- Westerns: A Women’s History by Victoria Lamont
One of the most cherished landmarks of the American literary landscape is the western, a supposed bastion of American manhood and rejection of women’s sentimental authority, written by, for, and about men. In her magisterial study Westerns: A Women’s History, Victoria Lamont debunks this definition as myth, recovering the texts, lives, and contexts of several women who wrote westerns, challenging the terms through which the genre has been conceived, and exposing the ideological forces that continue to shape its perception. She thus illuminates the social and material power relations that both enable canon formation and are naturalized by it, upending a scholarly paradigm that has prevailed for nearly a century.
By Lamont’s account, the western is “a complex cultural field in which both men and women participated, although not always on equal footing” (p. 4). Her argument unfolds through richly historicized readings of westerns published by women between roughly 1890 and the early 1940s, during the popular western’s rise. She limits her scope to the venues where the dominant form of the genre appeared: presses that differentiated themselves from dime novel and mass-market outlets and a new breed of pulp fiction magazines directed at a middle-class, mixed-gender readership. Informed by meticulous archival research, Westerns features “linked case studies [that] tell an alternative origin story of the popular western,” challenging orthodoxies of its genealogy, emergence, and proliferation and recovering “something like a women’s popular western tradition” (pp. 8, 7).
In her first two chapters, Lamont systematically decenters Owen Wister’s novel The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains (1902), the western’s purported originator, by questioning both its primacy and its singularity. Her reading of Emma Ghent Curtis’s 1889 novel The Administratrix, which deployed myriad stock elements that Wister is credited with combining first, disputes the critical consensus that the western was “a genre constituted in opposition to women’s culture and authority” (p. 14). Lamont counters in chapter one that “the first known cowboy hero represented outside of the dime novel tradition” was not Wister’s Virginian but Curtis’s Jim, a “vocal woman suffrage advocate”; after Jim’s murder, his [End Page 224] cross-dressing wife Mary becomes the avenging “man with a gun,” whose politics Lamont historicizes through scouring Colorado newspapers and census records (pp. 14, 26). In chapter two, Lamont considers Wister’s novel alongside Frances McElrath’s The Rustler: A Tale of Love and War in Wyoming. Appearing within days of one another in 1902, both novels portray Wyoming’s notorious Johnson County War and grapple with the problem of maverick (unbranded) calves, whose ownership was in question. McElrath additionally compares cattle with women on the marriage market. Lamont argues that “the uncertain status of mavericks” in The Rustler “destabilizes the power relations of class and property ownership” that The Virginian seeks to naturalize (p. 45). Lamont’s recovery of these novels challenges not merely Wister’s pioneer status but also the idea that the western was solely a masculinist instrument of the economic elite.
During ensuing years, Lamont shows, women were active practitioners of the genre. Chapter three illustrates how B. M. (Bertha Muzzy) Bower and Caroline Lockhart leveraged their “authenticity as westerners” to attain “cultural authority over the emergent western novel” (p. 54). Bower, formerly “relegated to … a minor footnote in the history of the genre,” is brought to life in Lamont’s poignant analysis of her 1904 novel Chip, of the Flying U and her struggle with editors and publishers pressuring her to maintain a gender-neutral pseudonym, while Lockhart, Lamont argues, “self-consciously cultivated a western persona in order to claim a public identity as a woman writer” (pp. 67, 68). Crucial to any discussion of women’s westerns is Mourning Dove’s Cogewea, the Half Blood (1927), which Lamont reads in chapter four as an indictment of the ethnographic mode: “Resisting models of the Native American writer as eyewitness to a dying oral culture, Mourning Dove found in the popular...