MFS Modern Fiction Studies 49.2 (2003) 366-368
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Nicolas S. Witschi. Traces of Gold: California's Natural Resources and the Claim to Realism in Western American Literature. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2002. 240 pp.
Nicolas S. Witschi makes three assertions in Traces of Gold, two explicitly: the first is that California's influence, particularly vis-à-vis its gold rush era, has been overlooked in critical works on realism; the second is that the realists Witschi studies overstate their declarations of verisimilitude, especially in so far as they claim to be representing a wild nature devoid of human involvement. His more implicit third assertion is that Bret Harte is the progenitor of a family of writers who all inherit a dependence upon natural resource extraction to generate their narratives.
The first thesis is well-chosen and, though too-often repeated throughout the book, functions as a sound corrective to critical works that focus primarily on the turn-of-the-century cowboy western and the water-rights western—subgenres that Witschi rightly historicizes as later forms prized too highly over the mining camp westerns written during the height of the realist movement. His other two assertions are less convincing.
A current and unfortunate fashion among theorists and critics in several branches of the humanities is to grasp tenaciously to the postmodern assumption that there's no such thing as wilderness—that as soon as the first foot of the first person was set on this continent, "nature" either disappeared or became a humanly constructed position. When Witschi staves off fruitless claims to the necessity [End Page 366] of resource extraction as the means by which realist writers understood the West, he dodges this bullet. Indeed, he makes some excellent points about the influence of resource extraction on the movement and its writers. But when he tries to tackle the verity question, he too often resorts to overstatement himself, confusing "reliance upon" with "choice to address."
Witschi deftly corrects the neglect of the early mining western in respected critical works on realism, and he does well to choose Bret Harte as the central figure in that effort. However, Witschi loses the larger context of the mining camp narrative by crediting Harte with too much direct literary influence. Better done are his treatments of Dame Shirley, who is handled with more modesty, and (when he moves to the reclamation period) of Mary Austin. Austin's correspondence and the recovery work Witschi does with her Earth Horizon and The Ford add a great deal to his book. His assertion that Austin's realist reputation has been diminished by her designation as a nature writer (itself a famously diminished genre in the academy) is very well constructed. The verity argument is actually most visible in this chapter, but despite the expositional distractions, Witschi's claims are supported by better readings of Austin's works than of any other texts he covers, certainly better than his reading of Muir's works.
John Muir is a tough writer to cover. Biographers, rather than literary critics, have done him more justice. Edward Hoagland has botched him; Gretel Ehrlich had the sense to merely celebrate him; even Emerson didn't quite understand him. To his credit, in the face of such greats glancing off this figure, Witschi has some wonderful poetic moments about Muir's craft. But the chapter's characterization of Muir, frequently repeated and thinly supported, as "dependent upon" both Harte and a history and corporeality that he purportedly tried to deny, does not work. Where Witschi takes this chapter is simply not where Muir went.
Conspicuously absent from this book are Hamlin Garland and Jack London, each of whom receive only brief mention. In a project concentrating on revising the notion of western (particularly wild western) realism based on industrial influence, it seems that London especially merits more serious consideration. His transference of the California gold rush narrative to Alaska, revitalizing mining literature during the reclamation period that Witschi covers so well, would have added...