Mark Twain and the American West, by Joseph Coulombe
(Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2003)


Reviewed by Brittany Gurgle


While an initial glance at the title of Joseph Coulombe's book Mark Twain and the American West might elicit images of Twain blazing over the untamed, sparsely populated Western landscape, the actual contents of Coulombe's work focus less on Twain's relation to the rugged terrain and more on man-made concerns. Perceptions in nineteenth century American culture towards the West are privileged as far more influencing on Twain's works. In Coulombe's rendering of Mark Twain, he shows how Eastern preoccupations and neuroses influenced Twain's writing.

There was a great fear in the nineteenth century that Eastern well-bred men were becoming effeminate with their kid gloves and office jobs, and that a revitalization of American masculine culture was an absolute necessity if the degeneracy of the American nationhood was to be avoided. Theodore Roosevelt, like many other prominent leaders (as well as much of the general society), looked to the West and its pervasive masculine culture as a way to reinvigorate the image of American male dominance.

Twain's works adapted a literary style that mimicked the characterization of Western men: "direct, bold, physical, even violent" (18). Coulombe points to passages in Roughing It that make direct connections between Western violence and the violence of writing: "I felt that I could take my pen and murder all the immigrants on the Plains if need be and the interests of the paper demanded it" (61). He postulates that Twain's use of such language created a persona as "a new sort of western outlaw- one who wrote." (18) Twain capitalized on the Western image, emulating the violence and masculine assertiveness (sometimes in a humorous way and at other times in a seemingly more serious fashion).

Yet, Twain avoided seeming too uncivilized. Coulombe points to the marked difference between Twain's newspaper articles to a Western audience, and the revised version of these stories presented in Roughing It (which included Eastern readers). Here Coulombe argues that Twain cleaned up his persona by downplaying behaviors deemed inappropriate by an Eastern audience, such as excessive drinking, profanity and lewd stories. Clemens tried to shape his persona into a marketable, appealing image that would make Easterners and Westerners alike buy his books and buy into his image.

But why was Clemens motivated to create this persona? Coulombe primarily connects this drive, not to a desire to emulate an admirable Western culture, but rather to Clemens' hunger for wealth, prestige, and class distinction. Once again, Coulombe links Twain to nineteenth century preoccupations. He shows Clemens to be much like other men of his age who desired the lifestyle and notoriety of rich industrialists like Vanderbilt and Carnegie. He argues that Twain admired the aggressive, robust manner of these moguls and wished to emulate them, using his writing as a tool to acclimate him in society. Further, he used literary language equally bold and direct which added to his persona as properly masculine.

Coulombe does a great deal to differentiate Twain from all-out money hungry individuals. While money motivated and shaped what Twain included in his works, it was not the only factor. Twain did not craft the West and his Western persona solely in admiration for the East, because he desired to succeed there. Rather, he saw the East as having its own shortcomings (mainly, corruption and conventional literary standards that disapproved of Twain's creative use of slang in his characters’ conversations).

Coulombe spends the last few chapters on topics that seem a little more disconnected from the first two. The fourth chapter discusses Twain's treatment of Native Americans and the racial pattern in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The sixth chapter draws connections between Twain and Willa Cather's depiction of the West.

Interestingly, the chapter that most closely connects Twain to the land occurs close to the end of the book: "The Eco-Criticized Huck Finn: Another Look at Nature in the Works of Mark Twain." Coulombe shows how Twain became disillusioned with the romantic perception of the West under the harsh reality of living and working on the frontier. As Coulombe explains: "If anything, he [Twain] saw the battle with nature as pulling humans down into the depths of hell" (120). Twain often presents an antagonistic relationship between man and nature. Particularly, Twain tries to dominant the landscape through his words. In Roughing It, Twain describes the Humboldt River as a "sickly rivulet." Coulombe argues that "if the mines defeated Twain, he dominated and destroyed the Humboldt River" (121).

Yet, Twain still enjoyed the notion of having a degree of naiveté toward nature, Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn both use nature to escape from society. However, he ultimately shows that they do benefit from civilization. After all, the stories Tom and Huck enjoy about Robin Hood, pirates, and other rebels emerge from the literary traditions of society.

Ultimately, Coulombe's work makes it apparent that it would be incomplete to analyze Twain's works based exclusively on the influence of the West or the East, because both shaped how Twain crafted his literary works.

The first few chapters of Coulombe are particularly relevant to what we have discussed thus far in the class. The book is enlightening for anyone considering further research into Roughing It, issues of masculinity and violence, and the significance of nature in Twain's works.


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