Women and Western American Literature

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

Women in Western American Fiction:
Images, or Real Women?*

Barbara Howard Meldrum

Joanna Russ, a contemporary writer of science fiction, asserted in her essay, "What Can a Heroine Do?, or, Why Women Can't Write" ( 1972) that very few central actions can be imagined as being performed by female protagonists. For the most part, protagonists are male; though there may be many women in fiction, what we are given are "not women but images of women: modest maidens, wicked temptresses, pretty schoolmarms, beautiful bitches, faithful wives, and so on. They exist only in relation to the protagonist (who is male)." These women characters "do not really exist at all-at their best they are depictions of the social roles women are supposed to play and often do play, but they are the public roles and not the private women." 1 Is this true of western American fiction? Certainly the history of the settlement of the West provides many instances of courageous women doing "men's work" or coping with great physical or emotional stress. It would seem that fiction writers would have plenty of opportunities to portray exemplary women. Have they responded with women who go beyond the image stage to become vital, active human beings?

Let us look first at some of Vardis Fisher's women. This Idaho author wrote many excellent novels during his long career, and he is rightly esteemed one of the finest writers of the West. His last novel, Mountain Man ( 1965), is subtitled "A Novel of Male and Female in the Early American West." Surely here is where to look for Fisher's mature reflections on man's and

____________________
*
This essay is a revised and expanded version of one published in Idaho Humanities Forum, Spring, 1981, pp. 9-10.

-55-

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