Reviews Biographies Of Women Of The West

Reviews: Biographies Of Women Of The West Essay, Research Paper

Go west, young lady Edward S Curtis: Coming to Light Anne Makepeace 216pp, National Geographic Sacagawea’s Nickname Larry McMurtry 178pp, NYRB I Dwell in Possibility Donna M Lucey 256pp, National Geographic Phoebe Ann Mosey doesn’t figure in I Dwell in Possibility, a history of women who built the United States: no mugshot, no mention, not even under her arena name of Annie Oakley. Likewise left out is Sacagawea, or however you spelled her Shoshone name; she bore a son and carried him on her back all the way with the Lewis and Clarke expedition that crosed the continent in 1802-06. However, the more famous Pocahontas figures big – probably because the picture editor needed a native American early. She comes half-naked in woodcut, draping her arm over John Smith to ward off war-clubs about to dash out his brains, and then behatted after she had metamorphosed into Rebecka, the “beautiful savage” who died on a PR tour to England to revive interest in Virginian plantations. The absence of Annie and Janey (as Sacagawea may have been nicknamed) is odd, given that Lucey’s book admits all-comers. Cockacoeske, a 17th-century chief of the Pamunkey, commands equal wordage to Martha Washington, who knits stockings for George to show patriotic frugality. The pictures are even-handed, too. There is an oil painting of plantation belle Adelicia Franklin Acklen: three times a widow, she conned North and South armies into letting her export her cotton crop to Lancashire, where she sold it for $1m in gold. And there is an engraving of Phillis Wheatley, black slave poet of the 1770s: freed, she married badly, died young and was buried in an unmarked grave. Even unreasonable riches are no bar to admission, with Mrs Stuyvesant Fish,the New York zillionairess who gave a dinner for diamond-collared dogs, revealed as pouchy and grouchy. The real stories are less in the determinedly upbeat text and more within the frames, especially the western shots. For example, Lucey has a photo of a Colorado mining camp in the 1890s where an unknown woman poses with her burro; Lucey describes her “serene half-smile” – my bet is bad teeth -and praises her humour and strength. But you could equally look at the shot and see a Willa Cather novel with a bad ending. Is Ms Serenity’s smock for ease of working the claim, or a pregnancy wrapper? Why is she gussied up in pearls and loose tresses to pan for gold? The best of the west is on the glass plates of an immigrant Brit, Evelyn Cameron, who outlived her helpless, hopeless husband to lope about Montana photographing New World types, among them the Buckley sisters, cowgirling on their own ranch. Cameron goes before the lens, too, standing on horseback with an unserene smile and displaying in close-up what shadeless aridity had done to her face, her skin peeling like an old negative. Within the fixed focal length of her camera, what is, is – forget the romance of manifest destiny. The great cameraman of Native Americans, Edward S Curtis, did not share Cameron’s anti-glamour. He was an inspired portraitist of chiefs: he caught Chief Joseph on a plate coated in banana oil emulsion, rendering the Nez Perce leader’s visage granite-textured. And now and again he took an unposed moment, as in a lantern slide of a Hopi pueblo, all toddlers and mongrels. But I wasn’t surprised to discover in Anne Makepeace’s biography, Coming to Light , that he funded himself in a low financial ebb as a silent-movie stillsman: every picture of his tells a story. Often the same one: his are vast narratives wherein the men are named individuals – Black Eagle, Two Whistles, Alexander B Upshaw (an Apsaroke with a college doctorate) – while the women posture, very lightly draped, as “Maid of Dreams, Tribe Unknown”. Makepeace has tracked down surviving Curtis models and descendants, and restored to dream females their names. The pueblo beauty baking bluecorn tortillas was Dayumana, a single mother of four so destitute she killed a porcupine with a shovel to feed her family. Hopi women laughed when Makepeace showed them photos of their great-grandmothers grinding meal – Curtis had had them wear their wedding dresses to do the messy task. But then, as Larry McMurtry often drawls in the wry essays that make up Sacagawea’s Nickname , there is nothing that the most accurate scholarship can do about the west-in-the-mind’s-eye, as invented by “pulp writers, poster artists, impresarios, advertising men” – not to mention fantasisers working in banana oil as a photographic medium. In the imagined west, “women mostly try to stay out of the way”. In reality Dolly Roth – Mrs Zane Grey – edited millions of words of her husband’s badlands prose in over 70 novels, possibly including Riders of the Purple Sage , and sold them for him as well. McMurtry, it turns out, venerates Annie Oakley – quiet, Quakerish, married for over 50 years to the marksman she outshot in a contest, Sitting Bull’s “Little Sure Shot” and star attraction of Buffalo Bill’s spectacular touring show, the toast of Paris and the hit of Berlin. She personified the Western Girl – that is, after she acted in a play of that name, by which time she was way beyond girlhood – and she had “rarely been west of Cincinnati except to perform”. McMurtry’s heart, though, belongs to Sacagawea,the best man in Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery for all that she was a kidnapped teen, “married” to a useless French-Canadian interpreter. I followed their route one winter from sea to chilly sea, sighting images of Sacagawea from St Louis on – here a Curtis-influenced bronze of a Maiden, Tribe Unknown and there Disneyfied on a diner menu. I sat out a blizzard in an Omaha library reading entries from the 5,448-page Gary E Moulton edition of Lewis and Clark’s journals that McMurtry admires. How Sacagawea delivered her baby after Clark, pressed into midwifery, gave her rattlesnake tail as medicine; how she had full suffrage rights in the vote about where to pitch camp -that’s when Clark calls her “Janey”, just the once. McMurtry doesn’t suggest a flirtation between them, although he goes as far as feeling Janey wouldn’t have saved up two dozen weasel tails as a present for any other Corps member. She exited history when the expedition dropped her off on their way home, though Clark kept his promise to educate her son (another haunting ache of a story). In all of McMurtry’s fiction there is no epilogue sadder, no sense of a west more lost, than his note here about Clark attempting Janey’s name one last time 20 years after the journey, in a list of Corps members in Clark’s cash book. “Sar car Ja we a [sic],” Clark wrote (he never was any good at spelling). “Dead.”


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