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“T h e N a t u r a l is t ic Im p u l s e ”: L im it a t io n s o f G e n d e r a n d L a n d s c a p e in M a r y H a l l o c k F o o t e ’s Id a h o S t o r ie s L a u r a K a t h e r i n e G r u b e r T here is som ething terribly sobering about these solitudes, these waste places of the E arth. T hey belittle everything one is, or tries to do. — M ary Hallock Foote, Letter to H elena de K ay Gilder, Boise, Idaho, 1887 o In 1980, Lee Ann Johnson published what is to date one of two comprehensive books examining nineteenth-century western writer Mary Hallock Foote. Primarily a biographer, Johnson dismisses Foote’s Idaho stories as “irrepressibly romantic, albeit ‘darkly’ so,” adding that “in treatment they resemble Frank Norris’s naturalistic ‘romances’” (96, 97). It’s a provocative if cryptic link: that Foote’s romances might be grounded in late-nineteenth-century literary naturalism is an unex­ plored connection in the body of Foote criticism. This essay examines Mary Hallock Foote in the context of both literary naturalism and the late nineteenth-century emotional climate surrounding America’s dwindling open spaces. In particular I investigate the textual relationships that exist in her romances between women, landscape, and power. Foote’s stories are an intriguing variation of lit­ erary naturalism in that they represent western women in situations involving raw power— almost invariably, the stories are about women who lack it. In much the same way that Amy Kaplan examines liter­ ary realism “as a strategy for imagining and managing the threats of social change— [a way] not just to assert a dominant power but often to assuage fears of powerlessness,” Foote’s patterns of naturalism simultaneously re-create and combat the restrictions of the nineteenthcentury woman’s life in the American West (10). To historicize Foote’s fiction by putting it in context with the dominant fin-de-siecle national discourse on landscape and the literary discourse of naturalism is one goal here, then; the other aim of this essay is simply to draw further attention to a writer whose work has been largely overlooked. Foote’s fiction, “rather than [dealing] with the West in ideal or opportunistic terms ... tell[s] a story of constant tension between dreams and reality— 3 5 4 WAL 3 8 . 4 WINTER 2 0 0 4 a tension which is most often resolved in disappointment” (Armitage 163). Her work, with its dark settings and its honest portrayal of a notalways -romantic West, deserves to be investigated in these terms. F i g u r e a n d B a c k g r o u n d Foote— like her Century Magazine contemporaries John Muir, Theo­ dore Roosevelt, and Frederic Remington- -had a hand in writing the Wrest and, in doing so, creating it as a space in America’s national consciousness. She was in fact quite well known in her day both as an illustrator and a writer. After she followed her husband west in 1876, most of her work (both illustrations and prose) was published in the Century, one of the era’s most popular monthly periodicals, and was circulated to that magazine’s extensive readership.1 As an artist, Foote constantly sought out suitable and striking settings for her sketches, backdrops that would accentuate the figures in the forefront of the pic­ ture. She did the same in her literary works. Solidly grounding her painting and her writing with the right backdrops perhaps gave it nec­ essary stability—for those who write about Foote take note of her need for comfort and tranquility. These conditions, Johnson notes, often acted as catalysts for some of her best writing (37). Her backgrounds, however, did more than simply ground her literature. It is because of Foote’s popularity during the latter decades of the nineteenth century that her...


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