Women Writers of the American West, 1833-1927

Article excerpt

Women Writers of the American West, 1833-1927. By Nina Baym. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2011. X + 374 pp. $40.00 cloth.

Reviewed by Victoria Lamont, University of Waterloo

For the most part, Nina Baym's Women Writers of the American West, 1833-1927, an extensive compendium of authors new to scholarship, demonstrates just how little headway has been made in the past thirty years in the recovery of women's writing about the American West. Annette Kolodny's The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630-1860, published in 1984, has remained the most prominent major statement on the field. Prior to Kolodny's work, the study of the American literary West had been dominated by male writers and male-centered paradigms: the story of violent conquest of virgin land and its savage occupants through the ingenuity and vigor of the male scout, pioneer, or cowboy. This, Kolodny revealed, was only half the story. During the intervening thirty years, other scholars have built upon Kolodny's concept of western women's domestic fantasy. The nuanced approaches of Brigitte Georgi-Findlay in The Frontiers of Women's Writing: Women's Narratives and the Rhetoric of Westward Expansion and of Krista Corner in Landscapes of the New West: Gender and Geography in Contemporary Women's Writing brought the study of a women's West into conversation with postcolonialism and postmodernism, respectively. Authors such as Willa Cather and Mary Austin now regularly receive attention in scholarly journals and at conferences. Yet, whereas similar groundbreaking work on women writers, such as Jane Tompkins's Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860, helped to establish American sentimentalism as a vibrant field of study, Kolodny's work did not spur parallel activity on women's writing of the American West. Although there has been much important work on specific authors and cultural sites, we have not seen in western studies a paradigm shift comparable to that triggered in mainstream American literary studies by the recovery of women writers. Thus, only a fraction of the authors included in Baym's volume are familiar--Helen Hunt Jackson, Willa Cather, and Mary Austin among them.

The simple yet powerful act of gathering in one place all known women's writing about the American West may be just what is needed to stimulate a revitalized attention to the forceful presence of women's history and culture in western American studies. Primarily a descriptive rather than an analytical work, Women Writers of the American West surveys the fiction, poetry, and nonfiction of 343 women writers, ranging from the well-known (Gather, Austin) to the obscure Gennet Blakeslee Frost). Baym includes a wide range of genres, from fiction to children's books and textbooks. This approach is appropriate for a work intended to be a reference for future study, for it will avoid some of the generic exclusions--of popular writing, for example--that have marginalized women writers in prefeminist accounts of American literature.

Defining the West as those states and territories west of the Mississippi (and thereby excluding, not inappropriately, women writers of colonial frontier fiction such as Catharine Maria Sedgwick), Baym organizes her book regionally, a strategy that highlights geographic, economic, and political differences within the broader West. As a result, the mythical cattle frontier of the cowboy takes its historically proportional place among diverse western landscapes, cultural sites, and social and economic structures, from the preoccupation with Mormonism in writing about Utah, to the sublime scenery of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado, to the tribulations of pioneer homesteaders of the Great Plains and the debaucheries of gold miners in San Francisco.

Descriptive surveys challenge the author to engage the reader without falling into a plodding, formulaic list of author biographies and plot summaries. …