Friday, February 15, 2013

Christine Bold's "The Frontier Club"

Christine Bold is Professor of English at the University of Guelph. Her books include U.S. Popular Print Culture, 1860-1920; Selling the Wild West: Popular Western Fiction, 1860-1960; Writers, Plumbers, and Anarchists: The WPA Writers' Project in Massachusetts; and The WPA Guides: Mapping America.

She applied the “Page 99 Test”--Is Ford Madox Ford's statement "Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you," accurate for your book?--to her latest book, The Frontier Club: Popular Westerns and Cultural Power, 1880-1924, and reported the following:
Absolutely. Page 99 addresses the women in the frontier club—the wives, mothers, daughters, and mentors of the more famous frontier clubmen. Without these women, the modern western as we know it would not exist, yet they never get their due. Recovering their contributions is central to the book’s project: to crack open the one-man-genre narrative by which Owen Wister is credited with single-handedly creating the modern western. (It’s often said that, with The Virginian in 1902, “the modern Western was born,” but critics must imagine a kind of male parthenogenesis because women do not typically figure in the process.) The book reconstructs the network of influential easterners who consolidated the western formula, thereby advancing their own self-interest as well as larger systems of privilege and exclusion. A certain class of women was fundamental to this process, reinforcing the biological and social circle, working their cultural connections, and contributing their literary nous.

Much of page 99 documents the influence of women on Silas Weir Mitchell. A best-selling novelist and elder statesman of the frontier club, Mitchell was the Philadelphia physician famous for “the Mitchell cure” for neurasthenia and infamous for his treatment of women—see Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s excoriating portrait in “The Yellow Wall-paper.” His injunction against women writing is particularly ironic in light of his confessed dependence on “cultivated women”: his closest literary advisers included the actor Fanny Kemble; her saloniste daughter Sarah Butler Wister; first Dean of Radcliffe, Agnes Irwin; and his society wife, Mary Cadwalader—writers all. More hidden histories are excavated in the book, especially in terms of figures who lay beyond the pale (literally) of the frontier club. There were many popularizers of the West—African American authors, Indigenous performers, non-elite white women—who worked from very different positions, with very different results, and were elbowed aside by the powerful clubmen. Their voices close the book and point to my next project...
Learn more about The Frontier Club at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue