Francis Gillmor: Aztec and Najavo Folklorist

By Sharon Whitehill. 2005. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press. 384 pages. ISBN: 0-7734-5942-1 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Rosemary Lévy Zumwalt, Vice President for Academic Affairs/ Dean of the College/Professor of Anthropology, Anthropology, Agnes Scott College, Atlanta/ Decatur, GA.

[Review length: 1555 words • Review posted on October 24, 2006]


Sharon Whitehill gives the reader a full exposure to a life well lived in her delightful biography of Frances Gillmor (1903-1993). Drawing on Leon Edel’s metaphor of the tapestry of life, Whitehill reveals “the figure under the carpet,” or the “raw and naked real self” of her subject (ii). One learns about the overly cautious mother who never stirred “Frances’s porridge with anything but [a] sterling silver” spoon (1) and of the little girl freed from her “pneumonia jacket,” a bodice of quilted wool that Frances’ mother had her wear for the entire winter. Indeed, family members passed along the story that her mother “sewed Frances’s warm shirt on her in the fall and never took it off till the spring” (3). Frances Gillmor overcame in spades the smothering atmosphere of her early childhood. As Whitehill writes, “On her visits to Navajoland, she traveled by horseback, slept on the ground, and ate mutton stew with her fingers. Her later studies in Mexico took her from graduate classes on Aztec history and culture—she even mastered Nahuatl—to transcriptions of dances and folkplays collected at village fiestas” (7). With a subtle psychological thread, Whitehill traces the stages of Frances’ life—the continuity of a personality held in reserve that intrigues and mystifies so many, the loyalty to her mother, and the pull to create a world in words and to experience the worlds of others. Perhaps the latter pull did draw Frances to her study of the Southwest and of Mexico. Whitehill makes this connection: “As Aisenberg and Harrington note in their study of female scholars, ‘in their various travels women move intellectually as well as literally to places that seem hospitable to the identity they are seeking’” (143). In her own words about what she valued most in life, Frances opined, “Writing, like teaching, can help people understand each other across barriers of time or language or even themselves” (104). She stressed the importance of understanding the relationship of one person to another: “That is why I like humanities; it is the study of the relationship to others” (104).

Frances Gillmor lived a life admirably punctuated between working at teaching and working at writing. She established this balance not without sacrifice. She took numerous leaves without pay from teaching to devote her time intensively to her writing and research; she lived in rented houses, ready to pack her bags and load up her 1931 Buick coupe to take a trip to Navajo or Zuni country, or to the villages of Mexico; and she returned to teaching with a singular focus on her classes and her students. In sum, she always carved out the time to focus on what she valued, but this was not a divided focus. As Whitehill writes, “Frances had struggled all her life to pour the best of herself into both [teaching and writing]” (290). Indeed, Frances Gillmor excelled at both. Her books were widely reviewed and well received, and she was awarded the Alumni Association’s Faculty Achievement Award in 1969, followed the next year by the University of Arizona’s Creativity in Teaching Award.

In 1921, at the age of nineteen, Frances Gillmor was awarded an academic scholarship at the University of Chicago (83). After suffering bouts of pneumonia and on the advice of her doctors, she left Chicago during the wintertime for Florida, where she worked as a journalist in Palm Beach and St. Augustine (1925-1926). Finally, she abandoned her attempts to complete her degree at the University of Chicago, and transferred to the University of Arizona, Tucson, where she graduated in May, 1928. As she made plans for her graduate work, she hoped to follow her already completed first novel, Thumbcap Weir (1929), with another. She was told that she could not submit a novel for her master’s thesis, but that she was eminently qualified to compile a biography, and the subjects awaited her on the Navajo reservation. The chair of the English department, Sidney F. Pattison, made the contacts for Frances:

“And so, not too many weeks later, she found herself riding the mail truck that ran from Flagstaff to Tuba City, which was laden not only with letters but also with groceries, supplies for the traders along the way, and Hopi and Navajo passengers. ‘Down from the pines into the cedars’ it followed its route, then ‘down from the cedars into the desert, loud with the shrilling of locusts.’” (118)

The mail truck delivered Frances Gillmor to John and Louisa Wade Wetherill, Navajo traders at Kayenta. In her field notes, Frances described the trading post and its surroundings:

“Mud floor, counter, shelves, scales. One corner piled high with black and white wool and [with] goat and sheep skins. Canned goods, bright cloth, shirts and overalls, kerchiefs of cerise and blue and orange and red. Near the mud hogan [built next to the post] is another of sticks and cedar boughs. There, sheltered from the hot desert sun, the [Navajo] women work. There is the loom with the half finished blanket upon it. There is a little heap of ashes on the floor where the fire has been burning and beside it an iron pot.” (122)

Her master’s thesis was published with her co-author, Louisa W. Wetherill, as Traders to the Navajos (1934). While completing her master’s thesis, Frances had also written and published her second novel, the acclaimed Windsinger (1930), about a Navajo singer. Her novel, Fruit out of Rock (1940), also situated in the Southwest, told the story of ecological damage through sheep grazing and canyon erosion, and of love, death, and rebirth (214-15).

Frances turned from the Southwest to Mexico, first to learn Spanish, and then to study festivals and folk dramas. In 1931 she fashioned a press badge for herself and slipped into “the proceedings of the Preliminary Commission investigating the charges of treason in Moscow against Leon Trotsky,” held at Frida Kahlo’s house in Coyoacán (193). She began taking classes at the Instituto de Filosofía y Letras from Dr. Alfonso Caso on Aztec archaeology, pre-conquest hieroglyphics, and mythology (202). On these trips to Mexico, Frances met and fell in love with the Norwegian Ola Apenes—a sweet love cut tragically short by Ola’s sudden death from appendicitis (225).

Profoundly and continuously a student, Frances Gillmor pursued her Ph.D. in March-July 1952, at Escuela Nacional de Antropología e Historia in Mexico City (256). On her return to the University of Arizona, she was promoted to full professor. In 1956 Frances Gillmor received her doctora en letras, awarded magna cum laude. As friends commented, Frances had been proud to have earned her “degree functioning in three languages: classical Aztec, Spanish, and English, and in another country, Mexico” (302). Frances Gillmor’s work on the Aztecs yielded two biographies, Flute of the Smoking Mirror (1949) on Nezahualcoyotl, and The King Danced in the Marketplace (1964) on Montezuma the First. As if a crown for her achievements, Frances Gillmor was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship for a study of Spanish folk drama (266).

While Sharon Whitehill has crafted a biography with so much vibrancy, still one might wish for more critical synthesis of Gillmor’s work in folklore. Achievements are mentioned: we learn that Gillmor was regional editor of Western Folklore, associate editor of the Arizona Quarterly and the New Mexico Quarterly, and that she was elected to the Council of the American Folklore Society (6); and that later she formed the Faculty Folklore Committee and instituted the Folklore Archive at the University of New Mexico (233), and set up a folklore archive in Sonora (265). Acquaintances are named: we learn that she corresponded with J. Frank Dobie (177), that she was friends with Wayland Hand; and elsewhere we learn that Ralph Steele Boggs offered her his field notes (291). But other than the names and institutional affiliations, the reader is given little additional information on the folklorists with whom she had contact. The reader herself must know the significance of these individuals. For instance, Frances Gillmor’s research on folk drama was supported by the preeminent folklorist, Richard Dorson. The information about this is buried in an endnote that reads,

“‘The combat cycle of dramas Dr. Gillmor is investigating represents one of the most intriguing expressions of folk literature in the Americas,’ Richard M. Dorson&133;wrote to the chair of the English Department in support of Frances’s project [on] 15 March 1967.” (352-353, note 790)

Gillmor attended the Indiana University Folklore Institute in 1946. Whitehill tells us that Gillmor studied under Stith Thompson, Wayland Hand, and Erminie Wheeler Voegelin (240), but the crucial bit of information about this course of study is buried in endnote 645: “The three graduate courses she took at Indiana—The Folktale, Techniques in the Collection and Study of Folklore, and American Folklore—constituted Frances’s only formal training in the field of folklore” (344). Frances Gillmor also attended the Mid-Century International Congress of Folklorists at Indiana University in Bloomington (253), but the reader needs to be given more information to realize the significance of this meeting.

Even with these slight reservations, I see Frances Gillmor: Aztec and Navajo Folklorist as a great work. I commend it to all who are interested in the history of anthropology and folklore, in the literature of native peoples, and in the life of strong women who create their space through their teaching and writing.