- Maverick Autobiographies: Women Writers and the American West, 1900-1936
During the heydey of open-range cattle-ranching in the late nineteenth-century American West, calves who escaped branding during the roundups, and whose ownership was thus unknown, were called mavericks. This is the metaphor Cathryn Halverson invokes in Maverick Autobiographies: Women Writers and the American West, 1900–1936 to characterize three remarkable authors whose autobiographies fall outside of current western American literary historical frameworks.
Mary MacLane, Opal Whiteley, and Juanita Harrison were all westerners—by birth or by choice—whose autobiographical texts depart substantially from both the male-authored, "American Adam" tradition of the Western individual, and the female-authored, "Eve in her Garden" tradition described by Annette Kolodny. Capitalizing on the popularity of confessional literature by young American girls, both MacLane and Whiteley penned impassioned, diary-form accounts of their western upbringing—MacLane in Butte, Montana, and Whiteley in Oregon's logging region. Far from reinforcing myths of the West as either individualist proving ground or domestic Eden, MacLane, in The Story of Mary MacLane (1902), and Whiteley, in The Story of Opal (1920), depict their western location as emblematic of their own sense of social and cultural displacement, engendered by their resistance against the constraints of femininity. Writing from a far different location, African American travel author Juanita Harrison disavows her Southern origins (she was born in Columbus, Mississippi, in 1887) and claims a California identity in her travel narrative My Great, Wide, Beautiful World (1936), in which she links the freedom of travel with liberation from racial categories. Despite privileging her identity as a traveler, Harrison claims California as her home state to "proffer an image of Americanness familiar to all she meets" (145).
The anomalous, or "maverick," status of these works requires contextualization, as Halverson points out, because the scholarly work simply does not exist that would enable us to appreciate MacLane, Whiteley, and Harrison as more than fodder for interesting anecdotes. Consequently, Halverson's close readings of the texts are accompanied by extensive contextualization. She situates each author in relation to the broader context of Western American women's literary history, rightly noting the dearth of scholarship on the early twentieth-century period. Her extensive archival research reveals the conditions in the literary marketplace that contributed to the popularity of these texts, as well as their critical reception. Finally, Halverson situates her texts in the framework of women's autobiography, focusing in particular on the interplay among region, self, and landscape. This broad scope, though based on a sound rationale, is unwieldy at times. For example, to substantiate the claim expressed in the subtitle that this is a book about "women writers and the American [End Page 212] West" as well as a book about autobiography, Halverson peppers her case studies with references to contemporaries such as Willa Cather, Mary Austin, Mourning Dove, Mary Hallock Foote, and others, but I found these references too cursory to serve as reliable contextual scholarship.
In other ways, however, Halverson's contribution to scholarship is of tremendous significance. Her archival research on the production and reception of her primary texts is especially valuable, particularly for its contribution to knowledge about the role of region in the early twentieth-century American literary marketplace. MacLane's western location, for example, resonated with the themes of confessional literature: "an avowed objective to lay the self bare, but a growing belief in the impossibility of doing so; desire for fame and love, anguish at being alone and misunderstood" (26). Whiteley's text attracted the attention of Atlantic editor Ellery Sedgwick for similar reasons. Sedgwick "found particularly compelling the writings of women who were geographically as well as ideologically or racially outside mainstream channels" (84). Harrison, meanwhile, was continually racialized by her publishers and reviewers.
Halverson's nuanced readings of ideas of region, Westernness, and selfhood in the texts themselves are also a welcome contribution to the literary history of women and the West. She demonstrates how the barren, static environment of Butte, Montana, functions for...