Modernism and Mildred Walker
Mildred Walker, who wrote thirteen novels, including a young-adult novel and the posthumously published The Orange Tree (2006), was well enough recognized during her lifetime to be nominated for the National Book Award for The Body of a Young Man in 1960. Her reputation faded, however, and after the appearance of If a Lion Could Talk in 1970, her novels went out of print, remembered mainly by a handful of Montana writers who had been influenced early in their careers by Walker's best-known work, Winter Wheat (1944). But beginning with Winter Wheat in 1992, the University of Nebraska Press began reissuing Walker's novels, followed by Ripley Hugo's literary biography of her mother, Writing for Her Life: The Novelist Mildred Walker, in 2003. Now, with Carmen Pearson's Modernism and Mildred Walker, comes the first full-length critical study of Walker's novels.
To refute the view that Walker is best understood as a regionalist writer and to make the case that her novels deserve greater critical understanding and appreciation, Pearson points out that only four of the novels are set in Montana and argues that the modernist literature Walker was reading and teaching at Wells College in New York after 1955 heightened her understanding [End Page 80] of her literary heritage and led to a new complexity in her later novels that, ironically, diminished her popularity. In support of this thesis, Pearson presents a far-reaching examination of modernism and discusses Walker's themes of economic needs, of warfare, of women's changing roles, of evolving technology, and of movement and displacement, along with her adaptations of modernist aesthetics in her literary style, concluding that "today, her novels remain relevant and infused with the energy of compromise and the language of movement: her modernism" (177).
A counter-argument might be that, rather than infusing her novels with energy through her reading in modernism, Walker larded her later novels with a ponderous weight of literary borrowings that robbed them of the freshness and spontaneity of her earlier work (some sections in If a Lion Could Talk, for example, come perilously near a parody of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness , with the upper Missouri River in Montana standing in for the Congo River and missionary wife Harriet Ryegate as an unlikely Marlow). Also, as Pearson notes, the public's taste in literature changed during Walker's career. Today it is necessary to read beyond Walker's gentility, her ladylike avoidances, her insistence on the nobility of her characters, in order to appreciate her finest work: Winter Wheat and The Curlew's Cry (1955). In this respect, Pearson, in her close reading and analysis of style, has done Walker a great service and also a service to those in search of a far-reaching study of modernism and its adaptations in the literature of the American West.