Foote, Mary Hallock

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FOOTE, Mary Hallock

Born 19 November 1847, Milton, New York; died 25 June 1938, Hingham, Massachusetts

Daughter of Nathaniel and Anne Burling Hallock; married Arthur De Wint Foote, 1876; children: three

The youngest child of Quakers, Mary Hallock Foote was raised on the family farm in the Hudson River valley. After completing her schooling in 1864, she took the step, unusual for a young lady of her era, of enrolling at New York City's Cooper Union to study art. Over the course of three years at Cooper, she prepared herself for a career in black-and-white illustration. Her professional debut came in 1867 with the publication of four of her drawings in A. D. Richardson's Beyond the Mississippi.

During the following 25 years, Foote enjoyed fame as one of the most accomplished of American illustrators. She executed drawings for many of the prominent giftbooks of the period, including Longfellow's The Skeleton in Armor, Whittier's Mabel Martin, and Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Her illustrations were published regularly in St. Nicholas and Century magazines; "Pictures of the Far West," her most celebrated series, appeared in the latter during 1888 and 1889. By the 1890s, Foote's position as "the dean of women illustrators" was secure, and she was elected to the National Academy of Women Painters and Sculptors.

Foote's success as an illustrator was ultimately eclipsed by her achievements as an author. After her marriage to a civil engineer, she spent much of her life in Western mining camps, whose picturesque aspects invited literary as well as visual interpretation. Her first attempt at serious prose, "A California Mining Camp," appeared in Scribner's in 1878 and highlighted her experiences in New Almaden, California; it was followed by descriptive sketches of other locales where her husband's profession took them. From a stay in Leadville, Colorado, came The Led-Horse Claim (1883), Foote's first novel and a modest bestseller.

Between 1883 and 1925, Foote published 11 more novels and four volumes of short stories; she also wrote an excellent autobiography and numerous uncollected tales and sketches. Most of her fiction derived from material rooted deeply in her own experience: in particular, the tension between the urbane East and the boisterous West—between the genteel security of the East Coast and the pioneer existence beyond the Rockies—informed her writing. Foote, approaching her material more sympathetically as her appreciation for the West grew, made the frontier a subject of realistic interest and of romance. As Owen Wister observed, hers was the first voice "lifted to honor the cattle country and not to libel it."

Foote's finest writing came after 1895, once she had retired from professional illustration and had settled comfortably with her husband and three children in Grass Valley, California. Especially noteworthy is The Desert and the Sown (1902), a novel inspired in part from Foote's experiences in Idaho between 1884 and 1894. Although the plot covers only the three years between the arrival of Emily Bogardus in Idaho and the death of her estranged husband Adam in New York, the tale spans the family fortunes for three generations. A biblical framework reinforces the story's symbolic reconciliation of East and West, past and present. Two other significant works by Foote are Edith Bonham (1917) and The Ground-Swell (1919). Both are poignant tributes to the past—the former dedicated to the memory of Foote's best friend, Helena Gilder, and the latter designed as a tribute to Agnes Foote, the author's youngest daughter, who died in 1904.

After 1919 Foote ceased to publish, although during the 1920s she undertook a project that served as the capstone to her career. Written when she was nearing eighty, Foote's Reminiscences (1972) is a truly distinguished autobiography of interest to historians as well as to literary scholars. From the quiet milldams of Milton to the noisy mining stamps of Leadville, from the frustration and disappointments of Idaho to the comforts and acclaim of the Grass Valley years, this personal account of a genteel Quaker "irretrievably married into the West" makes compelling reading. In 1932 Foote returned with Arthur to the East, living in Hingham, Massachusetts, until her death six years later.

To her 20th-century successors Foote bequeathed a legacy of Western fiction which, at its best, provided fresh perspectives, substituted sensitivity for sentimentality, and strove for fidelity. At a time when the West was still subject to humorous exploitation, Foote was the first to achieve the stance of a discerning literary observer, while as a gifted illustrator she also contributed memorable interpretations of the frontier.

Other Works:

John Bodewin's Testimony (1886). The Last Assembly Ball and The Fate of a Voice (1889). The Chosen Valley (1892). Coeur d'Alene (1894). In Exile, and Other Stories (1894). The Cup of Trembling, and Other Stories (1895). The Little Fig-Tree Stories (1899). The Prodigal (1900). A Touch of Sun, and Other Stories (1903). The Royal Americans (1910). A Picked Company (1912). The Valley Road (1915).


Bickford-Swarthout, D., Mary Hallock Foote: Pioneer Woman Illustrator (1996). Cothern, L., "Becoming Western: Gender and Generation in Mary Hallock Foote's Dual Career" (thesis, 1997). Edwards, C., "That Violent and Promiscuous Birth"—A History of the West in Four Voices: Roosevelt, Turner, Foote and Rolvaag (1995). Hatheway, D. M., "The Last Remove: Women, Mourning, and the American West" (thesis, 1994). Johnson, L. A., Mary Hallock Foote (1980). Maguire, J. H., Mary Hallock Foote (Boise State College Western Writers Series #2, 1972). Marschean, A. L., "Romance and Reality on the Mining Frontier: The Life of Mary Hallock Foote" (thesis, 1985). Milowski, C. P., Revisioning the American Frontier: Mary Hallock Foote, Mary Austin, Willa Cather, and the Western Narrative (1996). Northwest Passages: A Literary Anthology of the Pacific Northwest from Coyote Tales to Roadside Attractions (1994). Parra, J. M., "Altered Vision: Three Nineteenth-Century Western Authors: Caroline Kirkland, Mary Hallock Foote and Mary Austin" (thesis, 1995). Stegner, W., Angle of Repose (1971). Taft, R., Artists and Illustrators of the Old West, 1850-1900 (1953).

Reference works:


Other references:

Colorado Magazine (April 1956). Idaho Yesterdays (Summer 1976). University of Wyoming Publications (15 July 1956). WAL (May 1975).