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NATHANIEL LEWIS Authentic Reproduction: The Picturesque Joaquin Miller A great poet, a really great poet, is the most unpoetical of all creatutes. But inferior poets are absolutely fascinating. The wotse their rhymes are, the more pictutesque they look. The mere fact of having published a book of second-tate sonnets makes a man quite irresistible. He lives the poetry that he cannot write. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray1 Joaquin miller (1837-1 91 3), now largely forgotten, is arguably a central figure in the history of western American authorship and a connecting link between the so-called San Francisco circle ofthe 1860s and the flowering of western realism toward the century's end. Miller emerged—exploded, rather—during the early 1870s, a time when western literature was still essentially a promise, not yet delivered goods. Throughout the 1870s and later, Miller's international celebrity as a western writer was equaled only by Mark Twain's and Bret Harte's, though their literary efforts met with a considerably warmer reception. In fact, the public cared less for Miller's actual poetry, much of which was dismissed and attacked, than for the face and the figure, the icon that Miller became. Drawing on the surging popularity of western types such as Daniel Boone and on the expanding market for sensational dime novels, Miller invented himself as a poetic frontiersman, the "Byron of the Rockies," or "Poet of the Sierras" as he was known. He was the first author to capitalize fully on the myth of the West and to circulate a western persona to economic advantage. After his extraordinary ascent in 1871, his face and figure were ubiquitous. He had become a public relations genius, and an authot of wide renown. Arizona Quarterly Volume 57, Number 2, Summer 2001 Copyright © 2001 by Arizona Board of Regents ISSN 0004-1610 Nathaniel Lewis Miller's strategies for authorial advance dynamically reveal the construction of authorship on both regional and national levels. First, Miller 's flamboyant posturing suggests as much about the complicated condition of authorship in the Ametican West in the early 1870s as about Miller's own canonical ambitions. While eastern and British audiences eagerly sought news of the West and enjoyed the stories and accounts arriving from the West, no individual author had yet emerged who personally embodied the perceived western spirit. Dime novels were still young (then introducing Buffalo Bill to the public), and the popular San Francisco scene was increasingly moribund, largely exporting itself east. Harte's success was undeniable, and Mark Twain's emergent; but no author had come fully to represent the West. But Miller sought exactly that—to stand for the region as an icon both imitable and authentic . If, as Miles Orvell contends in The Real Thing, "the tension between imitation and authenticity is a primary category in American civilization" (xv), then Joaquin Miller played it both ways. On the one hand, Miller capitalized on the developing popularity of exaggerated (recognizably inauthentic) western romance, a form ofregional imagining that required formulaic, imitative representation; Miller literally invented himself not as a genuine original but as an endlessly reproducible copy. His investment in the power of commercial imitation is unmistakable. On the other hand, he vociferously claimed a regional "authenticity" as well—the consistent, almost generic claim of western authors since the 1830s. He employed his attachment to place as a legitimizing strategy; and, oddly, as he sought to represent the West, he also argued that the West teptesented him—that those associated sites emblematized his canonical condition. Second, and more broadly, Miller's successes raise a number of theoretical questions about the nature of authenticity itself, and the ways that strategies of authenticity inform cultural representation and celebrity . Indeed, using the language of Jean Baudrillard, we might say that Miller's career depended on a "strategy of the real." Miller is helping to invent the West as "hyperreal," and himself as representative of that West, a sirmdation "of a real without origin or reality" (1). Miller is an "authentic reproduction," and in retrospect appears to be aware of all the discursive plays assumed in that phtase—the ironies, the duplicities , the commercial appeal. Miller's...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1558-9595
Print ISSN
0004-1610
Pages
pp. 1-31
Launched on MUSE
2014-04-02
Open Access
No
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