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  • Recovering a Lost Voice of the American West: Liberalism and Historical Narrative in the Short Fiction of Noah Brooks
  • Stephen J. Mexal (bio)

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Constitution of the United States. Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. LC-DIG-pga-01104

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At one point early in the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln sat reading quietly with a friend and confidant named Noah Brooks (1830–1903). Lincoln was already popularly known as the first “western” president, and Brooks, then a correspondent for the Sacramento Daily Union, was a western transplant who had befriended Lincoln many years before.1 The two had first met in Illinois during the 1856 presidential campaign, when Lincoln was campaigning for John C. Frémont and Brooks was a budding newspaper journalist. In 1862, Brooks moved to Washington, D.C. to cover the city for the Daily Union, and the two men, spurred in part by their shared identification with the west, quickly renewed their friendship.

According to Brooks, Lincoln had come across a newspaper article containing a fragment of a narrative poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow’s “The Building of the Ship” (1849) allegorizes political statecraft, employing a conceit in which the modern state is framed as a ship. Its final stanza begins, “Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State!/Sail on, O Union, strong and great!”2 After reading these lines, Lincoln looked up from the paper and asked Brooks about the poem, as he was unfamiliar with it. He listened as Brooks began to recite the entire lengthy poem from memory. When he was done, Brooks later recalled, Lincoln’s eyes filled with tears. The President was silent for a long while. At last he said, “It is a wonderful gift to be able to stir men like that.”3 [End Page 567]

The apparent ambiguity in Lincoln’s response—whether the word stir signifies political action, emotional response, or both—seems significant. As Jay Fliegelman has written, creating a language of freedom in America required an “oratorical revolution,” one that prized emotional sensibility as well as logical appeals in political actors.4 Because of this, though, the seeming ambiguity in stir is irrelevant. To be able to “stir men” to an emotional response is to “stir men” to political action. For Lincoln, Brooks concluded, the power and utility of a literary text stemmed partly from its ability to produce an emotional reaction that would have certain political effects. Brooks returned to this connection between literature, emotion, and politics after Lincoln’s death and the end of the war, when he moved back to California. It was then that he began writing fiction for the first time, for Bret Harte’s Overland Monthly magazine.5

This short fiction, overlooked by contemporary scholars, scrutinizes the relationship between Californian history and late-nineteenth-century western liberalism. Although there have been a number of recent scholarly projects linking liberalism and American literature, there is a paucity of work linking liberalism and nineteenth-century western literature specifically, and a total absence of scholarly attention paid to the short fiction of Noah Brooks. Many literary scholars, including Catherine Zuckert, John Whalen-Bridge, Neal Dolan, and most recently Anthony Hutchinson, have found in several canonical American novels and writers an affinity between a liberal political discourse and a novelistic aesthetic discourse.6 And recent books by Arthur Riss and Elizabeth Maddock Dillon analyze a number of American texts to interrogate the cultural production of nineteenth-century liberal selfhood.7 But none of the above scholars has focused on western literature and liberalism specifically. This is a significant omission because the American west, and the assumption that it was a tangible example of the mythic “state of nature,” was important to the philosophers whose writing laid the groundwork for what would eventually be called liberalism. Both John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, for instance, refer several times to the wilderness and “savages” of the [End Page 568] western frontier of America in writing treatises that are otherwise chiefly concerned with individual freedoms and the state.8 Imaginative narratives of the American west have long had political purchase. For centuries, they...


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