Womens' Surprising Role In Literary Butte

Apr 9, 2015

When Aaron Parrett set out to make a list of the literature created in and about Butte, Montana, he discovered something surprising: Contrary to popular belief, Mary McLane was not the first novelist to come out of Butte. The first novel he discovered was published in 1880s by Josephine White Bates.

Aaron Parrett: I found this book sort of at random. I collect books about Montana and books in general and I happened to open up this book and saw the words, I think it was “Silverline Club,” which made me think the Silverbow Club. And so I read this novel and it turns out it’s set in Butte, and it’s about Butte during the Silver Age—preceding the copper. And she turned out to be a pretty amazing figure, married to Lindon Bates, who was an engineer who helped design the Panama Canal. You know, these were Fifth Avenue New York people who lived for a while in Butte. Information about her is pretty scant. I’m still doing a lot of research on her. But pretty amazing that she wrote a novel about Butte in 1888. That might even be one of the earliest Montana novels.

Cherie Newman: And it’s important, you noted, not only because it’s the first one you found, but it’s written by a woman, it’s written by someone who didn’t grow up there, so that perspective is always different than an insider’s point of view. But it’s also a novel that can document that historical moment before copper took over.

AP: Right, it’s right on the cusp of that, they’re starting to shift over to the copper. But she’s still describing people, for example, sinking shafts by hand and using hand-cranked windlass’s, and so forth, to bring the ore out.

CN: Do you think it’s unusual for a third of the books you found to be published by women—these literary novels? And for so many of the men to write strong female characters that came out of Montana?

AP: I do think it’s unusual. But on the other hand, it’s an interesting problem. I’m pretty sure it’s Elaine Showalter, a famous literary critic who said, if I recall correctly, that in the 19th century 75 percent of the novels were written by women. But then she said, “Name a woman author from the 19th century.” So while I think that women wrote a lot more than men probably did, their books, for whatever reason—probably politics and chauvinism—vanished from The Canon. But then when you think about Montana and Butte, specifically, I think it is pretty surprising that so many of these books were written by women. More surprising that that, as you mentioned, is that the men who write about Butte depict these women that are very independent, very unconventional. And that is pretty surprising, especially the time period in which some of these were written—1920s.

CN: Although if you were in Butte in the 1920s I think you would have to be very strong, man or woman.

AP: Right, and to take a specific case, one of the great treasures I found in my research is a book called "High, Low, and Wide Open", by a guy called James Frances Rabbit. And that book is out of print, really hard to find. But his book features this woman who’s like a 1970s feminist, but the book takes place in the ‘20s. And then you read about his own life, and father died in the mines when he was 3 and so his mother raised the whole family—I think four siblings—meanwhile leading the crusade to get women the vote, when he was a child. So she’s obviously a role model for him. That’s my theory.

CN: Aaron Parrett is the author of "Literary Butte: A History in Novels and Film".