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  • Mourning Dove’s Textual Frontier
  • Laura G. Godfrey (bio)

On May 27, 1916, Mourning Dove, one of the first female Native American authors, wrote to J.P. MacLean, a friend of her editor Lucullus McWhorter, whose opinion of her novel draft she was soliciting. Mourning Dove wrote MacLean during a visit to her own family in Jennings, Montana; in describing her experiences in working with McWhorter, she complained about the difficulties of editorial collaboration:

I suppose you have the manuscript now. Big Foot [one of many names given to McWhorter by his friends in local tribes] wrote me a few days ago that he had sent it to you. He is anxious as well as myself to know what you think of it. We both worked hard on it and we sometimes almost went on the war path, but we always patched up a peace and continued friends. He helped me with Cogeawea, but the next time I am going to let him make the plot and I will help him. He wanted me to have this story with a sad ending. He seems to have something sad in his life, but I wanted Cogewea to have a happy time after so much trouble.


Much has been written about the collaboration between Mourning Dove, an Okanogan woman, and McWhorter, her mentor and editor in creating the 1927 western romance novel Cogewea: The Half Blood. Cogewea is in some sense a text with two authors, for Mourning Dove received more from McWhorter than literary advice and help in finding a publisher. As her letters make clear, McWhorter is responsible for significant parts of the text, including critical elements of plot and character as well as much of its politics. Dexter Fisher writes in the [End Page 65] introduction to the 1981 edition of Cogewea that "it is in the language of the novel that McWhorter's impact is most obvious because some of the passages are totally unlike Mourning Dove's own direct and simple style as reflected in her original drafts of Coyote Stories [a series of translations of Okanogan tales]" (xvi). An often quoted letter written on June 4, 1928 from Mourning Dove to McWhorter, commonly used to anchor discussions of the collaboration in Cogewea, is worth repeating here. Mourning Dove writes:

I have just got through going over the book Cogeawea and am surprised at the changes that you made. . . . I felt like it was someone elses [sic] book and not mine at all. In fact the finishing touches are put there by you, and I have never seen it. . . . Oh my Big Foot, you surely roasted the Shoapees [whites] strong. I think a little too strong to get their sympathy.

I wish we had not gone too strong now. That is the only thing I am afraid of.


Some critics suggest that McWhorter intruded unfairly—even oppressively—on Mourning Dove's text. Yet McWhorter himself openly protested claims that he had "written" the novel for Mourning Dove, and in his early attempts to interest potential readers and publishers he often de-emphasized his role as collaborator. In April of 1916, for example, he writes in a letter to Walter Woehlke (a potential buyer) that, "besides a few notes written by myself," the narrative is solely Mourning Dove's (Box 27, folder 241). Still, evidence of his textual insertions is so great that some authors do not even refer to Mourning Dove as the author of Cogewea; Peter Beidler notes, in his article on Cogewea's reading of western romance The Brand, that he "[uses] the terms author and Mourning Dove to refer to the writing team consisting of an Indian woman and her white male collaborator" (48). Others, like Alanna Brown, argue that without the help of an influential and knowledgeable advisor such as McWhorter, Mourning Dove's novel would likely not have been published at all ("Mourning Dove's Voice" 3). Criticism of late has expanded to study the text's transcultural qualities, in particular its depiction of mixed-blood and Anglo-American lovers and its inclusion of traditional Native American storytelling within the strictures of the western romance...


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pp. 65-83
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