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Women Writers of the American West, 1833–1927
By NINA BAYM
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS
Copyright © 2011 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All right reserved.
Chapter One The West as a Woman Writer's Subject
A woman author's name here, another there—in parentheses, a footnote, a bibliography. How could there be books by women about the American West, when everybody knew that the topic was reserved for male authors? Yes, there was Willa Cather. There was also Mary Austin, celebrant of the desert whose literary career began in 1903 with Land of Little Rain, rediscovered by students of nature writing. Kevin Starr's 1973 Americans and the California Dream gave California novelist Gertrude Atherton a whole chapter. Historians of women had recovered and reissued books by wives of frontier army officers. Sarah Winnemucca's 1883 Life among the Piutes had become a must-read for those interested in Native American literature. The number grew.
When, at some point, I told colleagues I'd found the names of some forty American women who'd published books about the American West by 1927, they said: write a book about it. I thought: I need to search more thoroughly. If I find a significant array, I can speculate persuasively on the subject's importance to women writers and perhaps even on women writers' importance to the subject in their own day. I chose 1927 to end my quest, because that's when Willa Cather published Death Comes for the Archbishop—to my mind one of the very greatest of western books. I went back as far as I could; the earliest book turned out to be the first of Mary Austin Holley's two books about Texas, published in 1833. In all, I've found 343 women publishing books about the American West between those years. I hope my overview of these writers and their books will provoke readers to find out more about them. There are more out there, I'm sure, and I hope also that others will be motivated to find them.
I compiled my set of writers by consulting literary and cultural histories, anthologies, biographical dictionaries, scholarly essays and monographs, booksellers' catalogs, bibliographies, back-matter publishers' book advertisements, internal references when one woman's book refers to another's, and innumerable Web sites. Colleagues have been generous with their suggestions. In the acknowledgments, I thank those who told me about writers I might not otherwise have found. A few of these authors are known to everybody who works in American literature; others are known to specialists; but many are unknown and the whole array has never been put on the record. I think it's important to show that, once again, where women were supposed to have been silent, they were not. What they were not supposed to have done, they did.
In what follows I use books only. Western material published by women in journals and newspapers is a dauntingly vast archive, much too large for any one scholar to cover. Too, a book makes a different kind of statement from a newspaper or journal article; even now, in the dawning age of the e-book, the print book has iconic status. To publish a book, no matter what the topic, means the woman hopes to make what her preface typically calls a "more permanent" contribution to the record. She doesn't necessarily seek literary immortality, but she does seek access to the public.
Covering so much material, I sacrifice depth for breadth, describing rather than analyzing, though of course description always implies a point of view. Simply placing an author like, say, Willa Cather, among dozens writing about the heroic pioneer woman, is to analyze. I don't engage much with literary criticism, partly because literary criticism is skewed toward a small number of already-known women who would therefore get a disproportionate share of the attention that I hope to disperse more evenly.
My descriptions are governed by three interests. First, how the authors showed women making lives for themselves in the West—what they gave to the West, and what it gave to them. Second, how they represented the West. And third, the author's self presentation, as a western advocate or a western critic or something else. These questions get different answers in all of the almost 640 or so books I talk about. To give something of the books' flavor, I quote and sometimes summarize plots, picking and choosing among myriad details. This means that much is left unsaid. Perhaps another reader of a given book will feel that I left out the most important thing. Much more could be done with these books and writers than do—I'm opening up a subject, not saying the last word about it. In general, I found these writers showing women making western lives for themselves and their families by achieving domesticity in a new place, improving over what they'd known before but still accepting a domestic agenda. To achieve this end, they had to change the West. The worst fears of the sunset-riding cowboys of the movies are realized as women come in and make the West a settled place. Women are seen to be crucial to the western development of families, farms, and businesses. In exchange for their work, the West made women healthier, more active, more useful, more engaged than their sisters back East.
Second, these writers tried to give detailed depictions of the western places where their accounts were set. There might be an overarching and abstract concept of the West, but on the ground there were many different Wests. To connect the specificity of the place to the overarching concept, to show the achievement of female domesticity and the development of female character in Oregon, Texas, California, Utah, Nebraska, New Mexico, and other parts of the West—each distinct in history, landform, and climate—made the particular West a character in its own right.
And third, these writers were entirely unapologetic about their own work. They hadn't noticed that the West was a subject reserved for male authors. They saw their books as contributions to the record of western settlement. They took political positions. They avoided the violent male plots typical of the dime novel and its successor, the movie western. Norris Yates, whose Gender and Genre compared formula westerns by men and by women, found the women's books light on violence and also much more interested in women's stories than men's stories. That stands to reason; a book with a woman's name on the cover would almost automatically make its appeal to women readers. And of course many fewer women than men wrote formula westerns to begin with.
But it's not clear which view of the West was the more realistic. Historians of the American West don't agree about how violent it actually was there, whether it was more or less violent than other parts of the United States (what after all could be more violent than slavery and Jim Crow?), and how this question might be studied objectively. Much, perhaps most, western writing by men was not about violence but was invested in the same domesticating energies as women. That shared narrative, in a somewhat desacralized form, has become labeled Manifest Destiny: the United States was destined to appropriate all the land "from sea to shining sea" not in the name of gunplay, but in the name of peaceful prosperity, in the names of homes, families, farms, and businesses. The "blood and thunder" books so beloved by adolescent boys were mere escape fantasies, not meant to be mistaken for the real.
So the work of women in the West, as the writers showed it, and as their own writing contributed to it, was to act as partners to men in the task of bringing the West to what they saw as its highest development, a space in which they, as women, could flourish and develop. That the outcome of this partnership would be the destruction of the West as they first encountered it was not a problem for them. The sense of shared purpose allowed women to think they mattered. They could merge male and female voices, as in Sarah Pratt Carr's 1907 railroad novel, The Iron Way, where a railroad executive delivers a long toast to "Woman" at a San Francisco banquet—a toast, of course, written by the woman author. He refers to generic woman, represented by woman with a capital W, and also to Sally B., a prospector's wife who owns and manages a hotel for railroad people while the husband is away searching for gold. "You ask what Woman has to do with the Pacific Railroad? Everything! Doesn't Woman make the home? Don't home make the nation? Doesn't Uncle Sam protect his nation? And doesn't he need this railroad to do it? ... Could you build this railroad without woman? Where under the canopy would it get to without Sally B.? Where would be your banquets, your square meals three times a day? ... What are you building your railroad for, anyway.... The supreme reason,—you are building this railroad to carry women, to found homes in the great West" (186–87).
Given this basic structure in books written by "Anglos"—women descended from English, Scottish, Welsh, and Irish forbears—one might have hoped for a significant counternarrative in books by women associated with minority status. Regrettably, I found only nineteen such women, less than 6 percent of the total. These nineteen women, too, accepted Anglo dominance as a historical reality, and sought to place themselves advantageously within it rather than write against it. Identifying themselves with their group and family, they did not cross ethnic lines. Sui Sin Far is interested only in Chinese immigrants, mainly from the merchant class. The three Hispanic women—Maria Ampara Ruiz de Burton, Maria Sacramenta Lopez de Cummings, Adina De Zavala—insist on their pure Castilian genealogies; in The Squatter and the Don Ruiz de Burton uses a Castilian-Anglo romance to make ethnicity less important than like-mindedness. Native women identify with their local tribes. The four Cherokee writers claim superiority over Natives who were not affiliated with the Five Tribes because—as Narcissa Owen insisted in her memoir—"the Indians of Indian Territory are civilized, educated Christian people" (134). Three of five African American women—Maud Cuney-Hare, Emma J. Ray, and Delilah Beasley—revised Manifest Destiny to make it culminate in the full citizenship of black people, which they thought would happen in the West. Texans Bernice Love Wiggins and Josie Briggs Hall had other agendas. Wiggins wrote affectionate folklore about black rural populations; Hall attempted to elevate the "race" by presenting examples of black achievement.
* * *
Some women wrote many books, others put down their life experiences (or what they could recall of them, or what they decided to say about them) in a single publication. There were personal and family memoirs—unreliable, of course, as uncorroborated memoirs inevitably are, conveying the writer's ideas about how she ought to present the West and her own life in the West to readers. There were novels, short story collections, histories, biographies (women often published to celebrate a member of their family, to put him or her—usually him—into the record), reportage, descriptive sketches, textbooks, poetry volumes, didactic or amusing works for young people, political and social polemics, and travel books. Some authors had literary ambitions, others didn't. I don't rank the genres according to some idea of literariness, and I don't judge the more obviously literary books according to an idea of better and worse. All contributed to the project of getting women's voices into the western record. Publishers in New York, Boston (Little, Brown; Houghton, Mifflin), Philadelphia (Lippincott), Chicago (McClurg), San Francisco (Harr Wagner), and other urban centers sought out western books, which implies considerable audience interest. Many of these books were illustrated, and the illustrators, too, were often women; the arrival of women as book illustrators is a phenomenon of the 1890s and after, about which more needs to be known.
In addition, an array of local publishers across the West printed books for women who wanted their work to circulate within a limited community that extended beyond the immediate circle. Finding out how all these books got into print would add much to our understanding of book history. Except for a gap in the 1860s, when war shut down much of the publishing industry, the number of books increased steadily from decade to decade: from only 2 in the 1830s (both by Mary Austin Holley) to 170 by more than 100 in the second decade of the twentieth century. But whatever the possibilities for local book publication, professional literary reputations were made in the East, and after the turn of the century, more particularly in New York City. Therefore, ambitious western women with literary ambitions went east as well: Gertrude Atherton, Willa Cather, and Kathleen Norris are prominent examples.
Among women for whom I could find biographical information, perhaps at least two-thirds were literary professionals or semiprofessionals—mainly journalists or women who freelanced for newspapers and periodicals. There were also editors, teachers, community activists, clubwomen, local historians, and novelists. Women's clubs, emerging toward the end of the nineteenth century, encouraged even traditional women to publish on behalf of social and political initiatives. WCTU women wrote on behalf of temperance, missionary women wrote on behalf of Christian evangelism, "Friends of the Indian" wrote on behalf of humane treatment of the Native population, women with land to sell wrote on behalf of real estate. Women often headed the local and regional historical societies; as family historians, many knew how to preserve and circulate an archive. Toward the end of their lives, many women wrote memoirs to contribute to the record of what they called pioneering. Women who visited or toured in the West wrote to tell others what to expect. The place is their reason for writing.
* * *
Working with books only, I had to decide—sometimes to decree—what is and what isn't a book. I've occasionally included something more like a pamphlet than a book, although always a separate publication, because length is not always an indication of purpose. I mostly use books published under the woman's own name, and during her lifetime, so as to ensure that the book in hand was the book she wanted to be known for having authored. In a few cases, where books seem to have been ready for the publisher at the point of the woman's death, I made exceptions. I stayed with "Mourning Dove" and "Sui Sin Far" because these pennames were selected for ethnic identification rather than to conceal gender. Though the women were aware of men's writing, direct engagement with men's books is not the norm. Dime novels and the movie western are scorned, but not for their masculinity so much as for their immaturity and unreliability. Women's books tended to center on women because women readers were their target audience.
I also had to decide what is and what isn't the West. For this I took my cue from the women themselves. Having come, in many cases, from Illinois or Ohio or Wisconsin, they were quite clear that the West was one tier of states over from the Mississippi River; no Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota. The identity of Texas, thought of by some as southern not western—it was after all the only western region to join the Confederacy, and it connected economically to New Orleans—is itself the subject of much Texas writing; as the process of settling moved West, Texas became more western, with cotton fields giving way to cattle ranches. My east-west lines are the current boundaries between the United States and Canada, the US and Mexico. Both the northern and southern borders were in flux and contested; to establish them became the theme of much writing from Texas and the Pacific Northwest.
I divide the West into nine subregions according to the women's sense of place, which I sequence in chapters that are roughly ordered (very roughly, in that settling goes on simultaneously in many places) according to the chronology of Anglo regional occupation. Each subregion has a character corresponding to geographical and historical particularities. Texas/Oklahoma has its Alamo and southern affiliation; the Pacific Northwest has memories of the overland trek and the Hudson's Bay Company, as well as timber and the rain forest; northern California and Nevada have the gold rush, bonanza kings, and San Francisco; Utah has Mormons; Colorado has the Rocky Mountain's conjunction of mining, tourism, and health spas; the Great Plains has Bleeding Kansas, homesteading farmers, and Native hostilities; the High Plains has cowboys and cattle; southern California and Nevada have Hispano-mission history, year-round summer on the coast and year-round aridity in the interior desert; the Southwest has peaceful pueblo people, fear-inspiring Apaches, and Santa Fe. The penultimate chapter covers the perhaps surprisingly small number of what I call "road books" where journey rather than destination is all-important: army narratives (the army was supposed to enable settlement but not to settle, and its forts were erected and dismantled as settlement progressed), overland trail books, railroad books, and motoring accounts. My final chapter contains capsule biographies of the women writers insofar as I could find information.
Excerpted from Women Writers of the American West, 1833–1927 by NINA BAYM Copyright © 2011 by Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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