A Companion to the Literature and Culture of the American West

By Nicolas S. Witschi | Go to book overview

5
A History of American Women’s
Western Books, 1833–1928

Nina Baym

Thanks to historical and literary scholarship undertaken from the 1970s onward, we are beginning to recognize how much writing American women published about the West. Sandra Myres, Darlis Miller, Susan Armitage, and others have excavated accounts by frontier army wives and overland trailers – some in manuscript, some published. Victoria Lamont has looked for women’s cowboy novels. Many scholars have worked to establish Willa Cather’s identity as a western as well as modernist writer. Mary Austin’s desert sketches and Mary Hallock Foote’s stories about displaced female gentility in the crude West have entered the canon. But there is much, much more. Compiling and pursuing information from bibliographies, literary and cultural histories, biographical dictionaries, and similar sources, I’ ve found more than 328 women publishing western-themed books by 1928; the total number of books exceeds 630. These books assume an interested audience, and do not worry about transgressing into male territory. Once again it turns out that where women were supposed to have been silent, they were not. What they were supposed not to have done, they did.

Among women for whom I could find biographical information, some two-thirds were professionals of some sort, either writing for a living or publishing on behalf of various causes: journalists, editors, teachers, community activists, clubwomen, local historians, novelists. Their books include memoirs, novels, short story collections, histories, biographies, reportage, descriptive sketches, textbooks, poetry volumes, works for young people, political and social polemics, travel books, and more. The books were published by major houses on the East Coast, by regional western publishers, and by local printers. Writing about the West as they knew it, as they thought they knew it, or as they wanted it to be known, women contributed both to their own western identity and to the identity of the West.

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