Re-Visioning the Overland Trail: Richard Marius's Bound for the Promised Land

By Viera, Carroll | Southern Quarterly, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Re-Visioning the Overland Trail: Richard Marius's Bound for the Promised Land


Viera, Carroll, Southern Quarterly


ON A SUMMER EVENING in 1969, as novelist and historian Richard Marius gazed across the Nebraska plains near the Platte River, he envisioned a scene that would evolve into a story of western migration. The Great Plains fanned the embers of an interest born some years earlier when one of his professors at Yale University had introduced him to classic studies including Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land and R. W. B. Lewis's The American Adam (Marius, "Middle" 466). After his first trip through the trans-Mississippi West, Marius immersed himself in primary and secondary accounts of the Overland Trail. In the following summers he traveled the trail again.1

Writing Bound for the Promised Land at a time when the 1850s were largely neglected by historians,2 Marius relied heavily on sources such as Francis Parkman's The Oregon Trail, Bernard DeVoto's Across the Wide Missouri, and Merrill J. Mattes's The Great Platte River Road, as well as on lesser-known books and unpublished journals from manuscript collections at Yale University. This research allowed him to create a realistic work free of the formulas and sensationalism plaguing many twentieth-century western novels.

Yet, as literary critics point out, the successful western novelist must transcend historical materials, using them to articulate "a vision, a world view" (Westbrook 218) or to provide "the means by which his truth is articulated" (Walker 42).3 Marius would have agreed, for he viewed even history as filled with "ambiguities, contradictions, mysteries, and questions" ("On Laughing" 239) and as dependent "finally on words about words or perhaps about words about words about words to a kind of infinity of verbal mirrors, all of them untrustworthy" (238).

Thus, as Marius divests the story of the western migration of its formulas and invests it with historical accuracy, he also re-envisions the West as a symbol that transcends the history that informs it. Several years after the publication of the novel, he remarked upon its thematic complexity: "In Bound for the Promised Land the conflict between illusion and reality is such that one must wonder if writing history is even possible. Nothing in that book is what it first seems to be. Adam [the protagonist], looking back more than forty years after his journey to California, cannot tell exactly what happened" ("Middle" 466). This focus on the ambiguity of the West is an unusual, perhaps unique, focus for a novel of the Overland Trail.

Bound for the Promised Land has a plot whose simplicity belies the novel's complexities and ambiguities. Adam Cloud sets out for California in 1851 to find his father, a forty-niner. His companion is a new acquaintance, Harry Creekmore, who mysteriously appears at Adam's Tennessee home. In Missouri, they are joined by three Jennings brothers and their families and, a few days later, by Ishtar and Clifford Baynes, an unsavory couple whom they had met earlier in Tennessee. In Westport Landing, their jumping-off point, an old trapper named Shawnee Joe McMoultrie completes their company. Marius follows the group to South Pass in the Rockies, where an outbreak of cholera first stalls and then fragments their small wagon train. The remaining chapters comprise an epilogue focusing on Adam's reflections, later in life, upon his westering experience.

In recounting Adam's adventure, Marius challenges stereotypes of the overland migration and explores questions raised by contemporary historians who ask: What is the West? Is the West region, process, or both? Did the frontier close, as Turner claimed? What happens when new frontiers evolve?4 The result is a work that explores these issues by reassessing formulaic character types, by associating a number of them with prevalent nineteenth-century philosophies and ideologies, and by evoking the ambiguity, complexity, and mystery inherent in the meaning of the West and of a westering experience.

Marius's most apparent departure from the western novel, his transformation of stock characters, is first illustrated in his protagonist, Adam Cloud, an amalgam of two stereotypes-the greenhorn and the hero. …

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