Well, anyway, who IS this chick, you might very well be saying to yourself, as well you might, because although she was quite well-known in her day, her day was the last half of the 1800s and the first few decades of the 1900s. Her renown has faded, which is a shame, because she was a contemporary of Owen Wister, Theodore Roosevelt, Frederic Remington, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, John Greenleaf Whittier, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose works she illustrated. Bret Harte and Mark Twain were also her contemporaries, as well as Helen Hunt Jackson, Richard Henry Dana (Two Years Before the Mast), Rudyard Kipling, Winslow Homer and Henry James. It seems this was the golden age of belles artes and letters. Not only were these people her contemporaries, she knew personally a great many of them, and provided illustrations for many of their literary works.
I first became acquainted with her name when I read Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, which is fiction, based heavily but not entirely on the life of Mary Hallock Foote. In fact, there was some contention between him and the Foote family over this.
The young Mary, who was known as Molly all her life, grew up in the Hudson River Valley in the midst of a middle class Quaker household, and held those somewhat elite middleclass values all her life. She married a young mining engineer and moved out West with him. After her art training in NYC, she used her talent to bring in money to the always-economically shaky household.
She was the most significant woman writer and illustrator in the Local Color school. Her fame came from her work as novelist and illustrator of the American West, especially from a woman’s domestic point of view of the mining west, the irrigation projects west, and the agricultural west, in contrast to those of the rollicking cowboy west. She published 12 novels, four collections of short stories, more than a dozen and half uncollected stories and essays, and innumerable illustrations, all dealing with the American West. In the early days, she drew directly onto wood blocks for the printing process, and was known for her graceful style and ability to portray minute detail.
It was her income that allowed the family to continue all their lives with at least three people in domestic help. In mid-nineteenth century America, hiring servants for domestic chores was a sign of middle-class success. By 1870, as many as one in eight families may have employed domestic help. Her notions about the country were skewed by her upper-class social bias, and she was against women’s suffrage and trade unions. She deeply believed that a woman’s first duty was to her husband and children, and any possible career came second.
She lived in Colorado mining camps, in the arid area around Boise, Idaho as her husband worked on an irrigation project that would entail the building of canals to bring water, and in areas of California.
Molly Foote was a prolific letter writer, and Mz Miller’s biography of Mary Hallock Foote came from the various collections of these letters held by individuals and historical libraries of these letters. She wrote over 600 letters alone to her best friend from her college days who lived in the East, and there are hundreds others, so her life and work is well documented.
I don’t know why I was (am) so fascinated with her; maybe because she lived in that particular era, an era which continues to intrigue me, or because she lived out West in some pretty rough areas and managed to make a home for her husband and children, and continue to use her special talents. I just found it all so interesting.
Here are some of her illustrations: