Born 1847 – Milford, NY Died 1938 – Hingham MA (buried in Grass Valley)
Mary Hallock Foote was born in 1847 and grew up on a peaceful family farm in Milton, NY, up the Hudson River from New York City. Life in the Hallock home included literature, interesting guests and lively conversations; She was taught early to open her eyes and mind to what was around her. Her artistic talent was recognized early and encouraged by her family.
Hallock Foote attended the Poughkeepsie Female Seminary (later, Vassar) and received formal art training at the Cooper Union School of Design for Women in New York City. An expert engraver taught her the best techniques for drawing illustrations on wood blocks, to be engraved for printing. She became a highly sought-after book illustrator for top writers, including Hawthorne, Longfellow and Tennyson. Hallock Foote recognized as one of America’s pre-eminent illustrators and elected to the National Academy of Women Painters and Sculptors.
In 1876, 27-year-old Mary married Arthur De Wint Foote and followed him out West. She envisioned building a life together with a successful husband and then returning to the East. Her vision quickly evaporated as Foote’s ideas were either ahead of his time or unattainable, resulting in one job loss after another.
Hallock Foote had made a lifetime friend during her time in New York City and she and Helena DeKay Gilder maintained a lifelong correspondence. Helena Gilder’s husband, Richard, was the editor of Scribner’s and wanted articles that accurately reflected the various regions across an expanding country. Based on Hallock Foote’s letters, he encouraged her to try writing articles for which she would be paid. As her income was often the sole support of a growing family, she agreed.
The Wild West is in large part a mythological story, written by the male authors of the day, including Harte, Twain, and Ingraham, portraying a patriarchal story of heroic masculinity and weak females who offered little, except to be used, protected, or rescued.
It is in the finer details of Hallock Foote’s writing that marks her significance for literary scholars and historians. She had a very keen eye for observing the finer details of the physical, social, and political landscape and the roles in which men and women played. By creating female characters who were full partners with their spouses in settling new environments, western women stood on equal footing with men.
Later Works at the North Star House
When daughter Agnes died of appendicitis in the months prior to moving into the North Star House, Hallock Foote entered a long period of grieving; she could not write. When she surfaced, California had changed — women had the right to vote, the progressive era was stronger than ever, there were threats of a World War, and her dear friend Helena had died. Life had changed and so did Hallock Foote’s novels that are now viewed as her most mature works.
Topics included “The New Women,” single and professionally employed. They married later, had fewer children and joined women groups. They might even attend college. Biographer Christine Hill Smith writes, “Foote’s approach did not radically disrupt but rather gently expanded young women’s opportunities…” Hallock Foote words also gently nudged mothers into being more understanding and open minded about the changes that were on the horizon. With those works, she decided she had finished writing.
It was at her children’s urging that she began writing her autobiography. She finished it despite being unable to find a publisher. Her offspring later negotiated with noted historian and author Wallace Stegner to edit the manuscript. Instead, he wrote a novel loosely based on Hallock-Foote’s work, with large segments copied, and retitled Angle of Repose, a phrase he also “borrowed” from Hallock Foote. He won a Pulitzer; Hallock Foote’s original version was published by the Huntington Library in 1972 and received minimal notice although her autobiography is now being read in some graduate classes in Women’s Studies programs.