Writer was first woman to make a living from fiction about the West | PostIndependent.com

Writer was first woman to make a living from fiction about the West

CMC Corner
Christine Smith
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

Mary Hallock Foote (1847-1938), an early and prominent Western author and illustrator, was one of the first women to make a living writing fiction about the West. The following is an excerpt from the introduction of my book, “Social Class in the Writings of Mary Hallock Foote” (University of Nevada Press, 2009).

“Mary Hallock Foote was born at the right time and in the right place to take advantage of the cultural capital of her birth class and turn it into a money-making career. Talented and educated, she moved in the 1870s from New York state to the West, and became an early and prominent Western illustrator and writer. Foote was able to parlay a genteel middle-class background and her own illustrating and writing skills into a career in magazines and books at a time when American publishing was burgeoning and wanted to hear voices like hers from the American West. Several factors contributed to her success.

“To begin with, she was raised with an old-world Quaker background on a longtime family property in the Hudson River Valley. This put her in the orbit of the reigning values of the Eastern establishment. As a young woman, she acquired marketable artistic skills as one of the first generation of educated middle-class women in the United States. She then married and went West with a mining engineer, which gave her an advantaged, technological perspective on the settling of the West. And she began her career just when new publishing and transportation technology made it possible for someone in rural California, Colorado, and Idaho to make a living from New York and Boston publishers.

“As a result of this fortuitous set of circumstances, Foote became a success. She was renowned for her elegant drawings of life in the East and West, and for her stories and novels, many of which depict Easterners and their families coming to terms with both the cultural isolation and vicissitudes of professional opportunities in the West. Foote set her first three novels in Leadville during the boom years of the 1880s, with illustrations of hardscrabble miners, lofty peaks and the few genteel women who braved Leadville’s wild reputation.”

The book explores the complicated and sometimes contradictory manifestations of social class as they appear in the novels, short stories, autobiography, and letters of Mary Hallock Foote. Her own class background and the changing nature of publishing, capitalism in general, transportation, and class formation in the late nineteenth century helped Foote’s work play a significant role in validating and also questioning social hierarchies in the Eastern and Western United States.

Dr. Christine Smith is associate professor of communications/humanities at Colorado Mountain College. Everyone is welcome to attend Christine’s free upcoming presentations on her book: Feb. 16, 1 p.m., at CMC-Spring Valley; Feb. 23, noon, at the CMC Lappala Center in Carbondale; or March 18 at 7 p.m., at the Glenwood Springs Public Library.

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