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The following review appeared 16 March 2005 on the Mark Twain Forum.
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In Manifest and Other Destinies: Territorial Fictions of the Nineteenth-Century United States, Stephanie LeMenager (assistant professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara) examines writings about three "uninhabitable" geographic spaces--deserts, oceans and rivers--to recover alternate visions of westward expansion and the American nation put forward by writers of the nineteenth century. Four canonical writers, Washington Irving and James Fenimore Cooper (deserts), Herman Melville (oceans), and Mark Twain (rivers), are given center stage, but a wide range of other writers are also discussed both in introductory essays that provide historical overviews and to compare their writings with what others were thinking and writing at the time. Relatively unpopular or "failed works," she states in the introduction, "are well worth rereading because their authors have been credited with shaping the dominant symbolism of Manifest Destiny and U.S. nationalism--so their slip-ups, as it were, reveal the fissures in that symbolism" (p. 6).
LeMenager's provocative choice of geographies is explained in the introduction in relation to mythic interpretations of the West and the nation as isolated, self-reliant places. "In the rhetoric of U.S. expansion, places that resemble passageways rather than lands to be farmed--places like deserts, oceans, and rivers--figure as eruptions of the foreign on the projected map of U.S. nationhood" (p. 2). Furthermore, "the counter-narratives of Manifest Destiny generated by apparently landless places like deserts, oceans and rivers suggest theories of U.S. nationhood that Henry Nash Smith labeled 'mercantilist' or 'maritime' in his classic study of the North American West, Virgin Land" (p. 2). Deserts, oceans and rivers were places where Americans confronted the foreign, whether Indian nations or European traders, and engaged in all manner of commercial exchanges, from trading furs to buying and selling slaves.
The three geographic spaces are not given equal treatment in the book. Part I, "Desert," begins with a useful historical overview, "Inventing the American Desert," and proceeds with two chapters on James Fenimore Cooper's The Prairie (1827) and Washington Irving's A Tour on the Prairies (1835), Astoria (1836) and Adventures of Captain Bonneville (1837). Part II, "Ocean," consists of one chapter that is more like the introductory chapters in the other sections. Although primarily focusing on Melville's writings, it also discusses Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast, Cooper's writings about the sea, and other authors. Part III, "River," begins with an introductory essay on "The Culture of Water" and proceeds with a wide-ranging essay, "The Nation's Mouth," on the Southwest and the Mississippi River, and concludes with "Mark Twain's Manifest and Other Destinies." That chapter begins with his Mississippi writings but extends into a discussion of Extract from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven. The book ends with a brief "Epilogue" that acknowledges continuing debates about the West and the nation.
The writings examined by LeMenager span the nineteenth century, from the earliest attempts to explore and assess the territory acquired through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 to some of Mark Twain's early twentieth-century writings on the Mississippi and the United States as a whole. The phrase "manifest destiny" was coined by John L. O'Sullivan near the middle of the nineteenth century, in a July 1845 essay advocating the annexation of Texas to the United States (see "Annexation," The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, <http://cdl.library.cornell.edu/cgi-bin/moa/moa-cgi?notisid=AGD1642-0017-4>). There was not a national consensus on the idea of a continental United States until the issue of slavery was settled by the Civil War. Although the book is organized by geography, not chronology, the primary texts examined are chronologically arranged. All of the major texts discussed in Part I date from the 1820s and 1830s, before O'Sullivan coined the phrase, most texts in Part II are roughly contemporaneous with it (1840s and 1850s), and Twain's writings that close Part III are all from after the Civil War when it was a nationally accepted concept--one that was by the end of the century being applied even to acquisition of overseas territories in the Pacific and Asia. Although LeMenager does provide useful historical overviews of how views of the different geographic regions evolved over time, one drawback to her geographic organization of the book is that there is no overall assessment of how the idea of "manifest destiny" itself evolved. Even keeping the geographic organization of the book, which is useful and thought-provoking, that might have been accomplished with a concluding chapter on the national consequences or ramifications of the local histories of the specific regions.
Historians reading the book will be more upset by LeMenager's occasional interpretations of pre-modern thought as post-modern. The chapter on oceans is entitled "The Postwestern Space of the Sea," for example, although it deals with writings from a period when the west was not yet settled. Similarly, she describes pre-national U.S. trading narratives as "presciently post-national" (pp. 71, 238). Her use of such current scholarly constructs as postmodern, postwestern and post-national when dealing with the creation of nineteenth-century nationalism is a distraction from her primary point--that the national construct never really existed in its mythic form.
In her introduction, LeMenager writes that "the later nineteenth-century writings of Mark Twain, and Twain's own multi-regional persona, figure in this book as historical models of how the regional imagination of South and West can be conceptually joined--to each other and to global concerns like international imperialism and slavery" (p. 10). Although placed within the section of the book on "River," the chapter on "Mark Twain's Manifest and Other Destinies" is not confined to his Mississippi writings. While introducing new materials, it performs some of the functions of a conclusion by drawing together discussions of writings on the Mississippi and the western territories with the extension of national "destiny" beyond the confines of the North American continent. She writes that "troubling connections among world economic systems, local western economies, and the institutionalization of 'race' in the United States would be explored, if incompletely, in Twain's classic river novels before blossoming into anti-imperialist diatribes aimed at King Leopold of Belgium and other late-century offenders abroad" (p. 191). The chapter reviews the books that you would expect--Huckleberry Finn and Roughing It--but they are given a fresh interpretation by reading them against later works that deal with related subject matter from a different, historically and biographically later perspective. Huckleberry Finn (1885) is set against "Tom Sawyer's Conspiracy," an unfinished novella Twain wrote between 1897 and 1902. Roughing It (1872) is read against Extract from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven (1909). Through these pairings, LeMenager counters what she describes as "the desire, for many readers, to separate out Twain's later political writings from his earlier work" (p. 191).
The chapter on Twain presents an interesting, relatively holistic interpretation of his work. I found myself disagreeing with some points, but my primary criticism is with her sources of texts. She uses Walter Blair's 1969 book, Mark Twain's Hannibal, Huck and Tom, as the source for "Tom Sawyer's Conspiracy," and she dates it as having been written in 1899. When it was published in the Mark Twain Project's Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians and Other Unfinished Stories (Univ. of California Press, 1989), the story was dated as having been worked on from 1897 "possibly until 1902." The later edition is the more authoritative text, but that is perhaps a minor quibble. Her use of "Extract from Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven" from a 1985 collection of short stories edited by Justin Kaplan is a more serious problem. The complete text of "Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven" was first published in Howard Baetzhold and Joseph McCullough's 1995 book, The Bible According to Mark Twain (Univ. of Georgia Press). The "Extract" Twain published in 1909 did not include a chapter on imperialism that would have been relevant to LeMenager's discussion of Twain's later views on "manifest destiny." In a note citing Philip S. Foner's landmark 1958 book, Mark Twain: Social Critic, she refers to the "unpublished anti-imperialist writings that make up Foner's extensive archive" (p. 267) without expressing any awareness that most of what was unpublished in 1958 has long since been published. LeMenager's conclusion in the Epilogue that "there have been far more oppositional and creative revisions of 'America' than Twain's" (p. 221) seems to lack supporting evidence because she relied on a partial text of "Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven" and did not address other, much more critical works such as "The Stupendous Procession" and the series of apocalyptic historical fantasies brought together in the "Nightmare of History" section of John S. Tuckey's Mark Twain's Fables of Man (Univ. of California Press, 1972) and the "Eden and the Flood" section of The Bible According to Mark Twain. The chapter on Twain was clearly not intended as a comprehensive review but the selection of texts does not seem to have been based on a thorough knowledge of the subject.
Priced at $50, Manifest and Other Destinies: Territorial Fictions of the Nineteenth-Century United States is not a book that most Twain scholars will want to rush out to buy for their personal collections. It is a book that many scholars will find interesting and valuable, however. Besides the chapter specifically on Twain, LeMenager's innovative approach to geographic spaces as social and political constructs will likely provide fuel for thought for anyone studying Twain's regional writings. Most college and university libraries will want to consider it for their collections, especially those with a focus on Western Studies, American Studies, regional literatures, and imperialism. Once it is available in paperback, it will make an excellent choice for many classes on those subjects as well.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER: Jim Zwick is the editor of Mark Twain's Weapons of Satire: Anti-Imperialist Writings on the Philippine-American War (1992) and has written numerous journal articles and book chapters on Mark Twain and the Anti-Imperialist League. He is also the creator of the BoondocksNet.com web site that has large sections on Mark Twain and the political and cultural history of U.S. imperialism and the anti-imperialist movements formed to oppose it.
Introduction: Manifest and Other Destinies, 1
Part I: Desert
Inventing the American Desert, 23
1. The American Desert, Empire Anxiety, and Historical Romance, 31
2. Desert and World, 71
Part II: Ocean
3. The Postwestern Space of the Sea, 109
Part III: River
The Culture of Water, 139
4. The Nation's Mouth, 145
5. Mark Twain's Manifest and Other Destinies, 189
6. Epilogue, 221