The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 1996, Volume 42, Number 4
Richard W. Crawford, Editor

Book Review

Beautiful Swift Fox: Erna Fergusson and the Modern Southwest.

By Robert Franklin Gish. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1996. 224 pages. $29.95 cloth. Buy this book.

Reviewed by Rebecca Frey, graduate student, Department of History, San Diego State University.

Beautiful Swift Fox was the name given to Southwestern writer Erna Fergusson by the Hopi Indians of New Mexico. As an advocate of intercultural understanding and as contributor to the image of New Mexico as the tierra ecantada Erna Fergusson, according to author Robert Gish, is a major figure in 20th century Southwestern history. This work, a tribute to Erna Fergusson as “the first lady of Southwestern letters,” is the third in a series of works about Southwestern writers. The first two books in Gish’s series include biographies of the Southwestern writers Paul Horgan and of Erna Fergusson’s brother Harvey Fergusson. Beautiful Swift Fox is not so much a biography in the psychological-historical sense but is rather an examination of Fergusson’s writings and how these writings reflect her love of New Mexico, her advocacy of intercultural relations, and how they promote the Southwest as a tourist destination. But Gish does take into account what he considers to have been formative influences on Fergusson, from working for the Red Cross during W.W.I and “dude wrangling” as a tour guide in New Mexico to her privileged socio-economic background. In his preface, Gish makes clear he is cognizant of gender related issues. He approaches this biography with “some apprehension and much empathy for the lives and experiences of women” but will treat Fergusson as a “significant writer who happened to be a woman, and who resisted allowing confinements of stereotyped and prescribed roles to stifle her expansive and adventurous spirit.” This characterization of Fergusson as a woman largely free of gender precepts allows Gish to avoid pursuing a gendered analysis.

Erna Fergusson published over a dozen books and almost fifty articles during the first half of the 20th century. Her writings, none of them fiction, were predominantly travel-oriented and her style a precursor to New Journalism. Fergusson received an M.A. in history from Columbia University and “her historian perspective is everywhere apparent in her writings.” (p.19.) Gish discusses most of Fergusson’s books and examines three in some detail, Dancing gods, Our Southwest, and Murder and Mystery in New Mexico, as being representative of Fergusson’s New Mexico experience. Under the influence of the New Mexican landscape, her prose, according to the examples given, tends toward grandeur. But unlike many of her New Mexican contemporaries she refrains from “babbling about ‘time’ and ‘space'”(p.7).

Gish is particularly sensitive to occasional glimpses of ethnocentrism in Fergusson’s writings. These occasions are perhaps more representative of the times in which she wrote than of her intent, for she was an active promoter of intercultural cooperation and understanding. The line between exploitation and promotion is a difficult one for Gish to maneuver. On the one hand, Fergusson did, by nature of being in the tourist business, reduce American Indian cultures to objects of spectacle. On the other hand, she seems to have held an intense respect for these cultures, and was motivated by the desire to promote their value to tourists. That she was an advocate of Indian rights is made clear during the 1930s Bursum Bill dispute. She wrote in support of John Collier, a leading opponent to the bill and eventual Indian commissioner. Her 1951 book, New Mexico, a Pageant of Three Peoples is, according to Gish, an attempt to present a history of New Mexico which aims at explaining the “complex cultural and social issues” facing the state at that time. In retrospect, her promotion of “interculturalism” under an Anglo paradigm seems patronizing to the Spanish and Indian cultures of New Mexico, but at the time it was a call to end racial prejudices through a blending of cultures.

Gish offers an impressive array of positive adjectives to describe the character of Erna Fergusson, such as vivacious, intelligent, exemplary, and adventurous. For Gish, Fergusson is the “first lady of Southwestern writings” and his work is designed to stress the importance of her contribution to the Southwest, New Mexico in particular. Gish’s text is well written and balanced within the framework he established for it in his preface. American historians and historians of the Southwest would do well to read his book.

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