In Mark Twain and the American West, Joseph Coulombe explores how Mark Twain deliberately manipulated contemporary conceptions of the American West to create and then modify a public image that eventually won worldwide fame. He establishes the central role of the western region in the development of a persona that not only helped redefine American manhood and literary celebrity in the late nineteenth century, but also produced some of the most complex and challenging writings in the American canon.
Coulombe sheds new light on previously underappreciated components of Twain’s distinctly western persona. Gathering evidence from contemporary newspapers, letters, literature, and advice manuals, Coulombe shows how Twain’s persona in the early 1860s as a hard-drinking, low-living straight-talker was an implicit response to western conventions of manhood. He then traces the author’s movement toward a more sophisticated public image, arguing that Twain characterized language and authorship in the same manner that he described western men: direct, bold, physical, even violent. In this way, Twain capitalized upon common images of the West to create himself as a new sort of western outlaw—one who wrote.
Coulombe outlines Twain’s struggle to find the proper balance between changing cultural attitudes toward male respectability and rebellion and his own shifting perceptions of the East and the West. Focusing on the tension between these goals, Coulombe explores Twain’s emergence as the moneyed and masculine man-of-letters, his treatment of American Indians in its relation to his depiction of Jim in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the enigmatic connection of Huck Finn to the natural world, and Twain’s profound influence on Willa Cather’s western novels.
Mark Twain and the American West is sure to generate new interest and discussion about Mark Twain and his influence. By understanding how conventions of the region, conceptions of money and class, and constructions of manhood intersect with the creation of Twain’s persona, Coulombe helps us better appreciate the writer’s lasting effect on American thought and literature through the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.
About the Author:
Joseph L. Coulombe is Assistant Professor of English at Rowan University in Glassboro, New Jersey.
Published by University of Missouri Press, paperback, 2011. 200 pages.