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Playing House in the American West, Playing House in the American West, 0817318038, 0-8173-1803-8, 978-0-8173-1803-1, 9780817318031, , , Playing House in the American West, 0817386866, 0-8173-8686-6, 978-0-8173-8686-3, 9780817386863,

Playing House in the American West
Western Women’s Life Narratives, 1839-1987
by Cathryn Halverson

Trade Cloth
2013. 264 pp.
11 illustrations
Price:  $44.95 s
E Book
264 pp.
11 illustrations
Price:  $44.95 d

Examining an eclectic group of western women’s autobiographical texts—canonical and otherwise—Playing House in the American West argues for a distinct regional literary tradition characterized by strategic representations of unconventional domestic life. 

The controlling metaphor Cathryn Halverson uses in her engrossing study is “playing house.”  From Caroline Kirkland and Laura Ingalls Wilder to Willa Cather and Marilynne Robinson, from the mid-nineteenth to the late-twentieth centuries, western authors have persistently embraced wayward or eccentric housekeeping to prove a woman’s difference from western neighbors and eastern readers alike. 

The readings in Playing House investigate the surprising textual ends to which westerners turn the familiar terrain of the home: evaluating community; arguing for different conceptions of race and class; and perhaps most especially, resisting traditional gender roles.  Western women writers, Halverson argues, render the home as a stage for autonomy, resistance, and imagination rather than as a site of sacrifice and obligation.

The western women examined in Playing House in the American West are promoted and read as representatives of a region, as insiders offering views of distant and intriguing ways of life, even as they conceive of themselves as outsiders. By playing with domestic conventions, they recast the region they describe, portraying the West as a place that fosters female agency, individuality, and subjectivity.

Cathryn Halverson is the author of Maverick Autobiographies: Women Writers and the American West, 1900-1936. She has published articles in Western American Literature, College Literature, a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, and Arizona Quarterly, among others. She is an associate professor of American literature at the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

Playing House in the American West is an impressive book. Its chronological scope is large, as is its range of writers and genres. It articulately and imaginatively shows the wide variety of ways women writers and women’s writings have been able to move past what might have been the stifl ing drudgery of housework into affirming, creative, agency- producing acts of playing house.”
Western American Literature

“Cathryn Halverson’s major contribution to American literary studies in Playing House in the American West is to map an alternative trajectory in women’s writing about the West, and this alternative is all the more appealing because it largely ignores, and acknowledges its displacement of, the confining and oversimplifying narratives that reduce much of western American literature to the political unconscious of American imperialism…. The strength of Halverson’s book is in its acknowledgment of these moments when self- fashioning and “playing house” are undone by imperial power and social hierarchies, all the while focusing on how, despite these “grim realities,” women’s writing about the West so frequently strives to offer “more palatable versions of their lives” (175).”


“Through a series of incisive literary readings, Cathryn Halverson reconfigures the U.S. West as a space of liberating domesticity--the more unorthodox, the better. Exploring women life writers who range across race, class, sexuality, period, and genre, she excavates compelling conversations and legacies, unsettles assumptions about home-making, and mines unsuspected layers of textual play. The revealed relationship between women and the West just became that much richer.” —Christine Bold, author of The Frontier Club: Popular Westerns and Cultural Power, 1880-1924

“Cathryn Halverson’s splendid Playing House in the American West is a rigorous, original, and finally joyous book that shakes loose a century or more of assumptions about western women’s writing and regional domestic space.  In opposition to the received notion of the West as a land of vast open spaces and the big outdoors, Halverson reveals women authors who posit the home as the expression of, and perhaps source of, both personal autonomy and regional identity.  Thus Halverson herself engages in a compelling form of serious play, arguing that these authors—including Caroline Kirkland, Willa Cather, M.F.K. Fisher, and Marilynne Robinson—actively reimagine not only gender roles and western domesticity but the American West itself.  Halverson is intentionally thinking inside the box, and she has written an ambitious book that will prove to be an important and enduring contribution to the study of western American literature and culture.” —Nathaniel Lewis, author of Unsettling the Literary West: Authenticity and Authorship

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