Laboring in the desert: The letters and diaries of Narcissa Prentiss Whitman and Ida Hunt Udall
Presbyterian missionary Narcissa Prentiss Whitman and Mormon polygamous wife Ida Hunt Udall believed God had called them to special missions. These women faced similar challenges in exchanging the comforts of middle-class life for what they felt was a higher calling. In following their chosen vocations, both challenged expectations for nineteenth-century women, coming under scrutiny within and without their faith communities. In order to record their missions, set down their reasons for living as they did and create a space where they felt at home, despite their frequent isolation from friends and kin, both Whitman and Udall wrote extensively about their lives. Their letters and diaries provide rich material for analyzing gender dynamics in nineteenth-century America and shed light on how women literally made history in a time of U.S. expansionism and rapid social change.
In this dissertation, I place Whitman's and Udall's writing in historical and social context, then draw on the relatively new field of women's diary study to present close readings of their work. To create narratives that gave meaning to their often difficult lives, both writers employed a number of literary strategies: casting themselves as characters in their own work, establishing and revisiting themes from missionary and travel literature, borrowing language from popular fiction and creating dialogues between themselves and their imagined readers.
Because of their roles as geographic pioneers and religious exemplars, Narcissa Whitman and Ida Udall both expected at least some of their writing to be read by relatives and fellow believers, if not during their lifetimes, then after. Their creative and flexible use of literary strategies allowed them to use writing as both a personal resource—a place to vent feelings inconsistent with their missionary personae and to work out challenges presented by frontier travel and isolation—and a public record. They thus created multilayered documents that served the expectations of multiple audiences well enough to remain popular today. Finally, by reifying their own sense of vocation and their impressions of the “frontier” in writing, they participated directly in nineteenth-century Euroamerican efforts to colonize and “civilize” the supposedly empty lands of the American West.
0320: Religious history
0453: Womens studies