- Reading for Liberalism: The Overland Monthly and the Writing of the Modern American West by Stephen J. Mexal
Let me pinpoint the precise moment Stephen J. Mexal's Reading for Liberalism flew from my hands, went sailing across my living room, and slammed into the wall on the opposite side of the room. In a misguided effort to make his book pertinent to modern readers, Mexal mentions Afghanistan and Iraq, explaining how the current political discourse has coopted a time-honored term from popular discussions of the development of American continent: the Wild West. Some of the failures of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Mexal asserts, could have been prevented had the public understood "this confluence of discourses." Here's the wind-up and the pitch! In my review copy, Roman numeral page ten is now a little crumpled and dusty from landing on the floor after crashing into the wall. Is the author really that naive? Does he honestly believe we can solve the problems of war by teaching the American people about things like the "confluence of discourses"?
Reading for Liberalism is a revised and expanded version of Mexal's 2007 doctoral thesis, which was directed by John-Michael Rivera at the [End Page 254] University of Colorado: "The Bear and the Rail: The Overland Monthly and the Invention of Western Public Culture, 1868-1935." As he revised his thesis for publication, Mexal apparently got some bad advice. The thesis itself lacks the modern preface aligning his historical subject with current events. Instead, it begins the same way the introduction to the book begins—and what a pleasant beginning it is. Mexal discusses a review Henry James wrote about Bret Harte's literary career, and Mark Twain stops by for a cameo appearance as well. Now we're getting somewhere. This is good literary history, but by the end of page four of Reading for Liberalism, James and Harte and Twain fade from the picture as Mexal rattles off the names of the critical darlings of recent decades, predictably Jürgen Habermas and Michel Foucault: a display of the numbing orthodoxy that currently afflicts academic criticism.
With these modern critics in place, Mexal launches a discussion of "liberal governmentality," which runs to page sixteen, on which a new section begins. Ahh, relief! Mexal returns to literary history. He tells us about how the Overland Monthly got its start, its first publisher (Anton Roman), its first editor (Bret Harte), its editorial philosophy, and the contents of early issues. These details help readers understand the context of the magazine, which was designed as the Atlantic Monthly of the West. The literary history continues to the last page of the introduction, almost long enough to make readers forget the tiresome critical discourse in the middle.
But don't imagine that Mexal has put critical theory behind him, as the title of the first chapter demonstrates: "Theoria and Liberal Governmentality: Travel in Bret Harte's Overland Monthly." There is some good information here, but it is more difficult to separate the historical meat from the critical gristle. Whereas the introduction isolated the criticism within its center, criticism is sprinkled throughout the first chapter, making it impossible to separate the two. Most of the other chapters are structured similarly. Mexal devotes three chapters to individual authors: Noah Brooks, Ina Coolbirth, and John Muir. The fourth chapter discusses the portrayal of Chinese emigrants and Native Americans in the Overland Monthly, and the sixth treats the magazine as a vehicle for literary naturalism.
When I agreed to review Reading for Liberalism, I expected it to be a literary history of the Overland Monthly. I had hoped to learn more about the magazine than what Frank Luther Mott says in A History of American Magazines (1938-1968). Of course, I cannot fault Mexal's book for not being what I wanted it to be, but the literary history it does contain is so scattered that...