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Women writers: Literary pioneers of the American West

Cover art of Women Writers of the American West, 1833-1927Nina Baym, Emeritus Professor of English at the UI, researched 343 women who published books about the American West between 1833 and 1927, and she describes these authors and their writings in her own book, Women Writers of the American West, 1833–1927. Basically, Baym’s work is a reference book, her hope being that her “overview of these writers and their books will provoke readers to find out more about them.”

Baym researched the women authors she features “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.” Baym acknowledges that she may have missed some important works and writes, “there are more out there, I’m sure, and I hope also that others will be motivated to find them.”

Baym explains that her descriptions are governed by three interests:

  1. How the authors portrayed women making lives for themselves in the West — what they gave to the West, and what it gave to them.
  2. How they represented the West.
  3. The author’s self presentation, as a western advocate or a western critic or something else.

Baym says of the writers she chose to cover: “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 record.” In all, 640 or so books are discussed, and Baym acknowledges that she’s covering a lot of territory: “I sacrifice depth for breadth.” Moreover, she doesn’t consider her book to be definitive: “I’m opening the subject and not saying the last word about it.”

Women Writers of the American West can serve as a springboard to discovering recommended books by women writers of the American frontier era, or as a supplement to an already familiar book or author. It is impressive for its depth of research, the author’s enthusiasm for the subject matter, and its clearness of writing. I’d describe it as a very accessible scholarly book — if you have an enthusiasm for the humanities in general, a particular region of the American West, or women’s studies overall, this book could be useful to you, although it’s not necessarily the kind of book you read cover to cover. I got the most from the first chapter, where Baym shares general thoughts and observations — some strong quotes follow.

The first line of the book:

A woman author’s name here, another there — in parentheses, a footnote, a bibliography. How could there be books about the American West, when everybody knew that topic was reserved for male authors?

An expression of admiration for the women authors she covers:

They hadn’t noticed that the West was a subject reserved for male authors.

Female versus male authors of the American West on violent subject matter:

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 women, found the women’s books light on violence, and also much more interested in women’s stories than men’s stories.

Who women writers of the American West were writing for:

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.

Women writers and Manifest Destiny:

I have used the phrase Manifest Destiny, but insofar as that concept is thought to involve the spread of Christianity across the continent, it is not a good description of what the women wrote. Books by missionary women fitted this pattern, but by far the great motive for westering reported by women was simply economic self-improvement. Whatever larger design there might be came into view only by stopping and reflecting.

Realism in American letters:

Because specifics of place are so important, some kind of realism is the typical literary technique for western writing. The women who went west were, in the main, the ordinary people realism is designed to be about; readers, too, as Gordon Hutner’s recent book about American reading habits has demonstrated, have always been more comfortable with realism than literary experimentation. Because realism imparts an aura of accuracy, because it is designed to make readers think it is about the real world, plot questions about what human traits can survive, what can be developed, and what is lost in the West resonate beyond the boundaries of the fiction.

Truth versus advertising for Americans who went west:

People beguiled by false promises and unrealistic expectations often encountered crushing disappointment when they arrived on the ground. Many who went to be farmers knew nothing about farming , while experienced farmers often encountered very different terrain from what they knew back home. Women in particular tended to loathe the isolation and drudgery, not to mention the squalor, of farm life; they couldn’t wait to get off the farm into town. Many went back home; a surprising number of memoirs were penned later from the friendly confines of Wisconsin, Ohio, Illinois, to which the women had returned after decades in the West.

The frontier heroine:

In general terms, the West was seen to allow women to become capable, physically active, independent, honest and forthright. Ideas of bigness and spaciousness, of freedom from convention, of physical development, contribute to a sense of the western heroine as a new kind of person. The West, with its supposed lack of class distinction, its acceptance of every person on his or her own merits, presumably allowed women without pedigrees to make something of themselves — but only they possessed and preserved the delicacy that is taken as foundationally female. It’s crucial for women not to lose their femininity, but according to the books they don’t. Western books portray their local heroines in opposition to their overcultivated and too-often manipulative sisters from Boston or New York as the thoroughly American development of true womenhood. Finally! The new woman, like the new man, was to have her opportunity in the United States.

More on female characters:

Fiction being what it is, novels feature young women who may break a rule now and then but are immovably virtuous. They are seen as raising the tone and improving the morals of a wayward male population — one might say that Huck Finn’s worst fears were realized; the cowboy riding into the sunset away from women had to be corralled eventually.

And finally, the New Woman of the American West:

By the 1890s, when the census declared the frontier closed, pioneer associations had begun to collect and solicit memoirs and histories. Elderly pioneers put down their memories; the younger generation celebrated their parents’ and grandparents’ achievements; historians and historical novelists went to work full-bore. As the Old West became a fading memory, the New Woman — independent, town dwelling, professionally employed, tentatively sexual — enters the scene. She turns out to exemplify the New West, to be the reason for all that pioneering, the future realized.

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