The Big Read Blog (Archive)

Coast-ism

January 8, 2008
San Francisco, CA

"The picture [of small-town Missouri in Tom Sawyer ] will be instructive to those who have fancied the whole Southwest a sort of vast Pike County, and have not conceived of a sober and serious and orderly contrast to the sort of life that has come to represent the Southwest in literature. "

--William Dean Howells' review of Tom Sawyer in the Atlantic Monthly

Mark Twain. Photo courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

 

I know I only mentioned Howells' reputation-making review of Twain's The Innocents Abroad on Friday -- at a link that appears to have crashed the University of Virginia's server, no less. But I ran across this quote from Howell's friendly piece on Tom Sawyer and just had to work it in.

The review may indeed be a little too chummy, considering that Howells and Twain had since the earlier review become quite close friends. What jumps out at me, though, is Howells' endearingly Bostonian ideas about North American geography. First there's his reference to "Pike County" -- evidently more a byword for backwoods caricature then than now. Either that or maybe Howells was just, in Thomas Pynchon's great phrase about misunderstood regionalism, showing off his ear before he had one.

Still more intriguing is his reference to "the Southwest," someplace I always thought of as closer to Pike's Peak than Pike County, Missouri. And then it hit me. To a Brahmin tenderfoot like Howells, 19th-century Missouri was the Southwest, just as Illinois was the Northwest -- and wound up with the anachronistically named Northwestern University to prove it.

I've been griping about the coast-ism of the phrase "Pacific Northwest" for years, but it never occurred to me that the ever-mysterious East might have needed a Pacific Southwest to go with it. Then again, I can still remember the storied $25 no-reservation midnight flights between LA and San Francisco on PSA, alias ?Pacific Southwest Airlines,? so traces may yet persist. Of course, by Tom Sawyer's appearance in 1876 -- fully a quarter century after California statehood -- Howells should have known better. Sometimes they can be a little slow on the uptake out there in the Atlantic Northeast.