A Sympathetic Misunderstanding? Mary Hallock Foote’s Mining West

A Sympathetic Misunderstanding? Mary Hallock Foote’s Mining West

The late-twentieth-century response to writer and artist Mary Hallock Foote has been much preoccupied with two related questions. First, how (or how far) can a privileged female migrant represent the American West to which, as a member of the eastern middle class, she was alien, and from which, as a woman, she was excluded in terms of political and economic activity. Second, what kind of West did this Victorian gentlewoman create? Foote (1847-1938) was born into a Quaker family and brought up in the Upper Hudson Valley. Well educated, she had begun a successful career as an illustrator when her marriage to a young engineer, Arthur De Wint Foote, caused her to spend long periods of time in the mining West and finally to settle there permanently. Discussions of Foote’s work are frequently underpinned by details of the Foote’s grim experiences in California, Colorado, and Idaho that lend further emphasis to the argument that Foote made an unlikely spokeswoman for the West.(1) In this article, I offer a reconsideration of Foote’s work through alternative frameworks for understanding her representation of the West.

Much of what has been written about Foote’s work addresses the restrictions routinely placed upon middle-class Victorian women — restrictions that were inescapable in the East and that, for some critics, maintained their hold on the writer during her time in the West. This kind of argument focuses on constraints on women generally during this period rather than on Foote’s successful career as an artist before and after her migration or, indeed, on the ambitious and unusual cast of the work she produced.(2) Though gender was plainly a major factor in shaping her as a writer, in her career as illustrator and writer Foote participated more easily and more dynamically in a high-cultural mainstream than has been recognized.

Certainly Foote’s interests are restricted: Her great subject is the experience of Anglo middle-class migrants such as herself. But while scholars of her work have often insisted on the marginalization of women (and especially middle-class women) in the West, Foote’s impulse seems to have been to write about a West in which women were of crucial significance and where, whatever gender differences existed, the similarities in their situation as migrants were more significant. Foote’s focus, I argue, was not upon a masculinized “frontier,” but on a West that seems to come closer to our own notions of crossroads and borderlands: an arid empire peopled by citizens trapped in a national and international condition of migrancy. Women in this space are not the inhabitants of any kind of discrete sphere, but rather engulfed, like men, by the experience of migration and the dawning recognition of its meaning. It has long been argued that Foote needed to shake off her eastern cultural background in order to be able to depict the mining communities of the Far West. Here I argue that her background specifically enabled her to represent the West as an experience of peculiar intensity for western migrants and as a space redolent with meaning for the wider national scene.


I want to begin by revisiting the shape given to Foote’s work more carefully. The assumptions about the marginality of women (and particularly middle-class women) in the West tend to portray gender as a determining and debilitating variable for the middle-class female migrant. Wallace Stegner’s novel about Foote, Angle of Repose (1971), offers a telling example of how constructions of Victorian womanhood linked with conventional understandings of the West as “frontier” lead us to expect a restricted insight within Foote’s work. Stegner uses Foote’s life and personal papers to produce an “authentic” portrait of a nineteenth-century middle-class female emigrant constrained by the limitations of her class and sex. The representation by such women of the West is argued to be inevitably inauthentic. His narrator,(3) a researcher, makes the point as follows:

The reminiscences don’t help much, and neither do the three novels that deal with the Leadville experience, sympathetically misunderstood from the fireside…. She really was protected, somewhat by her husband and just as much by her fastidiousness. The reality in these stories is only decorative.(4)

For sources to elucidate the “reality” of the West, Stegner draws instead on the work of historians of his generation to reconstruct a highly masculinized mining West. Then he insists that this “real” West was wholly incompatible with the priorities and values of “Susan Ward” (Stegner’s name for his fictionalized Foote). The narrator stresses the marginality of his heroine: “When frontier historians theorize about the uprooted, the lawless, the purseless, and the socially cut-off who settled the West, they are not talking about people like [Susan Ward].”(5)

It might be argued that Stegner’s text is fiction; certainly Stegner has claimed the license of a novelist to “warp” actual circumstance.(6) He does not, after all, call his heroine Mary Hallock Foote (or more disturbingly, cite Foote in his text at all). Furthermore, he has been important both in the recovery of Foote’s writing and in making claims for its truthfulness.(7) However, the same cluster of assumptions about an inevitable marginality, as Stegner expresses it, is also central to the organization of a scholarly text basic to Foote studies: Rodman Paul’s edition of Foote’s reminiscences, A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West (1972). The starting point of Paul’s discussion is the question as to whether Foote can “be considered a real westerner”: “She was not born one of course, but did she become one? In a few respects, yes; in greater part, no.”(8)

Paul, like Stegner, finds Foote’s writing of the West less significant (being based on a predictably limited understanding) than the way her otherness as a well-educated, middle-class woman defines the “real” West. With this kind of argument as the starting point of scholarship on Foote, literary historians and feminist critics subsequently went about searching for ways Foote’s life and writing assimilated into the “real” West defined by her assumed marginality. Lee Ann Johnson, in the only book-length study of Foote’s writing, keeps the problematic issue of Foote’s eastern origins center stage, but she measures her progress as a writer by reference to a process of accommodation. Johnson’s key argument is that Foote’s engagement with her new life makes it possible for her to practice the clear-sighted observation on which a realistic representation of the West rests. That is, the further Foote moves toward the “local color” that Johnson characterizes as spontaneous realism, the more she is able to leave behind the inadequate literary tools (and the resistance to the West) that she brings with her to the West and its representation.(9) The point here is not that a eastern, middle-class woman is a foreigner in the West, but that Foote’s work is marred by adherence to literary tastes that Johnson identifies as eastern.

Melody Graulich finds a different kind of assimilation at work in Foote’s writing. She contends that the West remains “male-owned territory” in Foote’s texts, and that she is unable to penetrate the masculine world of the mining town. When Foote manages to give “women’s concerns legitimacy and significance in the West” — when she creates an alternative women’s frontier fiction — she begins to write more successfully. Graulich argues that Foote’s work suffers from being “cut off…from a female audience” in the West that might have encouraged her to produce writing of western women’s lives. As it is, her “finest writing,” Graulich concludes, is to be found in her description of the intimate details of a woman’s life in letters to her friend and not in her published work dealing with the life of mining communities. The “real” West written by Foote, then, is located in the emotionally charged private recesses of the “female world of love and ritual,” not in her representation of western society as a whole.(10)

These arguments position Foote as disabled by her physical and cultural alienation from the eastern cultural scene and at the same time unable, as an unwilling or middle-class or female migrant, to achieve the level of assimilation into western life that would allow her to represent it fully. Foote’s class, education, and the constraints on her sex are more sympathetically and less deterministically rendered by Johnson and Graulich, but here, as in the wider field of writing about women in the West, the middle-class woman remains a peculiarly problematic figure. Middle-class emigrants have long been seen as clinging to eastern cultural practices and consequently as unable to immerse themselves in a new cultural scene. This is never more insistently claimed than in the context of the Far West mining communities, the most strongly masculinized areas of the West.(11)

Yet it is equally possible to argue that Foote’s class and gender allowed her a particular kind of experience of the West — one characterized by detachment, perhaps, but not one wholly organized by oppositions of East and West, or by positions of alienation and tentative assimilation. The geography of her life was more complicated, and her “homes” more provisional, than these oppositions suggest. Like her characters, she experienced repeated migration rather than leaving behind one home in favor of another.(12) More significantly, the migration experience did not displace her artistically. Her cultural and literary background helped her to embrace with intense interest the middle-class western migration experience. Members of Foote’s eastern cultural milieu, people of national importance and intellectual stature, visited her in the West.(13) Furthermore, this was a period when writers of region — female as well as male — and their work had a high profile within the cultural life of the nation.(14) The representation of region, and of the West in particular, offered creative possibilities to a whole range of writers, both eastern and western, who worked in different literary modes. Whether or not Foote wrote in the realist mode, the popularity of the melodramatic fictions of Bret Harte and the chivalric novels of Owen Wister — both writers were Foote’s near contemporaries — suggest that the national audience for western writing did not dictate realist treatment or personal immersion in the region described.

Thus, whatever her personal circumstances and preferences may have been, Foote’s situation as a female artist and author with good eastern connections living in various western regions need not be characterized as confining or problematic by definition. Certainly, Foote commented on the limitations of her perspective as a female migrant and on the weaknesses of her writing, but such statements need not be taken at face value.(15) Her self-critiques might as easily be interpreted as a late-nineteenth-century fiction writer’s nervousness about her craft, or as the strategic modesty of the successful woman writer of her time. Foote’s comments can also be placed within the tradition of Anglo emigrant texts that authorized and authenticated their “true pictures” of the West by arguing from the first that theirs was inevitably a partial and relatively unheroic view.(16)

For all the prevailing critical emphasis in Foote studies on the limitations of the middle-class woman’s experience of the West, the West written by Foote was not a “female frontier” in which the experience of women claimed exclusive emphasis. Foote did not make the choice to create a feminized regional world, as contemporaries such as Sarah Orne Jewett or Mary Wilkins Freeman did.(17) She certainly addressed the different outlooks of men and women migrating to the West, but her interest was in the social and psychological space that they shared. The engraving “The Coming of Winter,” for example, which appeared in Foote’s series of eleven engravings with accompanying texts, Pictures of the Far West (1888-89), published in The Century Magazine, shows a man and a woman differently placed in spatial and occupational terms. The text accompanying it is largely structured around an argument about the different meanings of the West for men and women.(18) The representation of the couple suggests figures isolated from one another but experiencing the same empty and featureless space. In an era where the rural home, prosperous or otherwise, was routinely shown in finely engraved detail and integrated with a regenerative natural landscape, this image portrays nothing for the woman or the man to look out upon; neither does it portray the typical cozy recesses of a homestead.(19) As the accompanying text suggests, the whole enterprise of seeking a western home is located in a realm of national fantasy — and an urban consumerist realm at that — and yet “brought home” in a metaphor about the experience of a child:

The home-seeker…is like a child in a great toy shop full of high-priced, remotely imaginable joys, and with but a single penny in his pocket. So long as he nurses the penny unspent he is the potential possessor; a man of much wider scope than the actual possessor.(20)

Thus, we find domestic life depicted in ways that suggest that no separate sphere can exist in so thinly established a social context. As a result, the practice of domesticity in the West appears in parodic forms in her work, most particularly as it is traced in boardinghouses that ape the domestic ideal. In The Last Assembly Ball (1889), for example, the landlady, Mrs. Dansken, enforces the most elaborate codification of domestic behavior on her boarders, but in circumstances where the artificiality of such behaviors is made peculiarly plain; the results of her efforts are transient and destructive.(21) Foote’s migrants, men and women, are tormented in temporary homes that intensify rather than relieve the stresses of the social scene.


If we emphasize Foote’s relatively privileged position as a well-educated, well-connected, middle-class female artist and writer working in a popular literary field, how may we begin afresh the discussion of Foote’s aspirations in writing the West? I want to begin by exploring Foote’s eastern background more carefully, particularly her aesthetic preoccupations and their implications. Foote’s background and education did not dispose her to lead a leisured or secluded life. Rather, her background suggests an ambitious young woman apparently intent on having a successful career in illustration. Her artistic education was crucial in forming her work. She attended the Women’s Art School at the Cooper Union during the mid-1860s, at a point when highly serious artists with strong connections with the London art scene were promulgating Pre-Raphaelite ideas. The Pre-Raphaelite movement was earnestly focused on the direct representation of the drama of human experience without reference to the constraints of genteel convention. One of the major figures in American Pre-Raphaelitism, Henry Farrer, taught at Cooper Union between 1861 and 1865, and his students subsequently taught there.(22) Farrer had been taught by Ruskin and consequently emphasized the meticulous attention to still life and nature studies favored by his mentor.(23) Foote’s own teacher, William J. Linton, was not only a friend of English painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but he had also been involved in the production of a key text in Pre-Raphaelite illustration, the Moxon edition of Tennyson (1857). Linton was considered a giant of his art by his American contemporaries.(24) It was here at Cooper Union that Foote began a successful career as a wood engraver.

Although Foote was not a committed Pre-Raphaelite, her early work of illustration and her later emphasis on verisimilitude can be interpreted within the context the Pre-Raphaelites’ passion for the minutely detailed imitation of life-forms. Indeed, this desire to be “true” to he subject attracted American artists already familiar with Transcendentalist nature-worship to Pre-Raphaelitism.(25) Foote’s illustrations for James T. Fields’s 1877 gift-book edition of The Scarlet Letter, for example, were her most prestigious work of woodcut illustration, a medium favored by Pre-Raphaelite artists. The illustrations focus intensely and confidently on detailed depictions of woodland scenes and Puritan interiors. Foote, in recollecting her depiction of Hester Prynne, took pains to point out that her Hester was modeled from life, using the “real” “fallen woman” whom Foote took with her as a servant to California.(26)

These illustrations were highly praised by William Dean Howells as “quite unapproached in power by anything in American illustrative art,” and as representing a sharp contrast with the more conventional and popular Idyllic style of her previous work.(27) In the opening phase of her career, Foote could be regarded as both ambitious and focused in her artistic endeavors, and she was not apparently judged as an artist in gendered terms. In fact, negative associations are attached to her explicitly female fictional characters. In scenes where her female characters practice the domestic arts, their work is represented as the function of a debilitating rather than enabling isolation. In a scene in the second part of “In Exile” (1881), for example, Frances Newell seems to evoke the world of female creativity as she works on “some soft white knitting in her hands.”(28) But, in the antithesis of Ariadne and Penelope’s powerful, mystical use of their arts to maintain a freedom from the aggression, Frances Newell’s knitting signifies her passivity, her silence, and the absence of potential in the tangled state of her emotional life:

She had gathered her knitting closely into her clasped hands; the ball trailed after her, among the legs of the chairs, and when in her silent promenade she had spun a grievous tangle of wool she sat down, and dropped the work out of her hands with a helpless gesture…At length she rose, picked up her work, and patiently followed the tangled clew until she had recovered her ball; then she wound it up neatly, wrapped the embroidery in a thin white handkerchief, and went to her room.(29)

Foote strips needlework of the glamour of its association with myth and the exotic preindustrial world of the Lady of Shalott. Hence, we might argue, the apparent lack of interest in representing Hester’s scarlet letter, embroidered by the exiled, though sought after, artist. Not only is isolated feminine artistry ironically treated by Foote, but the complex association made by Hawthorne between exile and creativity is not pursued either. Foote seems to eschew the association long made by female artists between their exclusion from the public stage and exile. The parallels between what Foote referred to as her “exile” in the West and her development as a writer brought her close to the situation that Hawthorne describes Hester Prynne experiencing as an artist: ejection from the community and yet valued for her skilled artistry. The exigencies of working for an absent yet controlling audience are dealt with fleetingly in her fiction. One thinks of Arnold’s nightly scribbling, shut up in his office, in “In Exile” (1881), or of Hilgard, in The Led-Horse Claim (1888), apparently condemned to fruitless attempts to communicate with indifferent investors.(30) But these vignettes focus primarily on alienation from those in power rather than on concerns about the advantages of “exile” in creative terms. We might expect Foote to use the illustrations for The Scarlet Letter — a text that has much to say about escape into “wilderness” and the female artist in exile — to concentrate on the creative work Hester performs in her isolated home. She does not. On the contrary, Foote’s images do not even depict Hester’s state of ostracism, and they virtually erase the fantastical and defiant creativity of the scarlet letter. Foote’s training and early illustration, then, was not merely ambitious; it seems to have left her with a sense of the importance of working within an artistic mainstream. If her background in Pre-Raphaelite creative practices might have shaped such assumptions, Pre-Raphaelitism had other meanings with regard to the artist’s role and position. For their American admirers, the Pre-Raphaelites’ work could be imagined as a break with convention that demanded the move into “new territory” at every level. Perhaps Foote’s training and her aesthetic outlook inspired her to claim “unoccupied” artistic territory: the representation of the mining industry in fiction. As Stegner points out, it was unusual for writers — male or female — to choose the mining business as a subject for fiction in the 1880s.(31) During this period geological surveys and associated travelogues by such figures as Clarence King promoted a sense of national self-congratulation. When mining inspired fiction writers in the English-speaking world, it produced such paeans to white supremacy as H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (1885), a novel very popular in the United States.(32) If glamour was attached to the lucky strike and to the career of the engineer, there were notably few American fictions dealing with the business and the process of mining.(33) This lack can be partly explained in terms of the American fantasy of western life as nonindustrial, nontechnological, and nonurban, and that precious metals were available for the taking.(34)

Perhaps more significant is the reputation of the mining industry itself. In 1883, as Foote’s The Led-Horse Claim was being serialized in The Century, the same magazine published Robert Louis Stevensons The Silverado Squatters, which describes a silver mine in terms of impermanence and debris: “Part human, from the former occupants; part natural, sifted in by mountain winds…a sea of red dust…floated sticks, boards, hay, straw, stones and paper; ancient newspapers above all.”(35) Mining was not only perceived as squalid in itself; the very landscape from which wealth was extracted (represented, for example, in popular contemporary images of the Rockies by photographers such as William Henry Jackson and Carleton E. Watkins) seemed likely to dwarf even the most heroic human endeavor. Equally, the turmoil in labor relations and the scandals in relation to the legal ownership of mines achieved a high level of notoriety during this period; even a figure as charismatic and well-connected as Clarence King needed to work hard, as Thurman Wilkins notes, to evade becoming tainted by involvement in the dirty politics of those mining claims that his expertise was required to settle.(36) Foote had experienced just such political situations: During the 1880s, Arthur Foote took a string of posts surveying and supervising mines.

Foote was not drawn to the glamour of the lucky strike and the virile heroism attributed to the engineer, but to the corruption of competing claims to land. In her illustration of mining, she leans on the highly emotional vocabulary of Pre-Raphaelitism. For example, the illustration that she provided for Thomas A. Janvier’s mining romance of thwarted love, “The Lost Mine” (1885), shows her transforming Janvier’s insipid Techita — a virtuous figure scarcely developed by the text — into the kind of darkly sensuous frame-filling figure that we associate with the Pre-Raphaelites.(37) But Foote’s own mining fictions move in a different direction. They draw heavily on the world of romance and mythology of Arthurianism, which fascinated the Pre-Raphaelites and their audiences. The Pre-Raphaelites used Arthurian mythology to explore and express ideals for living at all levels, but also to reflect on the dimensions of contemporary corruption. Foote does the same, making a statement about the West that is as confident in its appropriation of contemporary high cultural reference as it is determined in its positioning of men and women as experiencing the West in similar ways.


The artistic project of other easterners, such as Owen Wister, in shaping a West by reference to chivalric and Arthurian fantasy has been stripped of its pretensions in the work of critics such as Amy Kaplan and revealed in all its politically reactionary, racist, and overtly imperialistic Anglo-Saxonism.(38) Foote believed that expansion westward was justifiable and led naturally to Anglo domination. Traces of the conflict between Anglo-America and Indian nations are driven underground within her texts. In The Led-Horse Claim, for example, the mine engaged in aggressive poaching on the ground of another company is named after a local Indian nation, the Shoshone.(39) In John Bodewin’s Testimony (1887), where the Anglo-American protagonists are locked into a violent, sordid conflict, right is unequivocally on the side of the Eagle Bird mine, and wrong on the side of the mine named after another nation within the region, the Uinta.(40) But Foote was not much interested in Indian attempts to hold on to land or in Anglo-America’s determination to take it from them.(41) Rather, her attention was focused the scene of rival claims within the mining industry, and the Arthurian reference that she draws on to depict that scene produces a West altogether less triumphant than Wister’s.

In John Bodewin’s Testimony, we find Foote characterizing her eponymous hero as a kind of Pre-Raphaelite Arthurian knight: He is a man of beauty, sensitivity, and refinement. He has a languid sensuality that might remind us of, say, Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s Tristan in “Tristan and Iseult” (1867): “A slumbering intensity of expression, impossible to define, in his heavy-lidded, greyish eyes…[a] youthful slenderness of person…brown hands with slender fingers.”(42) The situation set up in the novel is one that might be resolved in a straightforward manner through the disinterested intervention of a man of honor. There is to be a battle (albeit in the courtroom) in which Bodewin’s statement of truth will vanquish the man who has cynically stolen land; a lovely young woman, whom we assume that Bodewin is destined to marry, awaits the victory for her father that hangs on Bodewin’s intervention. What we have here, then, is a narrative of conflicting land claims that recalls the situations, activity, and values that structure the tale of chivalry.

This is not the antimodern wish-fulfillment that we associate with some strands of Victorian medievalism, however. Almost everything is morally ambiguous in the Arthurianism of the Pre-Raphaelites; so, in Foote’s novel, we become aware that this modern knight has none of the vitality associated with the medieval past. We discover, eventually, that our hero’s name is John Tristram Bodewin, and that he may thus be identified with the ambiguous figure of a knight who breaks his vow in order to pursue a highly compromising love affair. From the start of John Bodewin’s Testimony, however, we see Bodewin unable to make even the plainest statement of truth in the legal wrangle over ownership of land; his silence is protracted and, in the end, has tragic repercussions. Although this inaction is ostensibly the result of his being personally compromised by his association with both sides — he is in love with the daughter of one claimant and morally in debt to the other — Bodewin’s stultifying introversion is a characteristic of the male protagonists of Foote’s mining fiction in general.

Foote’s heroes are all engineers and surveyors, educated in the East and drawn to a western life that seems to promise the chance to prove personal worth and to achieve the public good. Yet their attempts to behave according to codes of honor appropriate to gentle knights have no impact on the scenes in which they move. The disablement of John Bodewin is explained in a general cultural reference to “the shock of the civil war.”(43) More typically, however, Foote creates a context in her fictional mining West where no situation exists over which any man is able to exercise decisive control. Not only are her heroes beholden to distant masters for whom only commercial purposes exist, but those masters are merely shareholders and speculators in the company; they are not available as leaders for those whom the company employs. Foote uses scenes that resonate with the symbolism of chivalric tales to measure the profound disablement of men in this context. Hilgard, for example, the hero of The Led-Horse Claim, seems close to achieving the “blisse” of chivalric romance when his beloved makes the symbolic gesture of giving him a ring, but that promise of closeness and fulfillment, and even a general atmosphere of optimism, is immediately dissipated when Hilgard drops the ring and “stoops” and “gropes” in vain to recover it:

He had nothing but her ring clasped in his hand. He turned away, trembling and half-stupefied. His foot struck one of the low, gray monument stones, and he staggered forward, saving himself with a heavy jar against a tree-trunk. Recovering from the shock, he found it had deprived him of the ring. He searched for it long, stooping and groping about on the rough ground. At last, when twilight settled darkly in the hollow of the hills, he gave up his quest and took the homeward path, a pang of bereavement chilling his new-born bliss.(44)

If Foote’s exhausted heroes, responsible for the running of a corrupt industry, are drained of all heroic potential, the women, though differently engaged, are close to the tangled conflicts that characterize Foote’s mining West and so are equally blighted by this distorted social world. Arthurianism not only positioned women as crucial to the health of Arthurian society, but it also frequently and explicitly made women the focus of the knights’ utopian project. This, then, was the paradigm of male — female relations and the focus on intimate relationships that Foote chose to structure her narratives of mining society. In The Last Assembly Ball, where she imports the plot of one of the most popular Arthurian narratives of the era, Tennyson’s “Geraint and Enid” (1870), Foote sets out a scene of passionate and innocent commitment to the upright life in the context of the new mining community.(45) There is a brotherhood (here of single male boarders) presided over and inspired by a charismatic and worldly queen (the landlady, Mrs. Dansken); there is the selfless love of a well-born “knight” for a shabby but beautiful young woman; and his purchase of a fine dress in which to show her off. The parallel forced here by Foote between a mining-camp boardinghouse in the West and Camelot is not bathetic in intent. In the new mining community she depicts, the parallel conveys a sense of a society being purposefully designed for good ends, a new start, and a new kind of life.

As in Tennyson’s Camelot, the ideal is compromised almost from the moment of its inception. Tennyson’s Camelot is “a city of shadowy palaces” presided over by a world-weary king lacking the energy to confront the mockery that his project has become or to address his knights’ horrified disillusionment.(46) The boardinghouse brotherhood in Last Assembly Ball is an equally insubstantial confection of honorable ideals in which the boarders long to believe. However, in Tennyson’s Arthurian world, crucial though the presence of women is for the achievement of the chivalric ideal, women are more interesting in relation to the state of mind that they induce in men rather than for their own predicament. Guinevere, for example, is responsible, through her adultery, for the collapse of the Arthurian ideal; knowledge of her perfidy cripples Arthur’s resolve and disillusions the idealistic knights. In contrast, in Foote’s Arthurian world, women are contextualized and explored with greater complexity. Her Guinevere, Mrs. Dansken, is a widow looking for a husband; she may be less than scrupulous, but her desire is understandable. Foote’s Enid, Milly, hopes to escape from servitude through marriage with a wealthy “Geraint,” Frank Embury. Milly is not Tennyson’s patient Griselda-like figure but rather out of her depth in a situation where she is competing with her employer for a husband. At the end of the narrative Milly is left in a social limbo. Foote’s women experience circumstances so compromised by the instability of the mining community that the chivalric mode to which the men cleave fails to resolve the personal and social predicaments that arise. If anything, male adherence to absolute values makes matters worse by failing to engage women’s motives and desires. When Milly says: “It’s no use my talking…. You just do what you want with me. You always did,” Frank’s exasperating, even chilling reply is: “I always intend to — and it shall be just what my darling likes best.”(47) Embury’s unbending view of the appropriate conduct of a relationship between an honorable “knight” and his beautiful and defenseless “lady” precludes any realistic assessment of the actual dimensions of Milly’s personality and aspirations, and silences her expressions of need.

What Foote achieves here is something more than a use of Arthurianism to depict the outcomes, in personal terms, of the masculine fantasy of an ideal society, or variation in the representation of the effects of the chivalric ideal on male — female relations, or a critique of the troubled scene of social life in the mining West. Foote’s use of a British mythology of national history set in the “original” space of the West to frame the American national mythology of the “frontier” confuses our understanding of the West as the edge of civilization. Foote’s portrait of the West in her novels does not eschew local color or the details that reflected actual circumstances of the mining industry during this period; on the contrary, her novels describe particular incidents with the order of detail that one would expect from someone closely involved in disputes, as the Footes were. But, as the Arthurian frame of her texts stretches their context both in terms of space and time, the predicament of her protagonists becomes difficult to understand in localized terms alone. Describing the pale and psychologically exhausted hero and heroine of “In Exile,” Foote writes:

They are still in exile: they have joined that band of lotus-eaters who inhabit that region of the West which is pervaded by the subtle breath from the Orient…. Mrs. Arnold has not made that first visit East…and the old home still hovers, like a beautiful mirage, on the receding horizon.(48)

Her description of her characters as “lotus-eaters,” referring again, no doubt, to Tennyson, takes us further toward understanding what Foote means by the condition of exile. The range of reference, again, is mythological: Odysseus’s heroic adventurers have been away from home for so long that they have become wanderers; they discover what they believe to be an Edenic land, and then they are unable to leave, obsessed and compelled as they are by the belief in the unique pleasures of the place. But their conviction is not founded on actuality. It is the result of their addiction to the lotus plant. In the Tennyson poem, these are people whose imagined and expected escape to a land of effortless fulfillment and satiety has produced, as Isobel Armstrong argues, “a condition without sequence, of repetition without progression and disjunction without change.”(49) This is what seems to have happened to Foote’s migrant protagonists, male and female. When lighting out from the East where their presence is superfluous (typically, Foote’s heroes and heroines have unhappy family circumstances), they have expected to find a dynamic role, even to create a new society. What they achieve is a condition of displacement close to that from which they had imagined themselves to have escaped. The predicament of Foote’s protagonists is that of rootless and disoriented migrants; their psychological state is one of confusion and self-deception. Does this disablement represent the fallout of living in the conflicted society of the West, or does it reflect a condition more typical of late-nineteenth-century consciousness than Foote’s lotus-eating protagonists?

To return to the point where we began, to our understanding of Foote’s background and her capabilities as a writer of the West: We do not need to ignore her repeated statements of incapability (even from an artist who managed a successful career for about half a century) but to understand them as rhetorical rather than confessional. We should also recognize the advantages gained by the way in which she positions herself as a highly cultivated writer. We may also wish to consider her representation of the West within the contemporary context of the writing of region (western and otherwise), with all the opportunities for publication offered by regionalist discourse together with its reactionary and racist dimensions. Mary Hallock Foote was a Victorian gentlewoman indeed, with all the privileges as well as the constraints of that position.

Donald Worster has described the West as “a place where white Americans ran smack into the broader world.”(50) Foote found a broader world, in the sense of subject matter and audience, through writing a different kind of fictional West. That difference may be more precisely understood by an examination of her links with Pre-Raphaelitism and her interest in Arthurianism. This middle-class Victorian woman did not engage the cultural diversity and fluid interactions of the West, but her portrait of the migrant experience recognized its profound importance.


(1). Important readings of Foote since the 1970s include: Shelley Armitage, “The Illustrator as Writer: Mary Hallock Foote and the Myth of the West,” in Under the Sun: Myth and Realism in Western American Literature, ed. Barbara Howard Meldrum (Troy NY: Whitson Pub. Co., 1985), 150-74; Richard W. Etulain, in Re-Imagining the Modern American West: A Century of Fiction, History and Art (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1996), especially 10-15, 73-76; Melody Graulich, “Mary Hallock Foote, 1847-1938,” Legacy 3: 2 (1986): 43-50; Lee Ann Johnson, Mary Hallock Foote (Boston: Twayne, 1980); James Maguire, Mary Hallock Foote (Boise, Idaho: Boise State College, 1972); and Rodman W. Paul, “Introduction,” A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West: The Reminiscences of Mary Hallock Foote (San Marino CA: The Huntington Library, 1972).

(2). The representation of middle-class or “genteel” women caught in an ideological stranglehold and therefore hampered in their ability to make the most of the West forms a strand in the feminist historical discussion of western women dating to the late 1970s and 1980s. See, for example, Christiane Fischer’s introduction to Let Them Speak for Themselves: Women in the American West, 1849-1900 (Hamden CT: Archon Books, 1977); and Lillian Schlissel, “Frontier Families: Crisis in Ideology,” in The American Self Myth, Ideology, and Popular Culture, ed. Sam B. Girgus (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1981), 155-65. The discussion is part of a tradition that stretches back into the nineteenth century, when both radical and conservative thinkers berated the middle-class female for her unsuitability as a pioneer. See, for example, Margaret Fuller, Summer in the Lakes in 1843 (1844; reprint, Nieuwkoop, The Neatherlands: B. de Graaf, 1972), 61; and J. L. McConnel, Western Characters (New York: Redfield, 1853), 131.

(3). Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose (Harmondsworth, United Kingdom: Penguin Books, 1992). Stegner seemingly conflates narrator with novelist. The framing of his fictionalized biography through the process of historical research conducted by a psychologically and physically wounded narrator encourages us to consider the limitations of the scholarly project. On the other hand, Angle of Repose is structured around the idea — a belief that we are not encouraged to critique — that there is a peculiar difficulty in understanding the Victorian woman because of the limitations in her self- awareness.

(4). Stegner, Angle of Repose, 250.

(5). Stegner, Angle of Repose, 277.

(6). See “Angle of Repose” in Wallace Stegner and Richard Etulain, Conversations with Wallace Stegner on Western History and Literature, rev. ed. (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1990), 162. For Stegner’s explanation of his failure to cite Foote, see page 86.

(7). See Wallace Stegner, ed., Selected American Prose, 1841-1900: The Realistic Movement (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1958). Here Stegner writes that Foote’s camps are “almost the only real ones in local color fiction…too honest to be totally lost” (xi). However, for Stegner, local color is characterized by a partial realism. In the story he chooses to illustrate Foote’s work, she took pains to record material from observation. The story, “How the Pump Stopped at the Morning Watch,” is certainly in the realist strain of the late nineteenth century, though it is not particularly characteristic of Foote’s mining fiction.

(8). Paul, A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West, 3.

(9). I do not mean to misrepresent Johnson’s work by focusing on its structuring idea. Johnson’s work stands alone in the detailed attention that the author has given to Foote’s writing, and all students of Foote are indebted to Johnson’s scholarship. Her view of Foote’s career is broadly shared by Maguire in Mary Hallock Foote, who writes of Foote’s “growing ease with Western ways and places” (14), and Etulain, in Re-Imagining the Modern American West, 11-15. A similar argument about spontaneity and realism is made in relation to Foote’s illustration in Armitage, “The Illustrator as Writer,” 153-55.

(10). There is a particular kind of justification to Graulich’s reading, for Foote is cited by Caroll Smith-Rosenberg in her groundbreaking exposition of female relations in the nineteenth century, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations Between Women in Nineteenth-Century America,” Signs 1:1 (1975): 1-29.

(11). For examples of discussions that set a distance between the world of the mining West and the domesticated world of the middle-class woman, see Fischer, Let them Speak for Themselves, 13; Kevin Starr, Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 51; and Richard White, “It’s Your Misfortune and None of of My Own”: A New History of the American West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), 304, 308-9. Some historians have argued that the Gold Rush was the result of a desire for middle-class domesticity. See, for example, Stephen Fender, Plotting the Golden West: American Literature and the Rhetoric of the California Trail (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 127; and Ralph Mann, After the Gold Rush: Society in Grass Valley and Nevada City, 1849-1870 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1982), 1. Full participation tends to be measured by women’s involvement with the “outside.” See, for example, Ruth Moynihan, Susan Armitage, and Christiane Fischer Dichamp, eds., So Much to be Done: Women Settlers on the Mining and Ranching Frontier (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1990), xvii.

(12). I discussed this matter in more detail in Janet Floyd, “Mining the West: Mary Hallock Foote and Bret Harte,” in Soft Canons: American Women Writers and Masculine Tradition, ed. Karen L. Kilcup (Iowa City: Iowa University Press, 1999), 202-18.

(13). See Paul, A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West, 177-86, where Foote lists some of her visitors in Leadville.

(14). Richard H. Brodhead’s discussion of regionalist writers within mainstream U.S. culture is particularly enlightening in chapter four of his Cultures of Letters: Scenes of Reading and Writing in Nineteenth-Century Americans (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). For citations of Foote’s comments on her own lack of skill, see Paul, A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West, 17; and Johnson, Mary Hallock Foote, 20, 85.

(15). The late-nineteenth-century writer’s anxiety about craft is helpfully discussed by Daniel H. Borus in Writing Realism: Howells, James, and Norris in the Mass Market (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), especially 89-91.

(16). There is a tradition of emigrant women’s texts that begins with Caroline Kirkland’s A New Home — Who’ll Follow? Glimpses of Western Life (New York: C. S. Francis, 1839). emphasizes the local and gendered boundaries of her interests.

(17). Sarah Orne Jewett (1849-1909) and Mary Wilkins Freeman (1853-1930) are central figures within the diverse canon of regionalist writing in late-nineteenth-century America.

(18). Mary Hallock Foote, “Pictures of the Far West,” The Century Magazine 37 (November 1888-March 1889), 108, 162, 449, 502, 687; 38 (May-August 1889), 2, 299, 342, 502, 872; and 39 (October-November 1889), 57.

(19). See, for example, the illustrations in Sarah Burns, Pastoral Inventions: Rural Life in Nineteenth-Century American Art and Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989), 258-96; and John R. Stilgoe, Borderland: Origins of the American Suburb, 1820-1939 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), Part Two.

(20). Foote, “Pictures of the Far West,” The Century Magazine 37 (1888-1889), 163.

(21). Mary Hallock Foote, The Last Assembly Ball: A Pseudo-Romance of the Far West (New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1889).

(22). For comment on Farrer’s importance and his association with the Cooper Union, see Susan P. Casteras, English Pre-Raphaelitism and Its Reception in the Nineteenth Century (London: Associated University Presses, 1990), 155; and Linda S. Ferber and William H. Gerdts, The New Path: Ruskin and the American Pre-Raphaelites (New York: Schocken Books, 1985), 41.

(23). For Foote’s comments on her own lack of skill, see Paul, A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West, 17; and Johnson, Mary Hallock Foote, 20, 85.

(24). Alfred Tennyson, Poems (London: E. Moxon, 1857). William J. Linton’s importance to American wood engraving is discussed by Nancy Carlson Schrock in her introduction to an edition of Linton’s American Wood Engraving (Watkins Glen, United Kingdom: American Life Foundation and Study Institute, 1976).

(25). The relationship between the Ruskinian thought that informed Pre-Raphaelitism and Transcendentalism is discussed in Casteras, English Pre-Raphaelitism and Its Reception, 19-20.

(26). Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter (Boston: Houghton and Mifflin, 1880); and Paul, A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West, 113.

(27). William Dean Howells’s review appeared within an article titled “Recent Literature,” Atlantic Monthly, November, 1877, 752-53. For a brief exposition of the Idyllic style in engraving, see Paul Goldman, Victorian Illustrated Books, 1850-1870: The Heyday of Wood Engraving (London: British Museum Press, 1994), 87-96.

(28). Mary Hallock Foote, “In Exile,” Atlantic Monthly, August 1881, 184-92; and September 1881, 322-30.

(29). Foote, “In Exile,” Atlantic Monthly, September 1881, 323.

(30). Mary Hallock Foote, The Led-Horse Claim: A Romance of a Mining Camp (Boston: J. R. Osgood, 1883).

(31). Stegner, Selected American Prose, 117.

(32). The intense popularity of H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines (London: Cassell and Co., 1885) in the United States is evidenced by the sheer quantity of published editions: from two editions in its year of publication to five the following year, four in 1887, and three in 1888.

(33). The glamour of the profession is explained in Cecilia Tichi, Shifting Gears: Technology, Literature, and Culture in Modernist America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987), chapter three; and Clark Spence, Mining Engineers and the American West: The Lace Boot Brigade, 1849-1933 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970). For a comprehensive survey of late-nineteenth-century fiction about mining, see Harry H. Jones, “The Mining Theme in Western Fiction,” University of Wyoming Publications 20:1 (1956): 101-29.

(34). For a discussion of the representation of effortless strikes in contemporary mining fiction, see Jones, “The Mining Theme in Western Fiction,” 102.

(35). Robert Louis Stevenson, The Silverado Squatters (1883; reprint, London: J. M. Dent, 1993), 255.

(36). Thurman Wilkins, Clarence King: A Biography (New York: Macmillan, 1958), 232-33.

(37). Thomas A. Janvier, “The Lost Mine,” The Century Magazine, November 1885, 53-61. Foote’s illustration appears on page 61.

(38). Amy Kaplan, “Nation, Region, and Empire,” in The Columbia History of the American Novel, ed. Emory Elliott (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 240-66.

(39). I do not know whether Foote’s knowledge of the details of Shoshone affairs was sufficient to have made her aware of the Shoshone’s very friendly relations with the Anglo-American population during this period.

(40). Mary Hallock Foote, John Bodewin’s Testimony: A Mining Romance. (1886; reprint, London: Frederick Warne, 1887).

(41). I suspect that her view of Native American nations was comparable to that of Helen Hunt Jackson, whom she met in 1879 (see Paul, A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West, 179-80, for an account of the visit) and who, in Century of Dishonor: A Sketch of the United States Government’s Dealings with Some of the Indian Tribes (1885; reprint, New York: Harper and Row, 1965), argued that “the story of one tribe is the story of all” (337).

(42). Foote, John Bodewin’s Testimony, 165.

(43). In another dimension to Foote’s Anglo-Saxonism, we find her representing the Chinese — an infamously oppressed group in the West — in the form of exoticized objects, reminders of a world of sensuous possibility. See, for example, “In Exile,” where Miss Frances yields “her Northern slenderness to the long Oriental undulations of the couch” (329).

(44). Foote, The Led-Horse Claim, 157.

(45). For mention of Foote’s love of Tennyson, see Paul, A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West, 60, 93, 382.

(46). The quotation is from Alfred Tennyson, Gareth and Lynette (London: Strahan and Co., 1872), 96.

(47). Foote, The Last Assembly Ball, 109.

(48). Foote, “In Exile,” Atlantic Monthly, September 1881, 330.

(49). Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics, and Politics (London: Routledge, 1993), 88.

(50). Donald Worster, Under Western Skies: Nature and History in the American West (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 13.

Illustration (‘Coming of Winter’, drawing)

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