Lewis first examines how the XIXth century western writer connected to the West in order to determine his or her authority. Comparing western writers with eastern writers, he notes that the latter persistently laid the emphasis on the individualized authorial personality and imaginative genius whereas authenticity—coded in terms of fidelity, accuracy, truth—was the primary category for western authors who had always presented themselves as reliable recorders of "real places, histories and cultures, but not as stylists or inventors" ; but, in so doing, they erased their own imaginative genius in homage to place and factual record, with the hope of producing a sui generis self-contained literature that could make a powerful impression on the market-place.
As early as 1826, Timothy Flint, a Congregational Minister, published The Western Monthly with a view to establishing an accepted American canon, with the author as a witness and vehicle for reproducing the outlines of a landscape. In 1839, Caroline Kirkland, in A New Home, Who’ll Follow?, defined herself against the romanticism of previous western chroniclers who glamourized types such as "the ignorant misogynist backwoodsman," producing an "unimpeachable transcript of reality". Thus, the exotic would become accessible to thousands of readers—travelers, settlers, explorers—but with the risk of degenerating into self-parody like E.A. Poe’s Journal of Julius Rodman (1840), which plagiarizes authentic accounts of the first exploration across the Rocky Mountains, providing one of the first contributions to the construction of a hyperreal West. Samuel Clemens’s relation to the West was even more ambiguous. When he started inventing Mark Twain in Nevada, he became keenly aware of the impact of performance: expecting the reader to connive in his authorial self-construction, he dramatized authenticity, invented an unreliable persona and masqueraded as fakery "in the body of the burlesque."
At the turn of the century, the manipulation of fact and fiction, the ever repeated use of simulacra, became the bedrock of Joaquim Miller’s production—The Songs of the Mexican Seas (1887)—who invented himself as "the Byron of the Rockies," donning an outrageous western costume and posturing as a shaman. Predictably, his antics reduced textuality to a succession of geographically invented sites and spatial markers of his own personality; he also rewrote history and refashioned the Real, choosing "the path not of authenticity but of authentic reproduction" .
With the closing of the border, the West was slowly slipping into the past and "serious writers", like Norris, Garland and other naturalists, had good grounds for bemoaning the loss of "the always receding site of national promise" : indeed, the West still inspired writers, but for self-serving purposes, whereas groups of writers operating under a single name took to writing dime-novels for the rising bourgeois reading-class. Anxious to overcome this authorial invisibility, Frank Norris wanted to write the G.A.N. (the Great American Novel) that would draw its inspiration from the mighty authentic West: The Octopus (1901) was conceived as an epic, as "the great song that should embrace a whole epoch, a complete era, the voice of an entire people." Yet Norris was caught between the eastern demand for the old sensationalized West and his ambition to produce the real West. At this point, Lewis diagnoses Norris’s and the naturalists’ problem as the near-impossibility of determining literary success in relation to local history. Faced with what Lewis calls the trap of authencity, western writers had to reimagine the relationship between place and literature and "locate the Real West outside of the cultural histories that Norris and others depended upon" .
Determined to claim an authenticity free from the burden of ascendancy, XXth century nature writers such as Mary Ausin, John Muir, Gary Snyder, Barry Lopez invent themselves by contemplating the possibility of an unmediated connection with nature. Very supportive of this movement, Lewis considers their writing subverts the "exclusive" theory of social constructivism and, referring to Lionel Trilling’s Sincerity and Authenticity, puts forward the theory of environmental constructivism. This theory begins with the recognition that landscape imposes itself on the human imagination either as an innate or a learned connection between infant and nature, which amounts to saying that nature influences the preauthorial self. However, many cultural critics deem the concept of environmental constructivism illusory and favour the notion of environmental education in the wake of Thoreau’s Walden; with Muir and Snyder, they speak of "the university of wilderness" or "the practice of the wild." In Refuge (1991), Terry Tempest Williams questions how her life is determined by her Mormon heritage with a belief that her ideas have been shaped by the Colorado Plateau and the Great Basin. She connects family, place, womb, landscape, place, and nature: "I am desert. I am mountains. I am Great Salt Lake. There are other languages being spoken by wind, water, and wings" (Refuge 29). Deeply indebted to Mary Austin’s Earth Horizon (1932), to her recognition of Indianness, these green or nature authors have learnt to relinquish themselves to nature’s presences with a sense of being born again.
In the last chapter, Lewis confronts the implications of the western authencity game in postmodern literary writing and criticism. Very consistently, the impossibility of drawing a line between authencity and inauthenticity has led western critics to consider western literature as a series of simulations that model reality for the readers: giving an example of what Baudrillard calls the "precession of simulacra," they examine the writing of postmodern writers such as Thomas Pynchon, Cormac Mc Carthy, Nathaniel West as a process revealing the constructedness of a hyperreal West. This contemporary West should no longer be understood in geographical terms but as a functional principle, like the author in Foucault’s scheme; that is a principle by which postmodern writers explore and canonize their own fiction, defining and erasing boundaries. Further, Lewis applies this principle to Indian literature which oddly enough retains an outsider status in a non-native scholarship, yet takes on an insider status as an inviolable form of authenticity. Then, questioning the relevance of forcing native works into ill-fitting European theory grids, he agrees with Gerald Vizenor (Narrative Chance: Postmodern Discourse on native American Indian Literature 1993) that Indian literature displays a sense of the real as "unstable and defined by chance" compatible with postmodern elusiveness and representational entropy. Lastly, Lewis evokes three European outsiders—Nabokov, Handke, Baudrillard—who have written of the West as the postmodern incarnation of America. In Speak, Memory (1966), Nabokov describes his own authorial development as a kind of western spectacle, constantly retextualizing the Real West. Baudrillard-style, Handke dismantles the referential world and projects an imaginary America on to pre-fabricated images. All these representations of the West are authentic because "the West itself is only a simulation": like Alice, "these authors have gone through the looking-glass, producing an exact imitation of the ‘original’ claim of authenticity" .
The epic of the Real / Hyperreal West seems to have come full circle. Now western criticism has no choice but to get rid of its utopian and teleological sense and consider the literary West as a heterotopia. However, Lewis is aware that this project might be rather "unsettling" as promised on the cover, since no common locus can be found to gather the glittering fragments of the West’s "ecstatic beauty."
No doubt, Unsettling the Literary West sets a stepping stone for a new appreciation of western writing. Yet, Lewis could have questioned or at least explored more thoroughly the very specious concept of hyperreality he so often—too often?—resorts to in his attempts at defining the authenticity of the postmodern West. In so doing, he takes the risk of confining the West in the atemporal void of frozen representations instead of inviting critics to sketch out appropriate systems of textual inquiry. Lewis also eschews the issue of language which he so pointedly raised in his comment on Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams (1986): "Lopez (here following Inuit culture) emphatically insists that the land is ‘alive’ and that language itself results from human interaction, the ‘conversation,’ with the land" . This very apt remark could have opened a further development on the crucial relation between authenticity and language.
Nathaniel Lewis’s book remains very comprehensive and intellectually challenging and will be a precious guide to students and scholars fascinated by the West and the thorny question of authenticity.