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Canadian Review of American Studies/Revue canadiemted'etztdesamericmnes Volume 26, Number 1, Winter 1996, pp. 49-77 "'It's a Great Country, Ma'u-Blind Leads and Shifting Ground: The West in Mark Twain's Roughing It 1 PeterMessent American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward . . . furnish the forces dominating American character .... The frontier is the line of most rapid and effective Americanization .... The fact is, that here is a new product that is American. (Turner [1893] 19S6, 2) Contradiction and Multiplicity 49 The West that Mark Twain described in RoughingIt ([1872] 1985) was a confused and confusing region. In a letter to his mother, from Carson City, written on 25 October 1861, he spoke of the country as fabulously rich in gold, silver, copper, lead, coal, iron, quicksilver, marble, granite, chalk, plaster of Paris, (gypsum,) thieves, murderers, desperadoes, ladies, children, lawyers, Christians, Indians, Chinamen, Spaniards, gamblers, sharpers, cuyotes (pronounced ki-yo-ties,) ... poets, preachers, and jackass rabbits. (Branch, Frank and Sanderson, 1988, 132) so Canadian Review of American Studies Revue amadremze d' eludes amh1cmnes Stephen Fender notes the "jumbling of categories" here, and comments, more generally, that the letters of this period "bristled with unresolved contrasts" (1976, 740-41). 2 Such an analysis can be usefully extended and applied to the version of the West represented in Roughing It. The historian Frederick Jackson Turner, in 1893, famously located American cultural rebirth in the "new field of opportunity" offered by the western "wilderness." The contrasts, evolutionary discourse, and metaphors of rebirth and "steady growth" under frontier conditions, which Turner used to support his argument, have recently been radically interrogated by the New Western historians (Turner [1893] 1956, 18, 2, 3).3 They had, though, already been deconstructed by Twain twenty years before Turner spoke in Chicago, and appear one-dimensional and reductive in comparison to his account of the chaotic aspects of western life in Roughing It. If Twain seems at first to tell a similar story to Turner, he quickly complicates and undermines it. The description of the "practical joke" played by the inhabitants of Carson City on the newly arrived U.S. Attorney, General Buncombe, suggests something of what I mean. Buncombe is duped into involvement in "The Great Landslide Case." Accordingly, he agrees to represent the interests of a local rancher, Dick Hyde, against Tom Morgan, who owns the land on the mountainside immediately above: the trouble was, that one of those hated and dreaded land-slides had come and slid Morgan's ranch, fences, cabins, cattle, barns and everything down on his [Hyde's] ranch and exactly covered up every single vestige of his property, to a depth of about thirty-eight feet. Morgan was in possession and refused to vacate the premises-said he was occupying his own cabin and not interfering with anybody else'snd said the cabin was standing on the same dirt and the same ranch it had always stood on. (253) Buncombe's spirited defence of his client fails, but, on personal appeal, exGovernor Roop, who is hearing the case, modifies his verdict: Peter Messent I 51 at last his face lit up happily and he told Buncombe it had occurred to him that the ranch underneath the new Morgan ranch still belonged to Hyde, that his title to the ground was just as good as it had been, and therefore he was of opinion that Hyde had a right to dig it out from under there. (257) This, of course, is a hoax, one of the favourite forms of western humour. 4 It operates round a repeated motif in the book: the taking in of the eastern greenhorn by the western community. But the content of the episode has additional interest. The conflicts over property and title described, the social and legal confusion that occurs as one layer of land covers up another, and the comic chaos suggested in the idea of digging one ranch out from beneath the other, implicitly interrogates the neat and ordered process Turner implied in the "law of continuity and development" he proposed for western history (4-5). 5...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1710-114X
Print ISSN
0007-7720
Pages
pp. 49-77
Launched on MUSE
2019-01-02
Open Access
No
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