- Women Writers of the American West, 1833–1927 by Nina Baym
Nina Baym has once again, and much to our benefit, travelled into the realm of women writers and American literary history, but this time with a concentration on the West. Baym has recovered a plethora of well-known and less-known women writers by scouring footnotes, catalogues, cultural histories, and bibliographies to assess women’s contribution to America’s western scene, debunking a myth that women wrote less about the West than other places. Clearly, this was not the case as Baym takes us through close to 650 books, including works of fiction, memoir, and collections of poetry for adult and young people by more than 300 women writers.
Organized chronologically and thematically within regions, Baym begins with Mary Austin Holley’s Texas, the first recorded book Baym found by a woman writer of the West, and ends with Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, a book she refers to as “one of the greatest of western books.” Baym takes us from San Antonio’s breathtaking scenery to the Pueblo Indians of Santa Fe, covering a wide range of topics including religion, Native American culture, polygamy, sexuality, and the Rocky Mountains. Baym assesses the stories individually and collectively, noting for example that Oklahoma narratives, because written earlier, often represented silent suffering, while those written about the Southwest, settled later, emphasized peace and prosperity. Baym is also quick to debunk overzealous judgments about the west, more specifically those about the cowboy who was actually less an outlaw and more a progressive citizen. She highlights that contrary to popular belief women preferred men who followed the law rather than those who broke it. [End Page 278]
The only downside to this study is that Baym’s ambitious organization of chapters is somewhat disruptive in parts. Because she attends to theme while also focusing on chronology, her discussion of certain authors (Mollie Moore Davis and Gertrude Atherton, for example) are split up, which can be somewhat distracting, but this is certainly a small price to pay for such a rich resource of cultural and literary history.
This clearly written, straightforward conspectus is like no other book in its field through its careful and meticulous survey of women writers who at times accepted domestic responsibilities and at others became significant agents of change. Baym is clear in noting that she had to sacrifice depth for breadth in order to accommodate the many women writers she includes in her survey, no small task considering the amount of research and thought that went into this book. But this resource is no mere series of plot summaries. It is so much more. Women Writers of the American West is a must have for scholars and nonscholars alike who know the West was won, but, as Baym assuredly argues, certainly not lost.