Author: Anna

Mary Shelley and the West

Mary Shelley and the West

Review: How the West was won — and lost — by women: A new history revises the record

There are many reasons for the West’s enduring appeal as a land of adventure, but one of the most important is that it is largely a place for women — both native and foreign. Women’s history has never been as influential, or as understudied, as today.

At the same time, Western literature reflects the West’s women. It is the foundation of Western cultural identity, and it is the bedrock of Western literature, including much of the Western canon.

And one of the greatest writers of the West is Mary Shelley. The literary heroine of Frankenstein, the author of The Modern Prometheus, and the author of much fiction, she was the daughter of a Quaker minister and author of a famous anti-slavery novel, The Last Man.

Shelley was also an ambitious writer, making more than 200 short stories and dozens of poems. Her best-remembered novel, The Last Man, was a political satire that questioned the American government’s decision in 1838 to approve the African slave trade; her novel Frankenstein is about the scientist who creates a creature who can be both human and monstrous. In his study, Frankenstein, the great literary critic Stanley Kauffmann points out that, in Shelley’s hands, “a novel is a work of ideas that is not simply about one character. It is a work of ideas that can be read from beginning to end. It may not be perfect, but it is not one of those books made purely of incidents, but one that has a structure — a narrative of ideas.”

We are fortunate to have two excellent novels by Mary Shelley — Frankenstein and The Last Man. One is the work of a great artist, the other a masterpiece of the genre of literature. They are, like James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans, works that reflect the diversity of an America that was, and is, a land of both genders.

The first of the two was a political satire as powerful as the one the young

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