mark Twain’s West is filtered through the rollicking first half of Roughing it (written in Hartford, Connecticut) rather than the uneasy tone of the early tales and sketches which formed the bulk of his Nevada and California journalism.

Yet Roughing it is literature too, and its landscape exactly as Kazin describes it. Besides, other Americans, like James, Eliot and Robert Frost, went East, and not West – all the way to Europe. Others again, like Emily Dickinson, walled themselves up at home and refused to go anywhere. On these figures Kazin is at least judicious, and sometimes better than that. On Dickinson he is critically acute and very informative about her local idiom, her home town, even the room in which she habitually wrote: ‘It may have been the circular bedroom that first made the word “circumference” so dominant in her vocabulary.’ Of course she was famous for being ‘local’, so she may not disprove the rule about American writers’ alienation from their native territory.