is not so enlightened. She expresses the dominant contemporary stereotype of Native Americans as either noble savage (Letter First) or primitive animal (Letter Seventeenth).
Most critics agree that Shirley's poetry and the letters she intended for publication are so Victorianly ornate and trite as to be unreadable and unimportant. The letters to Molly, however, the letters she intended for family eyes only, bring nothing but praise from the critics and historians. Her direct, vivid description of California wildlife--in its human and nonhuman forms--her representation of living conditions in the mines, and her commentary on national and race relations are deemed some of the best depictions and criticism of the times. These letters are considered a great resource for the study of nineteenth- century California. Richard Oglesby focuses his "Introduction" to the 1970 edition of her letters on the mining culture of the 1840s and 1850s and Shirley's apt portrayal of it. Josiah Royce also takes much of his information about California mining life from Shirley.
Shirley influenced many writers of the time, including Charles Warren Stoddard and Bret Harte. In fact, Bret Harte has been accused of plagiarizing some of his more vivid California scenes from Shirley's letters, including the death- in-the-snow scene from "The Outcasts of Poker Flats" and the funeral scene from "The Luck of Roaring Camp." Thomas Russell provides a detailed comparison of Shirley and Harte work in his "Printer's Forward" to the 1922 edition of her letters. Shirley 1881 essay "Unconscious Plagiarism" attempted to clear Harte of all wrong doing, yet most critics remain convinced of Harte's guilt.
The most complete biographical reconstruction of Shirley's life is Rodman Wilson Paul's article "In Search of 'Dame Shirley.'" Sandra Lockhart "Legacy Profile" of Shirley provides a fairly complete history of Shirley's life and a brief analysis of the major themes found in her letters. Lawrence Clark Powell's "California Classics Reread: The Shirley Letters" offers an overview of Shirley's life and literary endeavors.
Shirley's letters are an invaluable resource for those interested not only in the life of the California gold mines but also in an educated woman's perspective on that life--the living conditions, the special trials for women, and their solutions to those problems. Dame Shirley lived the "feminist" life that the Bloomers merely discussed.
"Leverett: An Epistle from a Lady in the Country to a Distant Friend." United States Magazine and Democratic Review 15 ( 1844): 360-362.