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American Literature 74.2 (2002) 219-250
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Home on the Train:
Race and Mobility in The Life and Adventures of Nat Love
[I]t would be terrible not to be able to suppose that you are as yet but an instalment, a current number, like that of the morning paper, a specimen of a type in course of serialization—like the hero of the magazine novel, by the highly-successful author, the climax of which is still far off.
—Henry James, The American Scene
Returning to the United States for the first time in twenty years, Henry James embarked in 1904 upon a year-long tour to reacquaint himself with his homeland. Riding across the country by train, James finds "almost all the facts of American life" displayed upon "the great moving proscenium of the Pullman," but he is not entirely pleased by what he sees. 1 In The American Scene (1907), he deplores the "thinness" and crass commercialism of American life and character. Even more disturbing is the "transparency": "[I]t is as if every one and everything said to you straight: ‘Yes, this is how we are; this is what it is to enjoy our advantages; this moreover is all there is of us; we give it all out'" (AS, 407). What optimism James can rally rests finally on the notion that the "universal type" of American he observes is, like the Pullman itself, "perpetually provisional" (AS, 407, 408). While provisionality seems to hold out the promise of future fulfillment, James's narrative strongly implies that such a happy conclusion will be endlessly deferred; the "perpetually provisional" offers only an ever shifting and uncertain present. Without grounding in stable inner qualities or cultural values, provisional identity is just another "production" inextricably linked to the forces of the (mass) market, "a type [End Page 219] in course of serialization" (AS, 407). Given his comments throughout The American Scene regarding the damaging influence of the commercialism dominating American life, James's optimism can be seen as ambivalent at best.
In the same year The American Scene was published, The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, an autobiography by a little-known African American Pullman porter, also appeared. While James views America from the window of his Pullman "Palace Car" and laments the effects of market capitalism, Love, who might well have been providing for James the very luxuries and services that marked his privilege, regards the same economic forces as driving his remarkable rise from slave to cowboy to Pullman porter. The book's subtitle—"A True History of Slavery Days, Life on the Great Cattle Ranges and on the Plains of the ‘Wild and Woolly' West, Based on Facts, and Personal Experiences of the Author"—emphasizes the more sensational aspects of Love's experience; but the photograph that serves as frontispiece, a formal portrait of Love with his wife and daughter in elegant Victorian attire (see fig. 1), promises a story of American success measured in terms of the social and economic markers that made American life so clearly and disappointingly "readable" for James (AS, 408). What allows the formal portrait to stand comfortably beside Love's self-identification as a hero of the "‘Wild and Woolly' West" (see fig. 2), and what allows his accounts of slavery, Western adventure, and service as a Pullman porter to meld into a coherent narrative of success, is the very experience that James locates at the core of American identity: being "perpetually provisional" in a society increasingly dominated by the forces of market capitalism.
Despite recent interest in recovering the voices of those silenced in traditional constructions of American history and the literary canon, this rare autobiography by an African American cowboy of the nineteenth century has been virtually ignored by scholars. The few historical and literary assessments to date have missed or misunderstood the perpetual provisionality that Love's narrative describes, limiting their focus to questions of authenticity. Historians value Love's text for what it adds to our understanding of African American...