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Women Writers of the American West, 1833–1927 by Nina Baym (review)

From: Western American Literature
Volume 48, Number 3, Fall 2013
pp. 348-350 | 10.1353/wal.2013.0052

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This book is a tease. It wants you to stop what you’re doing and rush to the nearest decent academic library or used bookstore in some dusty western city, pull books from the shelves, and curl up and read for two solid weeks. Nina Baym has given us a provoking, but glancing knowledge of 343 women writers of the West, which only whets the appetite for a deeper knowledge. In an overview talk on the book she delivered at the Willa Cather conference at Smith College in June 2011, Baym allowed that the number of authors for the book kept growing, even since the publishing date. She said that she’d originally wondered if there were even a hundred women who had published at least one book set in the West between 1833 and 1927 but found that once the project got started, they came out of the woodwork in droves. This compilation is impressive, if necessarily lacking in depth; Baym herself notes that she had to “sacrifice depth for breadth” (2). But we get a tantalizing and long overdue look at the hundreds of novels, memoirs, journalistic works, poems, and texts in many other genres by adventurous and engaged women about their western experiences.

Baym does an excellent job of modeling a humble and work-inprogress tone with biographical material on the authors, noting areas for further research, even though she is a scholar of considerable stature. She also has a generous attitude toward the often sentimental and sometimes predictable plotlines of particularly the nineteenth-century novelists. That is not to say that Baym’s analyses lack an edge, however. The chapter on California, for example, dryly notes that Mary Austin, that wonderful stylist, was an early example of creative nonfiction taken to the limit. And when describing Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913), Baym terms Alexandra Bergson’s love of the land a “deeply romantic presentation” and adds, in a somewhat dismissive tone, that Cather’s Nebraska novels are “committed to the mystique of pioneering” (150).

As Baym admits, the multicultural aspects of this project were a bit disappointing: she was able to find only nineteen women of color who wrote books about the West. And, as will no doubt be frustrating to contemporary scholars of diversity, the smattering of old-timey Asian, Native American, African American, and Hispanic writers that Baym did find tend to “place themselves advantageously within [Anglo dominance] rather than write against it” (4).

Apparently, writers of color generally dealt with issues and concerns of segregation among their own peoples rather than address racial inequities that would invite white condemnation. This was true of the Asian writers, and the four Cherokee writers are similar in that they focus on contemporary land and intertribal power struggles and often go out of their way to describe their own “civilized” and often Christian worldview, as opposed to those of the “unprogressive full-blood[s],” as one of the era’s first Native American PhDs puts it (39). Some slave-holding Cherokees even defended the Confederacy. We hear from these ethnic texts about “the rapine and violence of Mexican misrule,” as well as the often inaccurate, “dreamy historical fictions” of Californio hacienda life. In addition, books about African Americans are sometimes written in local color dialect, while three books by black women themselves celebrate the chance at success that the “talented tenth” of African Americans then enjoyed in Texas (194, 13, 22).

Still, the paucity of ethnic authors is a surprise. We in the Western Literature Association have been making an effort in the past ten or so years to broaden our perspectives on western literature, but it looks like, despite much recent lamenting about the Anglocentrism in western books, histories, and movies for the past hundred years, that it was mostly Anglos who were writing from 1833 to 1927—writing books at any rate.

As an important scholar of women’s writing and longtime editor of the Norton Anthology of American Literature, Baym seems to know just about everything as she lays out précis of the many volumes, calmly and with little overt politicizing addressing the many controversies, issues, debates that have occupied western and...



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