A slide show of a family trip west, with learned captions.
Bain (English/Middlebury Coll.) had plenty of reasons for heading westward: he’d written about the expansion of the American frontier in Empire Express (1999), an epic of the transcontinental railroad; he’d long been an ardent admirer of Mark Twain, whose spirit infused Bain’s first work, “and of course he had popped up again and again, like a hitchhiker, all along the old iron road.” Plus, he wanted to show his family the places he’d seen in the course of his research and was thus “seized with the idea of taking them out West.” The resulting travelogue, which mainly follows the old Emigrant Trail from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to San Francisco, doesn’t add up to much; it lacks the emotional investment, the hunger for self- and other-discovery, of comparable long-distance spins by, say, William Least Heat-Moon and Jonathan Raban, and it covers decidedly unexotic ground that would challenge even a top-flight storyteller—say, Ian Frazier, the laureate of the Plains. Yet Bain writes pleasantly enough, and he turns up sufficient historical oddments to please any fan of the Great American Road: the fact that Omaha, Nebraska, “is the birthplace of Marlon Brando, Malcolm X, and Fred Astaire, an unlikelier trio one could not hope to find but one that in a decidedly contrary way reflects on the city itself”; the curious career of the Swiss painter Karl Bodmer, whose 19th-century visions of the prairie must have induced many a romantic to make the journey there; the still more curious career of Jake Eaton, late of Grand Island, the “champion gum chewer of the world”; the birth of the Myth of the West in the work and persons of exemplars such as Owen Wister and Gary Cooper.
In this regard, Bain offers useful footnotes to points raised by New Western historians such as Patricia Nelson Limerick and Richard White. Otherwise, not much more than a slide show for those who were there.