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W e s t e r n W o m e n ’s B io g r a p h ie s S u s a n A r m i t a g e W o r k s R e v i e w e d Browne, Sheri Bartlett. Eva Emery Dye: Romance with the West. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2004. 186 pages, $24.95. Hugo, Ripley. Writing for Her Life: The Novelist Mildred Walker. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003. 286 pages, $29.95. Leckie, Shirley A. Elizabeth Bacon Custer and the Making ofa Myth. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993. 419 pages, $16.95. Randall, Isabel F. A Lady's Ranch Life in Montana. Ed. Richard L. Saunders. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004. 192 pages, $19.95. Zanjani, Sally. Sarah Winnemucca. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001. 366 pages, $29.95/$17.95. S u s a n A r m it a g e T h is review gives me the opportunity to explore a question that has been troubling me lately: Why is so much recent scholarship on western women biographical? I hoped that looking at this particular cluster of works on mid-nineteenth-century and twentieth-century women writ­ ers might provide an answer to my question. I’m not sure that it has. In fact, reading these works has only increased my wonder that so many scholars are brave enough to jump into the biographical morass. Biographies seem so straightforward: they describe individuals’ lives, explain their major motivations, and explore their significance in a wider historical context. Each of these five biographies does that more or less successfully. Some of the failures can be traced to dilemmas faced by all biographers: How complete is the personal source material? How much can one trust the subject’s own explanations? How much can one rely on the opinions of contemporaries? A s is by now well known, all these problems are exacerbated when the subject is female, for the perils of breaking with conventional expectations have always been greater for women than for men. Thus the feminist biographer faces the added task of cutting through conformist verbiage, by the woman herself and by her contemporaries, in the effort to glimpse the “real” person. O f the five books under review, Shirley Leckie’s biography of Eliza­ beth Bacon Custer surmounts the described difficulties most successfully. One reason is because the documentation on EBC (I use her initials in preference to using her first name or confusing her with her famous husband) is much better than on any of the other women under con­ sideration. She kept a diary and copiously wrote letters, many of which were saved. But it primarily succeeds because Leckie is able to step away from the well-worn stereotype of EBC as adoring wife and weepy widow, which has, until now, been the standard characterization in the hundreds of books on General George Armstrong Custer, his Civil War record, his reputation as an Indian fighter, and, of course, his role in the famous debacle of 1876 that used to be called “Custer’s Last Stand” and is now called the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Leckie writes what amounts to a joint biography in which, for the first time, he, not she, is the lesser partner. Leckie’s focus on EBC shows her to be an attractive, flirtatious, and ambitious daughter of affluent parents who warmed to Custer, among her many suitors, only after he began his meteoric rise through the ranks in the early years of the Civil War. Once manied, EBC was a classic army wife, meeting and charming all the people who W e s te r n A m e ric an L it e r a t u r e 41.1 (S p rin g 2 0 0 6 ) : 6 6 - 7 2 . W e s t e r n A m e r ic a n L i t e r a t u r e S p r in g 2 0 0 6 might help her husband’s career. W hen it became clear that Custer was a compulsive...


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