- Reading for Liberalism: The Overland Monthly and the Writing of the Modern American West by Stephen J. Mexal
In Reading for Liberalism: The Overland Monthly and the Writing of the Modern American West, Stephen J. Mexal explores the way a well-known literary magazine from the nineteenth-century U.S. West engaged with Lockean and Hobbesian theories of liberalism and savagery. He selects sample stories, essays, and poems from contributors Bret Harte, Noah Brooks, Ina Coolbrith, Jack London, Frank Norris, John Muir, and others to examine the way the Overland supported, critiqued, or complicated classical liberal theories. Although for Mexal “the magazine form is integral to this project,” the book is more successful in teaching its readers to see liberal theory in nineteenthcentury discourse than in representing the Overland as more than “a collection of texts” (24–25). Reading for Liberalism is nuanced and multivocal at its best, demonstrating the flexibility of liberal theory to include what appears to be illiberalism as part of its own logic. But Mexal reserves his best readings for liberal theory itself; his evident critical skills do not always spill over into his interpretations of a nineteenth-century western magazine. Original and engaging, Reading for Liberalism nevertheless has limitations, particularly in the areas most likely to interest periodical historians.
The best of six body chapters is the most successful in ranging across many contributors and issues of the magazine to discuss how the Overland approached a subject broadly and multivocally over time. Chapter Four, “The Limits of Liberalism: Chinese, Indians, and the Politics of Cosmopolitanism in the West,” explores the changes in magazine content as U.S. policies became more exclusionary toward Chinese immigrants and more insistent on assimilation of Native Americans. In this chapter more than any other, the Overland is a capacious vessel for ideological negotiation among writers with vastly different views of their common subjects. Had the volume as a whole followed the methodology of this chapter, it may have been more successful as a periodical study.
But when individual authors are the subject of other chapters, the magazine becomes something too rigid to allow the author to do his best critical work. Unfortunately, Mexal identifies the Overland very early in his study with the magazine’s subtitle and slogan, “devoted to the development of the country,” which then over-determines some of his interpretations and arbitrarily has little or nothing to do with others. A racially progressive article in Chapter Four becomes an expression of the magazine’s material interests [End Page 98] simply with an incantation of the slogan (128). Another reference to the slogan in Chapter Five turns John Muir’s domesticated West into a “strategic representation” on the part of “publishers and editors,” though author Muir is not tarnished with such low “strategy” (179). Thanks to the undue influence of the slogan, an original reading of “The Luck of Roaring Camp” is cut short when Mexal decides that his liberal republican cautionary fable is an “unlikely” interpretation (56–57); since author/editor Harte is bound “like all magazine editors” to promote his magazine and his region (16), Mexal decides that the “The Luck” must be “a sort of advertisement for western travel” (57). Why assistant editor Noah Brooks, the subject of a full chapter, is not bound by the same promotional imperatives is not clear. Instead of initiating a material inquiry into the magazine’s economic and other “developmental” relations, when the slogan appears, it is always in lieu of material evidence.
Aside from these efforts to engage with the Overland as a magazine, Reading for Liberalism has additional merits and limitations. Mexal engages readily reader sympathy in a chapter demonstrating the frustrated liberal desires of a woman with caregiving responsibilities: from Ina Coolbrith’s biographers and from her poetry, he assembles a moving portrait of a liberal subject imprisoned by circumstance. He chooses interesting and appropriate historical contexts for other chapters, including the discussion of land use debates as a preface to two Overland essays...