Women and Western American Literature

By Helen Winter Stauffer; Susan J. Rosowski | Go to book overview

The Civilizers:
Women's Organizations and Western American Literature

June O. Underwood

Western American literature, almost from the moment of its inception, has had to deal with uncomfortable confrontations of myth and reality. Because we are continually seduced by those magnificent images of the Yeoman Farmer and the Conquering Cowboy, writers have had to grapple with ways to embody the deepest hopes and fears of a people (represented by the grand archetypes) and still maintain historical actuality. 1

This struggle to incorporate authenticity into the reverberating formulas of the unconscious is even more difficult when writers deal with women. Literary tradition has been a particularly strong force in the making of Western and Plains literature. And, literary traditions about women in the West and on the Plains, like those elsewhere, view women as "the other" -- not creatures who grow, learn, and expand to heroism-but as vehicles for enlarging the male hero's sense of the challenge and terror of the land. Cather is, of course, an exception to this generalization, as is Mari Sandoz. Both these writers depict women who, as heroes themselves, must carve out a space for themselves in a society which would wish to keep them "merely female." But most women characters in western literature exist as the female archetypes-the mother, the victim, the seducer, the seduced. 2

These images are not absolutely wrong: they are, however, distortions and narrowings of the reality of women's lives. In particular, the study of women's relationships to one another has opened up new understandings of how ordinary women lived and thought. In the last ten years, feminist scholars have examined closely nineteenth-century women's bonds to other women. However, much of this research on the women's subculture is

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