Reading for Liberalism: The Overland Monthly and the Writing of the Modern American West, by Stephen J. Mexal (University of Nebraska, 320pp, $65)
Reviewed by Sara V. Torres
Before there was Boom or Sunset, there was Overland Monthly. From 1868 to 1875 and from 1883 to 1935, this San Francisco-based regional periodical published writers such as Jack London, John Muir, Mark Twain, Ina Coolbrith, and Bret Harte, entertaining readers on both coasts with poetry, travelogues, short fiction, and political commentary. But the Overland Monthly aimed to do more than entertain—its early editors hoped it would help transform the social landscape of California itself by aiding in the state’s material development—a process they figured would ultimately expand the magazine’s own readership. The Overland Monthly often portrayed California as sophisticated and civilized—a far cry from its earlier reputation as a lawless, rough-and-tumble outpost—and thus contributed to the construction of some of the enduring, foundational, cultural myths of California. As Mexal writes, “The magazine’s auxiliary pose—dedicated to ‘development’ of both country and reader—meant that its literary output engaged certain master narratives about liberal selfhood and land use and then localized those narratives in California.” The Overland Monthly helped tame the cultural imaginary of the “wild West” by coloring California’s frontier land past with shades of romantic nostalgia. But, as Mexal’s incisive book points out, the magazine’s writers also engaged critically with discourses of wilderness and civilization at a decisive moment in California’s history as the state began to take the form we now recognize as home.
Illustration of Bessie Love and Douglas Fairbanks from the Overland Monthly.