Westerns: A Women's History

Westerns: A Women's History

Westerns: A Women's History

Westerns: A Women's History

Synopsis

At every turn in the development of what we now know as the western, women writers have been instrumental in its formation. Yet the myth that the western is male-authored persists. Westerns: A Women's History debunks this myth once and for all by recovering the women writers of popular westerns who were active during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the western genre as we now know it emerged.

Victoria Lamont offers detailed studies of some of the many women who helped shape the western. Their novels bear the classic hallmarks of the western--cowboys, schoolmarms, gun violence, lynchings, cattle branding--while also placing female characters at the center of their western adventures and improvising with western conventions in surprising and ingenious ways. In Emma Ghent Curtis's The Administratrix a widow disguises herself as a cowboy and infiltrates the cowboy gang responsible for lynching her husband. Muriel Newhall's pulp serial character, Sheriff Minnie, comes to the rescue of a steady stream of defenseless female victims. B. M. Bower, Katharine Newlin Burt, and Frances McElrath use cattle branding as a metaphor for their feminist critiques of patriarchy. In addition to recovering the work of these and other women authors of popular westerns, Lamont uses original archival analysis of the western-fiction publishing scene to overturn the long-standing myth of the western as a male-dominated genre.

Excerpt

This book argues that the popular western, widely considered a maleauthored tradition, was founded as much by women writers as by men and played a significant role in American women’s literary history at the turn of the twentieth century. the popular western acquired the substance of its current shape in the form of “quality” novels that, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, reclaimed the popular West from the dime novels and other cheap publications in which stories of the West and the frontier had flourished. These new “quality” westerns were within the purview of both male and female authors. Indeed, the first known cowboy novel outside of the dime novel tradition was written by a woman, the Colorado suffragist Emma Ghent Curtis, and published in 1889, thirteen years before the popular western was supposed to have been reinvented by Owen Wister, who published his novel The Virginian in 1902. The Virginian was itself based on the Johnson County Rustler Wars of 1892, as was a competing novelization of those events written by a woman, Frances McElrath’s The Rustler, also published in 1902. One of the most prolific authors of serial westerns to profit from “imitating” The Virginian, B. M. Bower, was also a woman. Indeed, women were active at every turn during the period, between roughly 1880 and 1940, when the American frontier myth, after years of ghettoization in the dime novel, was supposedly “reborn” as a dominant myth of American identity. This book is a revisionist account of the origins of the popular western that takes into account the many women who helped constitute the genre.

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