Faye Cashatt Lewis

Radio essay: 

Adult Bed BugCimex lectularius (the common bedbug), which infested the Lewis homestead and those of many other settlers.

The history of homesteading is rich in diaries and accounts written by settlers. But Faye Cashatt Lewis’ memoir, Nothing to Make a Shadow, is unique in its modern—and medical—reflections on those times. She comments not only on Cimex Lectularius (bedbugs), but on lesbian preachers, the usurpation of Sioux lands, the awakening of sex consciousness (and repression psychoses) and rattlesnake sonnets. As a girl of thirteen in what she calls “almost the last frontier country of our West, a last chance to get a homestead in government land,” her story and her manner of telling it—a series of sketches that narrate her separation from her family and discovery of her individuality--belong to a twentieth-century sensibility.[1] That includes her attitude toward the Plains. She rejects the tourist’s complaint that the region is a monotonous one to be traveled through, at all permissible speed. The views of the prairie, she thinks, only appeal to poets and writers—an idea that many modernists who feel at home in the wide, seemingly empty spaces of the desert and the prairies have echoed.

Dallas, South Dakota, Train Depot, 1908, South Dakota State Historical Society.

Her memoir begins with the end of the railroad--the last railroad station on the line from her home town in Iowa was two stops past Dallas, South Dakota--though that railroad was poised to push farther west as soon as the next county was opened to homesteading. Faye and her family, though, disembarked in Dallas, a town she called the Gateway to the Rosebud.  Following a 1903 court decision giving Congress the right to abrogate treaties with the Sioux unilaterally, and lots of pressure from the railroads and western politicians, thousands of acres of Sioux land in South Dakota were to be made available to non-Sioux settlers, with payments to be made to the Sioux at as low as $2.50 an acre. In 1909 a lottery for 4,000 homesteads in Tripp County, South Dakota, was held, with 114,769 registrants.[2] Faye and the other fortunate homesteaders arrived in 1909 to start proving up their land.

Lost Writers: The Cashatt HouseThe Cashatt House, Tripp County Historical Society.

Her family had been farmers—though her father had run a General Merchandise, Ayrhart and Cashatt, in Dedham, Iowa, and she had an uncle who was a railroad foreman and another, Ulysses Simpson Grant Cashatt, who mined coal until he made a squatter’s claim on a South Dakota homestead. The Homestead Act did what it was intended to do for the Cashatts, immigrants, and middle or working-class citizens generally: gave them and their children a significant economic boost in a period when social inequality was increasing. Faye Lewis’s favorite painting, Harvey Dunn’s 1950 The Prairie is My Garden, with its mother protectively helping her children gather wildflowers, is less about agriculture or rootedness and more about the land’s promise to give these families a chance to prosper. As one reviewer in 1940 said of her first book, perhaps the thousands like Lewis in the Middle West “will save democracy if the job can be done.”[3]

Faye Cashatt finished high school in Dallas and taught there for a year before attending the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, followed by medical school at Washington University in St. Louis. In St. Louis, she was aware that her skin did not look like the “pink and white” complexions of the city girls, and as the only woman in the medical school class of fifty, which had just begun to permit women as regular students, she felt that her “girl voice” was “like a black skin in a roomful of whites.”[4] She met her husband, William B. Lewis, there, and after her internship at a Halstead, Kansas hospital, the two doctors moved to Kamrar, a small town in Iowa, to start a general practice and a family. They later went to Webster City, Iowa, where they remained for the rest of their lives.

Lost Writers: Faye C. Lewis in younger yearsFaye Cashatt,1916

During those years of raising three children, one with cerebral palsy, and assisting her husband, Faye Lewis began writing a column (“Purgatorials”) for the Webster City Freeman Journal, sending poems to newspapers and magazines, and composing sketches of rural doctoring. Rather like The Egg and I, Betty MacDonald’s 1945 memoir of the tribulations of a young wife on a chicken farm, Lewis’s Doc’s Wife (1940) turned both her city-bred husband’s adaptation to rural Iowa and her own position as his appendage to humorous account. As she said to her husband, “I hope the day will come when I shall hear, just once, someone refer to you as Faye Lewis’ husband.”[5]

Returning to small town life in Iowa held more serious professional challenges for Lewis. She felt obliged to defend the quality of medicine in the Midwest, indignantly refuting in the Atlantic Monthly that one must travel to Switzerland to give birth naturally.[6] A year later, perhaps reflecting her own experience, she observed that never would the “intelligentsia of Hamilton Center (Iowa) refuse to recognize one upon whom the Atlantic Monthly had set its seal of approval.” As that remark suggests, Lewis hadn’t always perfectly fit into town life. South Dakota and her medical training had offered a kind of liberation from the past, whereas the “nice people” of the midwest refused to acknowledge that the “old verities” had failed them. At one point she told her husband that she would never set foot inside that “stuffed-bosomed Woman’s Club again.”[7]

But it was precisely those bosoms that nurtured Lewis’s writing during the 1930s. Her poetry was published in four anthologies sponsored by the Iowa Federation of Women’s Clubs (as well as a 1937 anthology of American Women Poets), including “American Holiday,” on the horror of the social niceties at a child’s funeral. The editor of these volumes, though she condemns modern “innovation,” defends the poets in the collection as “no more provincial than those of New York.” Lewis’s “The Prairie Poet,” indeed “with no answer from Gotham,” will “go on whispering” rejection of political credos and claims of “timid minds” to know the truth.[8] This rejection of establishment thinking was a hallmark of Lewis, as a 1954 letter to Don Pierson, the Republican party Iowa state chairman, indicates. She compliments Pierson for opposing Joseph McCarthy, saying that it “sickens” her to think of him creating a following among the weak in Iowa through his “bare-faced” falsehoods, and calls McCarthy our Number 1 menace.[9]

When her husband volunteered during World War II and was sent overseas, Lewis began practicing medicine again. Though she wrote sketches of South Dakota and perhaps much of her memoir during this earlier period, such recollections as “Cimex Lectularius” in a 1952 Prairie Schooner and the “Rural Fourth” in Hinterland were published infrequently.[10] Her writing resumed only near the end of her career. Patients, Doctors and Families (1968) is her matter-of-fact, straightforward account of the various cases she encountered, a style that led to two popular medical books, All Out Against Arthritis (1973) and A Doctor Looks at Heart Trouble (1970), books which helped her achieve her desire to be known as more than a doctor’s wife.  But today her strongest writing, especially her memoir of South Dakota, is primarily read by historians. But it should be read by anyone who looks at Dakota and the plains with “eyes of love.”



[1] Faye Cashatt Lewis, Nothing to Make a Shadow, 11. On the sketch as a woman’s regionalist format, see Judith Fetterley and Marjorie Pryse, Writing Out of Place: Regionalism, Women, and American Literary Culture (University of Illinois Press, 2003).

[2] Thomas Biolsi, Deadliest Enemies: Law and the Making of Race Relations on and Off Rosebud Reservation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001) 20-39.  

[3] M.S.U., “Doc’s Wife,” Saturday Review,  June 22, 1940, p. 19. http:www.unz.org

[4] Lewis, Nothing to Make a Shadow, 7.

[5] Faye Cashatt Lewis, Doc’s Wife, (New York: Macmillan Company, 1940) 19.

[6] Faye Cashatt Lewis, “I had a baby, too!” Atlantic Monthly, 163 (June 1939) 764-772.

[7] Lewis, Doc’s Wife, 188-191.

[8] Mrs. L. Worthington Smith, ed., KSO Poets, Des Moines: Kuhne Press, 1935)5-6; Mrs. L. Worthington Smith, ed., Flame on the Hills, (New York: Henry Harrison: Poetry Publisher, 1936) Introduction; 63-64; Lou Mallory Luke, ed., Who’s Who Among Prairie Poets, (Des Moines: E.L. Kuhne, 1938) 52. In “Poetry in the Midwest,” Hinterland, vol. 1, no. 4 (1937) p. 98, 130, the Hinterland editors say “we have to take our hats off to the ladies, not that we like their poetry, nor the way they promote it, but we will give credit to anyone who makes an attempt to save the art,” and singles out Mrs. Lewis Worthington Smith for doing so.

[9] Faye C. Lewis to Donald Pierson, 1954, Donald C. Pierson Papers, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City, Iowa.

[10] Faye Cashatt Lewis, “Rural Fourth,” Hinterland, vol. 1, no. 5 (1937) 134-138. Lewis’ recollections of her undergraduate years at the University of South Dakota were published even later than her memoir, as for example “The University I Knew,” The South Dakotan 77: 4 (October 1982) 15, 8.