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Review

Constance Lindsay Skinner: Writing on the Frontier

By Jean Barman

November 4, 2013

Review By Margaret Prang

THE SUBTITLE of this biography has several meanings. Constance Lindsay Skinner (1877-1939) lived on a variety of frontiers – geographical, social, literary, and imaginative. Skinner occupies a minor place in the canon of American literature but, until now, has been almost unknown in her native Canada. I confess to wondering, initially, whether the talents of an accomplished scholar were well spent on raising Skinner’s profile. My question was soon answered. Jean Barman’s credentials as a historian of British Columbia, her knowledge of women’s history, and her literary skills are happily joined in this valuable and fascinating volume. 

Constance Lindsay Skinner was born to pioneering parents in the Cariboo and, at age ten, moved with her family to Victoria and subsequently to Vancouver, a young city still closely bound to the frontier. There the Skinner family was joined by Maggie Alexander, the “half-breed” daughter of a Hudson’s Bay Company trader in northern British Columbia. Constance and Maggie grew up like sisters, an experience reflected in Skinner’s lifelong interest in race and hybridity. 

From her earliest years Skinner read avidly in her father’s library and always knew she wanted to be a writer. Before she was twenty, Skinner was writing for Vancouver newspapers and then moved to Los Angeles, to Chicago, and eventually to New York in 1912. Through these years Skinner struggled to advance beyond journalism into what she saw as her true vocation as a writer of poetry, plays, short stories, and novels. 

A major barrier for a single woman trying to make a life in writing was the hostility of the male literary establishment towards women aggressive enough to invade the literary marketplace. Nevertheless, the rise of popular magazines brought Skinner some success as a short-story writer; her poetry won recognition in both London and New York; and some of her plays reached the stage. The Vancouver audiences who, in the spring of 2003, saw the first Canadian performance of her play “The Birthright” (1906) witnessed a provocative drama about Aboriginal-White relations in northern British Columbia, courageous for its time. Over the years, her eight novels for juveniles became a stable financial support. 

Later she achieved prominence as a historian through the Chronicles of America series published by Yale University Press, for which she wrote Pioneers of the Old Southwest (1919) and Adventures of Oregon: A Chronicle of the Fur Trade (1920). Skinner prided herself on writing “experiential history” in contrast to what she considered to be the “dryasdust” work of the academic historians (nearly all male) who increasingly dominated historical writing. More than a decade later, she claimed that her Beaver, Kings, and Cabins (Macmillan, 1933) was the first full account of the North American fur trade. More than any other of her works, it drew on her memories of growing up on the BC frontier. By this time, those memories were suffused with a good deal of imagination. 

So, too, were her novels, notably Red Willows (1929), a tale about the transformative possibilities of the frontier, where races were blended to create a new culture. As with all her work, this one was distinguished by its full depiction of women in frontier life. Sales of the book were small. Equally disappointing was the popular response to Songs of the Coastal Dwellers (1930), a selection of her “Aboriginal” poems, which Skinner considered “brilliant.” To her distress neither volume was awarded the Pulitzer Prize she so much coveted. 

Possibly Skinner’s most enduring claim to fame was the Rivers of America series, which she conceived and edited. The series was an immediate and lasting success. Sixty years later, the Library of Congress paid tribute to Skinner as “one of the first women to hold a top job in the U.S. trade-book publishing industry.” 

Barman describes Skinner as standing “at the edge of fame” and shows the heavy price she paid to get that far. Her private life was limited. Along with an intense pace of writing and editing, her financial survival also demanded the constant promotion of herself and her work, and the defence of her reputation and status, mainly against male scepticism. Much of her social life was related to this objective. The great love of her life was the famed explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who embodied her ideal of “frontier masculinity.” But she had to settle for a spasmodically supportive friendship. 

Barman suggests that, had financial considerations not compelled her to publish in so many genres, Skinner might have been more successful. Be that as it may, she did succeed, against the odds, in living “a writing life.” Now, she is fortunate in her biographer.