Mary Hallock Foote Critical Essays

Introduction

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.