When Mark Twain sets out on his journey west in chapter 1 of Roughing It, he is looking forward to seeing Indians and such creatures as buffalo, prairie dogs, and antelopes; traveling through (or near) magnificent plains, deserts, and mountains; and at the end of the journey, gathering bucketfuls of easily obtainable gold and silver nuggets. What he carries with him, however—aside from some clothing, his Smith & Wesson seven-shooter, Orion’s Colt revolver, and an unabridged dictionary (belonging to Orion)—are some pretty standard preconceptions about the West and its inhabitants. Though such themes reinforce our generic expectations, Twain manages to check crucial elements of expansionist desire through the novel’s various iterations of failure. In this article, I explore ways in which the rhetoric of individualist “lordship” never fully manifests, even as the landscape itself largely offers up its promissory grandeur and tabula rasa potentiality.

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