Mary Hallock Foote: Author-Illustrator of the American West


Devoted wife and mother. Acclaimed novelist, illustrator, and interpreter of the American West. At a time when society expected women to concentrate on family and hearth, Mary Hallock Foote (1847-1938) published twelve novels, four short story collections, almost two dozen stories and essays, and innumerable illustrations. In Mary Hallock Foote, Darlis A. Willer examines the life of this gifted and spirited woman from the East as she adapted herself and her artistic vision to ...

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Devoted wife and mother. Acclaimed novelist, illustrator, and interpreter of the American West. At a time when society expected women to concentrate on family and hearth, Mary Hallock Foote (1847-1938) published twelve novels, four short story collections, almost two dozen stories and essays, and innumerable illustrations. In Mary Hallock Foote, Darlis A. Willer examines the life of this gifted and spirited woman from the East as she adapted herself and her artistic vision to the West.

Foote's images of the American West differed sharply from those offered by male artists and writers of the time. She depicted a more gentle West, a domestic West of families and settlements rather than a Wild West of soldiers, American Indians, and cowboys. Miller examines how Foote's career was molded by the East-West tensions she experienced throughout her adult life and by society's expectations of womanhood and motherhood.

This biography recounts Foote’s Quaker upbringing; her education at the School of Design for Women at Cooper Union, New York; her marriage to Arthur De Wint Foote, including his alcohol problems; her life in Boise, Idaho, and later Grass Valley, California; her grief over the early death of daughter Agnes Foote; and the previously unexplored last two decades of her life.

Miller has made extensive use of every major archive of letters and documents by and about Foote. She sheds light on Foote's numerous stories, essays, and novels. And examines all pertinent sources on Foote's life and works.

Anyone interested in the American West, women's history, or life histories in general will find Miller's biography of Mary Hallock Foote fascinating,

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780806133973
  • Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/2002
  • Series: Oklahome Western Biographies Series
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Darlis A. Miller is the author of numerous books on the Southwest, including Soldiers and Settlers, Captain Jack Crawford, and Above a Common Soldier, about Frank and Mary Clarke. She is Professor Emerita in the History Department at New Mexico State University, Las Cruces.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

A Quaker Upbringing

AS a child, Mary Hallock Foote demonstrated such a remarkable talent for drawing that her parents arranged for her to receive professional training. At this early stage, probably no one envisioned that she would become a successful writer as well as an artist. Bur brief residencies in the West following her marriage to Arthur De Wint Foote, a mining engineer, made her knowledgeable about a way of life unfamiliar to most eastern readers. By becoming an "exile" in the West, as she often thought of herself, Molly found a subject to write about.

    Years later, at the end of her prestigious career as both artist and author, Molly started work on an autobiography, describing in detail the hardships and disappointments that accompanied the Footes' migratory existence in the West, as Arthur moved from one engineering job to another. Writing in her seventies, Molly looked back with nostalgia on her Quaker childhood in the East and described her Quaker ancestors with great admiration. Although she chose not to raise her own children within the faith, she never lost her appreciation for the old customs.

    A Quaker upbringing on her parents' farm overlooking the Hudson River was, in fact, at the very core of Mary Hallock Foote's identity. She was emotionally tied to the countryside, and her deepest memories were attached to the Hallock farm. Here she was surrounded by Quaker relatives who cared for and sustained her. "I am anchored here by my girl life," she exclaimed after returning from her first trip to Leadville, Colorado, in 1879.And years later, after establishing homes in Idaho and California, she still felt "curious haunting longings" for the old places in the East. "Once you have it in your blood," wrote the seventy-five-year-old novelist, "you never get it out."

    This deep emotional pull eastward colored the stories that Molly wrote and the pictures she drew after she married Arthur and left the Hallock homestead. Much of her early work centers on the experiences of eastern emigrants in the West and their confrontations with new cultural and natural landscapes. For many years this reluctant westerner yearned to return to the more sophisticated world she had known in the East. How this eastern-born and eastern-educated woman became "an authentic voice of the West" (as the literary press called her) will become clearer as her story unfolds.

    Molly's birthplace was a side-hill farm in Ulster County on the west side of the Hudson River, four miles south of Poughkeepsie and only a half-mile from the village of Milton. As a child, Molly walked to Milton to pick up the mail. For much of the year, the Hallocks witnessed the busy river traffic of sloops and steamboats carrying passengers and supplies between Albany and New York City. When the river froze over and navigation stopped, pleasure-seekers could be seen sailing over the ice in wind-propelled iceboats. Although steamboats provided the loveliest view of the river, visitors to the Hallock farm had the option of taking the Hudson River Railroad to a station opposite the village and then crossing the river in a ferry—or in a horse-drawn sleigh in the winter. Some robust souls crossed the ice-covered river on foot.

    During Molly's childhood, the family's two-story farmhouse, with a sitting room, dining room, and front and back parlors downstairs and bedrooms upstairs, sheltered the four Hallock children, their parents, and their maternal grandparents. A second-story stairway led to a large garret, where the Hallocks stored a miscellany of old garments, furniture, magazines, and other castoffs, which the children never tired of investigating. The "dooryard" or lawn was kept long enough to be cut with a scythe, with the grass then fed to the horses. Nearby a water fountain splashed and a garden displayed its colorful mixture of vegetables, roses, chrysanthemums, and other favorite flowers. In the distance a large barn had been built against a hill with one side of the roof extending nearly to the ground, which made a perfect slide for the children.

    Beyond the barn stretched a number of stone-fenced apple orchards. In the fall, Molly's father stored apples for cider making in the barn-loft and apples for market in barrels in the cellar of the fruit-house until he could haul them to the steamboat landing. A path over a nearby hill led to Uncle Edward Hallock's house and the family burying ground, also enclosed by a stone fence and with locust trees and a chestnut tree shading the tombstones. At some distance from the main house an upper barn quartered the spring lambs. Years later Molly vividly remembered her childhood joy in trudging with her father along "the icy lanes in March" to watch him feed cut turnips to the hungry creatures.

    Also on the family farm were a mill and millhouse, which was home for Molly's aged Uncle Townsend Hallock and his wife Rachel (until their deaths) and then for the miller, John Crosby, and his family. In the spring the young Hallocks hunted wildflowers near the three mill ponds, which stored the water that powered the mill, and in the winter they skated on the frozen ponds. Molly later recalled that in the "perfect woods" between Long Pond and Old Pond the sound of the mill fell silent. She fondly remembered also the fog hanging over the Hudson, the gurgling flow of the millponds, the stillness of the ice-bound river, and the happy songs of summer boating parties. All of these rural sights and sounds became deeply imprinted on Molly's memory and conditioned the young artist's sensitivity for landscape and seasons.

    Molly's Quakerism was also deeply rooted in this Milton countryside. Foote writes in her reminiscences that the Hallock farm was first settled in 1762, when the Quaker Edward Hallock sailed up the Hudson with his wife, Phebe Clapp, and their eleven children to take up land that was still part of the frontier. The mill that he built ground flour for both armies during the American Revolution, and his stone house sheltered American General Horatio Gates after his victory at Saratoga. The Hallocks' two sons and nine daughters soon "peopled the countryside" with a new generation of Quakers. In an unpublished essay, Molly writes: "It need not have been a jest when our father used to say he was related to half the New York [Quaker] Yearly Meeting, and he would add that when he married Ann Burling he was connected with the other half."

    In 1833, thirty-two-year-old Nathaniel, the grandson of Edward Hallock, married eighteen-year-old Ann Burling of New York City and brought her to live on the Milton farm. Their son, Thomas Burling, was born in 1837, and three daughters followed: Elizabeth (Bessie), in 1841; Philadelphia (Phil), in 1843; and Mary Anna (Molly), on November 19, 1847. Within this close-knit and affectionate family, the children flourished.

    Molly and her siblings started attending Quaker meetings with their parents most assuredly at an early age, since Quakers believed that boys and girls, like men and women, had the potential to hear God's word through an Inner Light. For the rest of her life, Molly recalled the charm of these meetings—men and boys seated on one side, women and girls on the other, and the elders sitting on a bench facing the main body. The silence of these gatherings, broken now and then by testimonials and selected readings, helped to shape Molly's gentle and unpretentious demeanor. Possibly the most lasting legacy of her Quaker childhood, however, was a strong sense of self-worth fostered by the Society of Friends' respect for male and female equality.

    Molly's parents allowed the Hallock children a good deal of freedom growing up. They had shed the stricter rules of their faith that frowned upon music, dancing, art, novels, and idle conversation, but they retained the Quaker emphasis on reasoning and persuasion in their child-raising. In her reminiscences, Molly singles out her mother as being one of the dominant influences in her early life. Although a quiet and reserved "gentlewoman," Ann Hallock was also strong-minded and shared decision-making with her husband. Molly recalls that her mother never argued about her rights but "knew how to get her way" with Nathaniel. And she demanded obedience from the children, but then "left us to our own decisions and spared comments on some of their obvious results." Ann Hallock's legacy to her daughter included a devotion to truthfulness, simplicity in appearance, and a refined instinct for behavior proper to one's place in society. The relationship between mother and daughter was one of deep sympathy and affection, which is reflected in the tenderness with which Molly refers to her mother in her reminiscences and in her correspondence with her lifelong friend Helena de Kay Gilder.

    From her father, Molly acquired a fondness for books and good conversation. An avid reader, Nathaniel Hallock liked to quote poetry and debate the great political issues of the day. He belonged, Molly writes, "to the last of his breed of thinking and reading American farmers, working their own lands which they inherited from their fathers." He often read aloud to the family in the evenings the congressional debates and editorials published in the New York Tribune, as well as selections from his favorite authors, Tennyson, Scott, Burns, Pope, and Cowper. As a schoolgirl, Molly seemingly devoured whatever reading materials entered the Hallock household, including the Atlantic Monthly and Harper's Weekly. But certain books and essays made such an impression that she later singled them out as being special: Charles Dickens's A Tale of Two Cities, Sir Walter Scott's The Talisman, Alfred Tennyson's Idylls of the King, Charles A. Dana's The Household Book of Poetry, and two "unforgettable" Quaker classics, Whittier's "Barclay of Ury" and Hawthorne's "The Gentle Boy." This enchantment with the written word continued undiminished for the rest of Foote's life.

    In this Quaker house of reading and learning, no one was more important to Molly's intellectual awakening than her widowed Aunt Sarah Hallock. Like Nathaniel Hallock, Sarah was a passionate reader and conversationalist. She was also a member of the New York Anti-Slavery Society and wedded to the twin causes of anti-slavery and women's rights. At her invitation, well-known advocates for each reform, including Frederic Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and Ernestine L. Rose, came to speak in Milton and often to spend their evenings in further discussion around Nathaniel's fireside. Molly was a devoted listener. By the time she was fourteen, she had acquired a unique understanding of some of the crucial issues facing the nation. As she later recalled, "I have always regarded this phantasmagoria of idealists and propagandists and militant cranks and dreamers as one of the great opportunities of our youth.... For they were brilliant talkers; all the villages in the valley of the Hudson and the Mohawk put together could not have furnished such conversation as we heard without stirring from our firesides."

    This link with the larger world seems all the more remarkable (and significant) when juxtaposed with the Hallocks' isolation from other elements in society. Set apart by their Quakerism, they did not often participate in the affairs of Milton, where they were called the "Quaker Hallocks" and their neighborhood was labeled "Hallock Hollow." Still, the relationship with the villagers must have been congenial because some elected to send their children to the Quaker school held in the meeting house on Hallock property. Molly recalled that one of these little schoolmates sometimes came to the farm to play but that she (Molly) "was not allowed to go to her house." Nor did the Hallocks interact with the larger New York Quaker community because of a principled stand that her Uncle Nicholas Hallock had taken years earlier. Although the Society of Friends had long opposed slavery, they often disagreed on the proper means of ending it. When Nicholas refused to modify his strongly worded anti-slavery pronouncements, the New York General Conference "laid down" or terminated the meeting that supported him. Thereafter the Milton Hallocks turned inward for spiritual and social fellowship. As a child Molly grew accustomed to her family's isolation, which may help explain her tendency in later years to remain apart from her western neighbors.

    Still, Molly had plenty of companions growing up. "Our little neighborhood," she later recalled, "was packed with Hallocks on the adjoining farms with boundaries in common and lanes and footpaths across lots shortening the way from farm to farm." With her Milton cousins, Molly went ice skating, played chess, and discussed stories in the Atlantic Monthly, and from her visiting New York City cousins she learned new songs and dances. She acquired the common household skills thought essential to every young girl's education: sewing, ironing, cleaning, baking, and butter-making. But she did not become a skilled cook, since the Hallocks generally employed one or two local girls to handle the kitchen chores.

    Molly and her older sister Bessie developed deep emotional ties at this time and would become life-long confidantes. Bessie was the one who comforted Molly when she was too young to accompany the older children on evening buggy or horseback rides. Molly later avowed that Bessie "was half mother as well as sister, 'half angel' in my eyes." Molly also established firm bonds with her sister Phil, who remained single all of her long life, and the two kept up a steady correspondence after Molly went west. With her brother Tom, ten years her senior, Molly maintained cordial relations until their parents died and then visited him and his family only infrequently in later years.

    Molly received her first formal education in the Quaker school that her father had helped establish on Hallock land. She then attended the Poughkeepsie Female Collegiate Institute, the same private secondary boarding institution where Bessie had studied. Because of the emphasis that Quakers placed on education, all four Hallock children probably received a year or more of secondary education, an expensive undertaking for the parents. The basic tuition at Poughkeepsie for the 1863-64 school year (when Molly is known to have been in attendance) was $200, with the school assessing an additional 5 percent because of the "present unusual expenses of living."

    Although secondary education in the United States was not common for either sex until after the Civil War, Molly benefitted from the tremendous growth in female "seminaries" that occurred between 1830 and 1860. The founders of these schools strongly believed that education should prepare young women for their roles as wives and mothers. They typically offered a wide range of courses, following the advice of Catharine Beecher, a proponent of "Domestic Feminism," who believed that women needed to be educated adequately to impart virtue and right ways of thinking to their husbands and children. The paramount concern of the Poughkeepsie Female Collegiate Institute—to instill in its students "a high degree of moral feeling"—reflected Beecher's thinking. Like other mid-nineteenth-century educators, Dr. Charles H. P. McLellan, the school's founder, also stressed physical culture, advocating daily walks and exercise in the school's gymnasium.

    By the time Molly entered the Institute, Reverend C. D. Rice, a Congregational minister, had succeeded McLellan as principal and supervised a staff of thirteen instructors, nine of whom were women. Courses included the basics in arithmetic, geography, history, English, and the sciences (botany, chemistry, physiology, astronomy, and geology), as well as mental philosophy, natural theology, and the capstone course taught by Reverend Rice, Evidences of Christianity. Like his predecessor, Rice encouraged Molly and her peers to take walks in the open air and to make use of the gymnasium. The school instructed boarding students, in fact, to bring good walking shoes and assured parents that the girls would be accompanied by a teacher on their walks.

    The Institute was housed in an impressive three-story building on the corner of Mill and Catharine Streets. The rooms of boarding students (as described in the local press) were "large and airy, neatly furnished and well warmed and ventilated." Hot and cold water was supplied to each floor and heating came from a boiler in the basement. Boarding students like Molly and her cousin Anna Hallock, who also attended the Institute, furnished their own towels, napkins, napkin-rings, teaspoons, and forks.


Excerpted from Mary Hallock Foote by Darlis A. Miller. Copyright © 2002 by University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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  • Posted February 9, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Good adjunct to "ANGLE OF REPOSE'

    Our book club read ANGLE OF REPOSE,and were very pleased with the discussion it evoked. Having read that the family of the woman whose letters were the basis for Wallace Stegner's book were not pleased at the result, I bought this biography of Mary Hallet Foote to see how the real person corresponded to the literary one. Well, Mr. Stegner did take some liberties with the facts. But, his book was designated as fiction,( though perhaps he should have made more of an issue of a disclaimer) and it produced a vivid impression of the travails of a woman braving the west in the late 1800's. It is hard to find information about Mrs. Foote, and almost impossible to find examples of her work. But this biography contained marvelous examples of her wood block illustrations as well as photographs of many of the characters featured (under diffent names) in the novel. I highly recommend both books for those interested in the West in that period. (Read the novel first!)

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