- Traveling Women: Narrative Visions of Early America
Susan Clair Imbarrato has done yeoman service in her new book, Traveling Women: Narrative Visions of Early America, taking the mission of social history—to illumine the lives of ordinary people and everyday life—mixing it with literary analysis, and making it her own. Her subjects are literate white women, some with the means to travel, some impelled by economic circumstances to relocate. Though one might counter that "traveling women" are by definition exceptional, these women write extensively of everyday life, often in great detail. Indeed, because they are in transit—either sightseeing or on their way to a new home—they view the quotidian in heightened ways, through prisms of exoticism, emotion, comparison, and judgment.
Taking on the story of women who went west (and sometimes east) means taking on a burden of history. Though Imbarrato has uncovered several previously unexamined women's accounts, scholars have been interested in the topic since the inception of the New Social History and the history of women's lives and gender. John Mack Faragher's engrossing 1979 work, Women and Men on the Overland Trail (which Imbarrato does not cite) remains a landmark. Among other topics, Faragher discusses pioneer women's diaries and letters, evocatively detailing the mix of frustration, sadness, and resignation of women who, for the most part, looked not forward to a frontier, but wistfully over their shoulders at what they left behind. Since then, the study of the feminine frontier has been explored by such scholars as Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith (who also do not appear in the bibliography), Glenda Riley, and Lillian Schlissel (though Riley and Schlissel have written extensively on western women, Imbarrato cites only a single work from each). Imbarrato, then, is under the onus of saying something new about the accounts of her women, and the results are mixed.
In one realm, Imbarrato succeeds beautifully. One of her stated aims is to give her historical subjects their due, and to introduce scholars and the general public to a group of fascinating women. She has done superb research, [End Page 224] and her knowledge of, and zest for, the particulars of each woman and her context is amply demonstrated. However, the richness of the archive has its own pitfalls. At times, Imbarrato's grip on her sources slips; by employing so many examples, she sometimes loses her argument. Page-long paragraphs are the rule here and not the exception.
While Imbarrato is to be lauded for her accomplishment (the recovery of women's voices was the first, and remains the central focus of historians of women's lives), she lacks a strong thesis for ordering her material. There is much original and provocative work here—especially on women's writing as a genre—but the book as a whole needs the discipline of a through line to draw out the meanings and implications of the many ideas presented. Imbarrato's most interesting contention is that "women's travel narratives are a valuable source for understanding the process by which cultural values were transferred and transformed across the new nation" (2). This good thought is lost, however, and in trying to do so much, Imbarrato cannot follow this seductive path.
The best biographies tell more than the story of a life—this is true for "life and times" accounts of a single individual, and even more true for group biographies such as this one. Imbarrato knows this, but often loses sight of the Big Picture of historical significance. She falls back on insisting that these accounts are important because women have a unique perspective, that their diaries tell us things that male narratives don't, that they are "interesting" and "valuable," but cannot fully explain how. Imbarrato seems defensive when she highlights the hardship and hard work of pioneer women, and even uses the dreaded "c" word—"contribution."
No doubt many historians of gender and women's lives can sympathize with Imbarrato's feeling that she needs to justify...