Early Women Writers of the West
Early Women Writers of the West
Freedom in the West? The early women writers of the West, like their male counterparts, grappled with the question of how to represent the frontier—was the West a blissful garden or a barren, crude wasteland? Did the West represent new freedom and new opportunities or hardscrabble labor and stifling isolation?
A New Home—Who’ll Follow?
How was I surprised some two months after at being called out of bed by a most urgent message from Mrs. Newland, that Amelia, her eldest daughter, was dying! The messenger could give no account of her condition, but that she was now in convulsions, and her mother despairing of her life.
I lost not a moment, but the way was long, and ere I entered the house, the shrieks of the mother and her children, told me I had come too late. Struck with horror I almost hesitated whether to proceed, but the door was opened, and I went in. Two or three neighbors with terrified countenances stood near the bed, and on it lay the remains of the poor girl, swollen and discoloured, and already so changed in appearance that I should not have recognized it elsewhere.
I asked for particulars, but the person whom I addressed, shook her head and declined answering; and there was altogether an air of horror and mystery which I was entirely unable to understand. Mrs. Newland, in her lamentations, alluded to the suddenness of the blow, and when I saw her a little calmed, I begged to know how long Amelia had been ill, expressing my surprise that I had heard nothing of it. She turned upon me as if I had stung her.
“What, you’ve heard their lies too, have ye!” she exclaimed fiercely, and she cursed in no measured terms those who meddled with what did not concern them. I felt much shocked: and disclaiming all intention of wounding her feelings, I offered the needful aid, and when all was finished, returned home uninformed as to the manner of Amelia Newland’s death.
Yet I could not avoid noticing that all was not right.
Oft have I seen a timely-parted ghost
Oft ashy semblance, meagre, pale and bloodless—
but the whole appearance of this sad wreck was quite different from that of any corpse I had ever viewed before. Nothing was done, but much said or hinted on all sides. Rumour was busy as usual; and I have been assured by those who ought to have warrant for their assertions, that this was but one fatal instance out of many cases, wherein life was perilled in the desperate effort to elude the “slow unmoving finger” of public scorn.
That the class of settlers to which the Newlands belong, a class but too numerous in Michigan, is a vicious and degraded one, I cannot doubt: but whether the charge to which I have but alluded, is in any degree just, I am unable to determine. I can only repeat, “I say the tale as ‘t was said to me,” and I may add that more than one instance of a similar kind, though with results less evidently fatal, has since come under my knowledge.
The Newlands have since left this part of the country, driving off with their own, as many of their neighbours’ cattle and hogs as they could persuade to accompany them; and not forgetting one of the train of fierce dogs which have not only shown ample sagacity in getting their own living, but “gin a’ tales be true,” assisted in supporting the family by their habits of nightly prowling.
I passed by their deserted dwelling. They had carried off the door and window, and some boys were busy pulling the shingles from the roof to make quail-traps. I trust we have few such neighbours left. Texas and the Canada war have done much for us in this way; and the wide west is rapidly drafting off those whom we shall regret as little as the Newlands.
Source: Caroline Kirkland, A New Home—Who’ll Follow?, or, Glimpses of Western Life (New York: C. S. Francis, 1839).
Life on the Prairies. Many Midwestern women writers, including Catherine Stewart, Rebecca Burlend, and Catherine Soule, found the prairies as beautiful and joyful as they had hoped. In 1843 Stewart published New Homes in the West, describing her travels and the “fine farms, with substantial houses and barns, good fences” she found there. For Stewart the West had “all the indications of comfortable living.” Burlend, an immigrant to Illinois, recorded her impressions of life there in her True Picture of Emigration, or Fourteen Years in the Interior of North America (1848). Though acknowledging the hard labor required to cultivate a farm, she painted a glowing picture of her adopted land, a land where “nothing can surpass in richness of colour, or beauty of formation many of the flowers.” Soule, in her novel Pet of the Settlement: A Story of Prairie-Land (1860), was equally enthusiastic. She described life on the prairie as one of “tranquil joy” and “beautiful health.” Yet other women discovered life on the frontier to be harsh and joyless. In Summer on the Lakes (1844) Margaret Fuller, the New England
Transcendentalist and feminist, found a beautiful landscape, but one which prairie women could hardly enjoy. “While their husbands and brothers enjoyed the country in hunting and fishing,” Fuller wrote, women “found themselves confined to a comfortless and laborious indoor life.” In Went to Kansas (1862) Miriam Colt also found the promises of the West to be empty. Colt and her husband joined the Vegetarian Settlement Company, leaving the East for Kansas. Once they arrived, however, they found that they had been swindled; no settlement actually existed. Colt’s husband and son died shortly thereafter, and Colt, defeated and disillusioned, returned home with her daughter.
Caroline Kirkland. Perhaps the most famous woman writer to debunk the myth of the West was Caroline Kirkland, author of the Northwestern novel, A New Home—Who’ll Follow?, or, Glimpses of Western Life (1839). Born in 1801, Caroline Stansbury moved west after her marriage to William Kirkland in 1828. In 1835 they moved to Michigan in order to jointly head the new Detroit Female Seminary. In 1837 they moved to the frontier village of Pinckney. There, “the strange things [she] saw and heard” prompted Kirkland to write her novel, which she intended as a correction to the overly romantic or sentimental portraits of the West in popular fiction. Narrated by the witty Mrs. Mary Clavers, A New Home describes daily life on the frontier, portraying the fictional villagers of Montacute as corrupt, lazy, vulgar, and opportunistic. Pinckney residents were angered by the satire; Kirkland’s neighbors reportedly warned her to “attend to her own family and let other people’s alone.” The Kirklands returned East in 1843, where, after William died unexpectedly, Caroline continued a career in writing and publishing. She became an editor at the Union Magazine, a literary and art journal, and became an active member of the midcentury New York literary circle. Her later publications include further (and somewhat less satiric) sketches of Western life in Forest Life (1842) and Western Clearings (1845), three book-length memoirs of her travels in Europe, and Personal Memoirs of Washington (1856), a biography of George Washington that emphasized Washington’s personal life as well as his political and military concerns. The biography also spoke to Kirkland’s concerns with feminism and abolition.
Gold Rush Women. It was perhaps around booming San Francisco that women writers enjoyed the most freedom. Francis Fuller Victor made her living as an assistant to the California historian Hubert Howe Bancroft. She also produced short stories, novels, and poetry. Most famous is her New Penelope and Other Stories and Poems (1877). New Penelope is a Western retelling of Homer’s Odyssey from the point of view of the matron of an Oregon boardinghouse. The work is a critique of frontier social standards that limited opportunity for women. Beginning in 1852, Georgiana Kirby penned short fiction that realistically described the prolonged and sometimes stifling seclusion of life on the frontier outside a Santa Cruz mission. Her Tale of the Redwoods (1852), the story of a man with two wives, one west and one east of the Rockies, suggests the style of both Margaret Fuller and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Jesse Benton Fremont, the wife of Col. John C. Fremont, also wrote tales of life around Yosemite, noting the displacement of native peoples and the foibles of “civilization.” Fremont’s work was generally realistic, though, perhaps in deference to social prescriptions against women as professional writers, she referred to her work as “harmless puddings.” These writers paved the way for the flourishing of Far Western women writers in the latter part of the century, including the poet Ina Coolbrith, Ada Clare, Adah Menken, Josephine Clifford, Helen McCowen Carpenter, and Ella Sterling (Clark) Cummins Mighels.
North and Southwest. Beyond the borders of California, other women were beginning to write literary pieces in other regions of the West as well. In the Northwest, Margaret Jewett Bailey published her novel, The Grains (1854), depicting her voyage around the Horn of South America to Oregon. The Grains is also a protofeminist work on the lack of legal protection for women on the frontier. In the Southwest, women writers were also beginning to flourish. In 1833 Mary Holly published Texas, an epistolary travel and pioneering log intended to entice other emigrants westward. In 1846 Susan Shelby Magoffin recorded her impressions as the first woman to travel the Santa Fe Trail full circle, later published as Down the Santa Fe Trail and Into Mexico: 1846–1847 (1926). Augusta J. Evans, in Texas, also published her novel, Inez, a Tale of the Alamo (1855).
Caroline M. Kirkland, A New Home—Who’ll Follow?, or, Glimpses of Western Life, edited by Sandra A. Zagarell (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990);
Thomas J. Lyon and others, Updating the Literary West (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1997).