Mary Hallock Foote Essay - Critical Essays

Foote, Mary Hallock


Mary Hallock Foote 1847–-1938

American shortstory writer, novelist, diarist, and illustrator.

A local-color writer as well known in her day for her illustrations as for her prose, Foote was often grouped with other Western writers such as Owen Wister and Bret Harte and was well received by reviewers and the public. Her work was largely ignored by later critics, however, until 1971, when Wallace Stegner used Foote's sources for his novel Angle of Repose, precipitating a revival in Foote criticism. Novels by Foote such as The Led-Horse Claim (1883) and The Desert and the Sown (1902) and stories like “In Exile” (1881) and “A Cloud on the Mountain” (1885) emphasize women's reactions to the Western experience.

Biographical Information

Mary Hallock was born on a farm near Milton, New York, on November 19, 1847, a daughter of Quaker parents. Her later writing was influenced by the relative seclusion in which her dissenting family lived. A talented artist, Mary was educated at the Cooper Institute School of Design for Women in New York City. There she broadened both her knowledge and her social connections, forming a particularly useful friendship with Richard Watson Gilder, editor of Scribner's Monthly and later Century Illustrated Magazine. Gilder helped her to publish her first illustrations and writings and remained her most important mentor for many years to come. In 1876, she married Arthur De Wint Foote, a mining engineer who took her West with him to California, South Dakota, Colorado, and Idaho. Mary turned to writing as a respite from frequent domestic upheavals and Arthur's unpredictable income, finding an eager audience among easterners for the new literature of the West. Foote wrote a number of stories and novels during the 1880s but slowed her literary production late in the decade in order to cope with a growing family and Arthur's alcohol abuse. After one of many of Arthur's business failures, she again began producing what she called “potboilers” in the 1890s in order to supplement the family's income. When Arthur finally settled into a more prosperous period in California, she turned again to more serious novel-writing. After enjoying considerable popularity during her lifetime, Mary died on 25 June 1938 at the age of ninety-one, leaving a considerable legacy of writings which explored her own unique vision of America and the West in her time.

Major Works

Although Foote was influenced by Western writer Owen Wister, she did not share his idealized version of the Western past. In one of her first short stories, “In Exile” Foote explores one of her frequent themes, the ways in which both marriage and the West itself prove confining to women. Serialized in Century Magazine, her first novel, The Led-Horse Claim, is romantic in its plot structure but presents a realistic picture of life in a frontier mining town, a frequently used Foote setting. She also used a frontier setting for her novels John Bodewin's Testimony (1886), The Chosen Valley (1892), and Coeur d'Alene (1894). Her short story “A Cloud on the Mountain” melodramatically explores the tragic possibilities of the Western experience. A number of her stories, such as “The Rapture of Hetty” (1891) and “The Watchman” (1893), were transparent attempts to make money in a hurry. Her own frustrations with the circumscribed life she led in the West were mirrored in her 1902 novel The Desert and the Sown. After producing another novel, The Prodigal, and two short story collections in the early 1900s, she was too grief-stricken to write for several years after her daughter's death in 1904. In two later novels, The Royal Americans (1910) and A Picked Company (1912), she switches from strictly local-color writing to more sweeping historical romance. In Edith Bonham (1917), Foote pays tribute to her friend Helena de Kay Gilder, wife of Richard Watson Gilder. Foote's autobiography did not appear until 1972, when it was published under the title A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West, after being used as a source by Stegner.

Critical Reception

Early critics received Foote enthusiastically as one of several new chroniclers of the Western experience. Although Foote never reached the status of other local—color and realistic writers such as Mark Twain and Sarah Orne Jewett, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries she was quite popular, partly because of her own illustrations of her work and also because her work was most often serialized in popular magazines. After a long period of neglect, Foote's writing again gained attention when Stegner used a great deal of her unpublished material for Angle of Repose in 1971. Many critics failed to note Stegner's debt to Foote, but his novel did reawaken interest in her work. Foote's Victorian Gentlewoman and several monographs and full-length, biographical-critical studies of Foote were produced during the 1970s and 1980s. Critics in this period emphasized her realistic portraits of the West, despite her flair for plot twists and melodrama, as well as her sophisticated treatment of themes associated with Westward migration. Later critics pointed to Foote's important analyses of women's reactions to the West and praised her subtlety in portraying the ambivalences inherent in the Western experience.

Principal Works

The Led-Horse Claim: A Romance of a Mining Camp (novel) 1883

John Bodewin's Testimony (novel) 1886

The Last Assembly Ball: and, The Fate of a Voice (novel and short story) 1889

The Chosen Valley (novel) 1892

Coeur d'Alene (novel) 1894

In Exile, and Other Stories (short stories) 1894

The Cup of Trembling, and Other Stories (short stories) 1895

The Little Fig-Tree Stories (juvenilia) 1899

The Prodigal (novel) 1900

The Desert and the Sown (novel) 1902

A Touch of Sun and Other Stories (short stories) 1903

The Royal Americans (novel) 1910

A Picked Company (novel) 1912

The Valley Road (novel) 1915

Edith Bonham (novel) 1917

The Ground-Swell (novel) 1919

A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West: The Reminiscences of Mary Hallock Foote (reminiscences) 1972

The Idaho Stories and Far West Illustrations of Mary Hallock Foote (short stories and illustrations) 1988


Wallace Stegner (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: “Mary Hallock Foote: How the Pump Stopped at the Morning Watch,” in Selected American Prose, 1841-1900: The Realistic Movement, edited by Wallace Stegner, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1958, pp. 116-19.

[In the following essay from his collection of American realistic stories, Stegner provides an introduction to Foote's short story, “How the Pump Stopped at the Morning Watch,” with particular attention to Foote's sources.]

Editor's Note: Mary Hallock Foote was both writer and illustrator, and the fact that her husband, Arthur Foote, was a mining engineer gave her unprecedented opportunities to observe at first hand the life of a series of mining camps in the West: New Almaden, in California; Leadville, in Colorado; Boise and Coeur d'Alene, in Idaho; and finally Grass Valley, in the Sierra Nevada. Her writings reflect all of them—the only serious writing after Bret Harte to deal with mining-camp society, and virtually the only serious fiction which has dealt with the camps from intimate knowledge.

The present story was published in Century Magazine in June, 1899, but I saw it first in a typed, hand-sewn, and hand-bound copy which Mrs. Foote had made as an intimate childhood gift for her granddaughter, Mrs. Tyler Micoleau of Grass Valley. It was written sometime between October, 1896, and its publication date in 1899, and is included in this collection partly because it is one of Mrs. Foote's better stories, and shorter than most; and partly because, in the Foote papers now in the Stanford University Library, there are three letters to Helena DeKay Gilder which indicate part of the process by which mining-camp fact was transmuted into fiction. The letters reveal Mrs. Foote's painstaking intention to get the facts right—to deal fairly with the real life of the mines—and also her concern to get behind the facts to what she called the “human element,” the significance of facts for people, the meaning of events in human terms.

The first of the three letters, for which I am indebted to Mr. George McMurry, is dated from Grass Valley, October 16, 1896. It speaks of Mrs. Foote's difficulty in getting the “feel” of this new place, so “stern and concentrated,” so different from the raw newness of Idaho, from which she had just come. Then it summarizes what would later become the central incident of “How the Pump Stopped”:

There was a tragedy in the mine the other day. John Thomas, an Englishman, who had been pump-man at the North Star for many years, was killed in the shaft. The first I knew of it Clemmo, the gardener, came to the kitchen door asking for an umbrella: “Any old one will do.” Then he explained that the pump-man had been hurt and he wanted the umbrella to hold over him as they were carrying him home. I made the useless enquiries that one makes, and the useless offers: then I saw them carrying the old man by the house, on a mattress, six men, and Clemmo holding the umbrella over the head. His arms were bare to the elbow and crossed on his breast, and white in the sun as bleached bones—His head was wrapped in something...

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James H. Maguire (essay date 1972)

SOURCE: A review of A Victorian Gentlewomen in the Far West: The Reminiscences of Mary Hallock Foote, in Western American Literature, 1972, pp. 81-3.

[In the following essay, Maguire reviews Rodman W. Paul's edited version of Foote's reminiscences, A Victorian Gentlewoman in the Far West.]

Most of us hope that the writers of our region can find some way to escape from the burden of all the debased myths of the West created and nurtured in pulp fiction, on T.V., and in the movies. Perhaps unconsciously we fear that the myths might be true, that the early West might have been after all that land of good guys and bad guys, of Injuns and cowboys, of melodrama and...

(The entire section is 872 words.)

Lee Ann Johnson (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “Apprenticeship: New Almaden and Santa Cruz,” in Mary Hallock Foote, Twayne Publishers, 1980, pp. 27-37, 49-55, 79-84, 117-23, 155-58.

[In the following excerpts from her full-length biographical and critical study of Foote, Johnson discusses the ways in which Foote's life in the West influenced her early writing; evaluates her first novel The Led-Horse Claim, her more mature novels The Chosen Valley and The Desert and the Sown, and her historical romance The Royal Americans; and provides an overall assessment of Foote's importance in American literary history.]



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Mary Ellen Williams Walsh (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: “Angle of Repose and the Writings of Mary Hallock Foote: A Source Study,” in Critical Essays on Wallace Stegner, edited by Anthony Arthur, G. K. Hall & Co., 1982, pp. 184-209.

[In the following essay, Walsh attempts to clarify to what extent Wallace Stegner borrowed material from Foote for his 1971 novel Angle of Repose and examines the ways in which Foote's actual life was distorted by its fictional representation in Stegner's book.]

In Angle of Repose, Lyman Ward sits at his desk in Grass Valley, California, surrounded by the papers of his grandmother, Susan Burling Ward, using the papers to write a kind of biography of Susan and...

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Shelley Armitage (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: “The Illustrator as Writer: Mary Hallock Foote and the Myth of the West,” in Under the Sun: Myth and Realism in Western American Literature, edited by Barbara Howard Meldrum, The Whitston Publishing Company, 1985, pp. 151-66.

[In the following essay, Armitage draws on Richard Slotkin's concept of subliterary myth-making to show how Foote's stories of the West grew from her realistic illustrations of the region and explored the ambiguities inherent in Western life, especially for women.]

In Regeneration Through Violence: The Mythology of the American Frontier, 1600-1860, Richard Slotkin reasserts the idea that the genesis of myth is essentially...

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Janet Floyd (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: “Mining the West: Bret Harte and Mary Hallock Foote,” in Soft Canons: American Women Writers and Masculine Tradition, edited by Karen L. Kilcup, University of Iowa Press, 1999, pp. 202-18.

[In the following essay, Floyd places both Foote and Bret Harte in the context of newer critical perspectives which question old stereotypes about the way writers have dealt with the tug-and-pull between East and West.]

The category “Western writing” is a slippery one, and the exercise of forming and reforming a Western canon has become relatively obscure in the larger context of recent critical considerations of regionalism. Yet, even against a background where...

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Further Reading


Etulain, Richard W. “Mary Hallock Foote: A Checklist.” Western American Literature 10 (May 1975): 59-65.

The first complete bibliography (to 1975) of Foote's works and criticism about Foote.

Johnson, Lee Ann. “Selected Bibliography.” In Mary Hallock Foote, pp. 172-76. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980.

Selected primary and secondary sources by and about Foote (to 1980).


Stegner, Wallace. Angle of Repose. New York: Doubleday & Company, 1971.

Pulitzer Prize-winning novel based on Foote's memoirs, whose...

(The entire section is 461 words.)