Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor
Let Them Speak for Themselves: Women in the American West: 1849-1900. Edited by Christiane Fischer. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1977. Bibliography. 346pages. $15.00.
Reviewed by Janet R. Fireman, Associate Curator of Social and Cultural History, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, who has taught and published in the fields of women’s history and western history.
For the autobiography enthusiast, Christiane Fischer has gathered together a lovely assortment of selections. Some are well written; some are not. All are commanding reading for he who best loves history from first person accounts, whether well articulated or not. These twenty-five pieces, each written by a woman about her experience in the Far West, combine to yield a charming batch of mini-narratives.
Besides their charm, the selections chosen for Let Them Speak for Themselves illustrate better than any commentary can the occupations, pastimes, and attitudes of the women speaking. Fischer has imposed organization on these fragments by dividing the readings into seven groupings. They include material originating from mining regions, agricultural endeavors, the military, working women, urban life, childhood reminiscences, and travelers’ relations. But as Fischer points out in her introduction, there are many similarities among all the writers. These, it seems, make a strong argument for the idea that such organizational divisions are publishing shenanigans for the most part, and consequently, arbitrary. The organization, then, is perplexing.
So are a couple of other issues concerning the editing of these selections. In the introduction, which contains some perceptive and stimulating points on women as eye-witness historians, Fischer explains how she wrote the prefaces, or introductions to each narrative. She says that in them, she noted that which has “particularly drawn (her) attention,” in order “simply to share the enthusiasm and the delight (she has) experienced in reading these highly diversified narratives (21).” Granted the selections are charming, as stated above, but it would be ever so much more helpful had the editor actually edited the selections. That is, if she had annotated the material, or provided explanatory notes, either in the preface or in footnotes, the reader would benefit immeasurably more than he does already from the charm inherent. As they stand, the prefaces contain emotional responses, and not very much historical data to corroborate what the author of the selection has said, or biographical information, or other material on the author that might enlarge understanding of the selection itself.
The assortment presented, besides being charming, has still other virtues to recommend it. As is the case with all such “reading books,” this one is convenient. In a manageable size, one may carry around that which appeared originally in twenty-four separate volumes, since all but one selection have been published. Seven appeared during the last century; only three have surfaced in the last forty years. This makes the book a particularly handy companion for a textbook in a western history class. But there are problems here too. First, the sub-title indicates that the book deals with the West, but actually, it is only part of the Far West: fifteen selections are based in California (and gold mining is the principal setting here), seven in Nevada, four in Arizona, and one in Colorado. So, some westerners could rightfully feel slighted. One wonders: did no women write diaries or memoirs in the Pacific Northwest, on the Plains, or along the Rio Grande Valley?
Fischer’s bibliography is curious. Following a short listing of “References” of unknown significance, there is a long list called “Further Reading; Writings on Women and on Conditions in California, Nevada, and Arizona, 1849-1900.” It represents an adequate introduction to the announced subjects, but the juxtaposition of histories of American feminism, pioneer reminiscences, scholarly monographs, and multi-volume state histories, causes some question concerning Fischer’s intended use for this list. The list is long enough, and unwieldy enough so that its use is restricted without added interpretation.
Nevertheless, the selection in the readings list is fine, if not charming. And the mini-narratives-the letters, diaries, reminiscences, memoirs, and relations of these twenty-five women of the Far West-these are, beyond everything else, charming. Their charm makes the book well worth reading, and under the influence of this charm, the reader gains much understanding of the society, economy, culture, and industry of the region depicted. Pleasantly, the reader learns about the life and times of these unwitting charmers.