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...
(The entire section is 1310 words.)