McAnulty College and Graduate School of Liberal Arts
Women and the American Wilderness: Responses to Landscape and Myth" explores three, middle to upper-class white women's responses to wilderness from texts published between 1823 and 1939. Through an exploration of James Fenimore Cooper's heroine Elizabeth Temple in the novel The Pioneers (1823), Isabella Bird's published letters entitled A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains (1873), and Muriel Rukeyser's reaction to the Gauley Bridge Tragedy of the 1930s in her book of poems The Book of the Dead (1939), I show that women's responses to the American wilderness not only included a reaction to the physical terrain but also to the developing or established masculine myth of the American wilderness and concept of Manifest Destiny. In chapter one of my study, I show that Elizabeth Temple counters the developing masculine myth of the wilderness through her active engagement with the outdoors and challenges the passive, home-bound femininity being espoused in the 1820s. Despite her challenge to hegemonic gender norms, however, she does not challenge the established patriarchal power hierarchy but utilizes her class privilege within it to gain her own desires, thereby often reinforcing the racism and classism of her time. As I argue in chapter two, the real life Isabella Bird had to carefully negotiate between her own desires for wilderness adventure and socially-sanctioned standards of femininity. In order to maintain a respectable front, Bird capitalized on doctor-prescribed travel as her mode of escape from a home-bound life, and her careful self-representation and depictions of others along her route reinforces her feminine respectability as she climbs a mountain, takes long, solitary horseback riding excursions, and embraces solitude. Yet in her text Bird also does not challenge the masculine paradigm of the wilderness myth but uses her femininity to protect her character and justify her wilderness travels, thereby garnering the freedom associated with the wilderness for herself. As I argue in chapter three, however, Muriel Rukeyser's depiction of the historical American wilderness undermines the masculine myth by highlighting the role of the "other" in America's development. I also show how her text links the historical racism and classism undergirding the myth of the wilderness and concept of Manifest Destiny to the exploitation of lower-class workers, especially migrant African-American workers, who died from work-induced silicosis at Gauley Bridge, West Virginia, during the 1930s. Together, Cooper's novel, Bird's letters, and Rukeyser's sequence of poems highlight the complexities that race, class, and gender bring to women's reaction to wilderness and help us to begin to explore the multi-layered responses that women had to the American wilderness and wilderness myth in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Bessetti-Reyes, G. (2014). Women and the American Wilderness: Responses to Landscape and Myth (Doctoral dissertation, Duquesne University). Retrieved from https://dsc.duq.edu/etd/308