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Mary Hunter Austin challenged American ideas about nature, gender, and culture in the early twentieth century. Her best known works are about the desert environment and native peoples she encountered as a young woman in southern California. She also wrote extensively about the frustrating experience of being an unconventional woman in a family and a society that prized traditional femininity. Because she advocated feminist ideals and environmental awareness, Austin offers readers today the voice of a woman who was ahead of her time.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Early Life in Illinois
Mary Hunter Austin was born Mary Hunter in 1868 to a father who loved to read and a mother whose religious convictions made her suspicious of her daughter’s imagination. Austin’s father died when she was ten; her beloved little sister died soon after. Her mother raised Austin and her two brothers sternly, prioritizing her sons’ needs over her daughter’s. As Austin later wrote in her autobiography, Earth Horizon, when Austin became very ill after a year at a teacher’s preparation college, her mother agreed with the family doctor that this was likely due to the ”natural incapacity of the female mind for intellectual achievement.”
Austin’s mother believed women should restrict themselves to family-related activities. This included church, and like other women of her era, this led to involvement in the temperance movement, which focused on ending the sale and use of alcohol in the United States. The temperance movement began gathering steam in the United States in the early nineteenth century. Most of its participants were women, and by the second half of the nineteenth century, they had amassed significant political power. By 1919, the temperance movement could take credit for a constitutional amendment that banned the manufacture, sale, or transport of alcohol in the United States (the amendment was repealed in 1933). Witnessing the power of the temperance movement inspired Austin and many women of her generation to become involved politically and to speak out for what they believed in, though in Austin’s case the causes she espoused differed from those prized by her mother.
Move to California
Just after Austin graduated from Blackburn College in 1882, her family moved to the southern California desert, where her older brother filed a homestead claim. The writing for which Austin is most famous, about the California landscape, had its start with this move. Settling near Bakersfeld, the Hunter family proved unprepared for farming on unirrigated land. Austin, who believed she could thrive only in a city among culture and books, found herself withering in the isolation imposed by this harsh environment.
However, Austin later experienced a spiritual awaken ing in the desert. Adapting to it and meeting Native Americans (specifically, Paiutes) and other settlers who had made peace with the environment, became for her, a process of discovery, and writing about this process would eventually grant her both inspiration and fame. As America became a more modern, industrial place, readers wanted to know more about this exotic environment and its inhabitants. Austin would eventually use her writing to criticize the choices Americans made with their lives, in particular that of conquering the land rather than making peace with it. For example, Austin expressed disappointment when, in 1908, the city of Los Angeles began building an aqueduct that completely drained the desert regions north of the city of the water that had once allowed for sustainable farming in the fragile environment.
Marriage and a Writing Career
Austin set out to earn a living for herself, and while teaching, she met Stafford Wallace Austin, whom she married in 1891. The couple would move often, settling in several southern California towns. Her husband’s efforts to earn a fortune through land speculation and farming never paid off, however, and Austin continued to work to support the family even after the birth of her daughter, Ruth, a developmentally disabled child born in 1892. Bearing such disappointments did not come easily; rather than supporting her, Austin’s mother referred to Ruth’s disability as a ”judgement” from God. While she perceived empathy and understanding from the Paiute community, the Anglo community found Austin unconventional. She was dismissed from a Methodist church for her nontraditional religious views, and found little support when she tried to speak out against the rape of two Native American schoolgirls.
Like other early feminists who sought greater recognition for women’s needs and accomplishments in the public sphere, Austin had to fight against public opinion to establish herself as a writer, a lifelong ambition she began to pursue in earnest. Her husband’s lack of support led her to leave him, and her daughter’s needs eventually led her to place the child in an institution. These were not easy decisions for Austin. But they did allow her the chance for intellectual freedom and growth, which she found when she spent time in places where other California writers had gathered, specifically Los Angeles and the emerging writer’s colony in Carmel, California. While her first book, The Land of Little Rain was a publishing success, she eventually felt that she would need to leave the region that had inspired her, in order to gain a greater audience.
Time Away from the Desert
While Austin would often return to the home she had built in Carmel, she spent much of the two decades after the publication of The Land of Little Rain traveling, with extended stays in London and New York. In these years she worked to establish her reputation as a writer who dealt with concerns more universal than the regional inspiration of the desert. In particular, women’s concerns of the era framed her work. In both Europe and the U.S., suffragists fought for the right to vote; American women’s right to head to the polls was finally established by the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. New York was also the center of a debate about birth control, sparked when Margaret Sanger tried to open a women’s health clinic there in 1916, only to have it closed on grounds of ”obscenity”. Austin worked for both of these causes, but her literary efforts focused more on the spiritual and artistic needs of women’s lives. A Woman of Genius, published in 1912, portrayed a woman who, like Austin, struggled to achieve both marital happiness and a creative career.
Austin found that even when she lived and traveled elsewhere, her heart lay in the Southwest. She continued to campaign on behalf of water issues and Native American rights. In 1922, for example, she joined other writers and artists in raising opposition to legislation known as the Bursum Bill, that would deprive Native Americans in New Mexico of their land. This campaign was part of a larger cultural interest called primitivism, in which Americans’ interest in the artistic traditions of Native Americans led them to question federal policies regarding education, land, and assimilation. One of Austin’s New York friends, writer and arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan, invited Austin to experience New Mexican culture for herself at the home Luhan had built near Taos.
A New Home in New Mexico
Austin eventually decided to move to New Mexico herself. Like Luhan, she felt the multicultural desert environment she found there could be a new center for American culture. They took part in a movement that emerged from larger trends in American modernism, a desire to rethink culture and art by casting off European traditions and by seeking inspiration in cultures that had once been considered less advanced. Austin continued the work she had begun in the California desert, that of not only trying to interest Americans in the Southwest but changing their attitudes about culture and art in the process. Painter Georgia
O’Keeffe, another member of this circle, was also drawn to the possibilities of this environment, where she also eventually settled.
Austin began building a house in Santa Fe in 1924, naming it Casa Querida (Beloved House). From this home she continued her advocacy of causes ranging from speaking on behalf of feminism to preserving Spanish colonial arts. She also continued to write and publish. Her auto biography, Earth Horizon, published in 1932, won critical praise as well as readers, in part because Austin’s long and eventful life had put her in touch with so many notable people and trends. Living from the 1860s to the 1930s meant that her life spanned an era of great change in American history. America had become a leading nation, dominated by industry and cities swelling with the population gained by the immigration surges of the 1890s. Austin, who died in 1934 of a brain hemorrhage, challenged readers to keep up with modernity by asking them to rethink how they thought about land and culture.
Works in Literary Context
While not typically considered a modernist, Austin does fit into a generation of writers whose works broke new, modern ground by questioning the ideals of the nineteenth century. Though she would write about how her style had been influenced by American Indian art forms, for the most part, her style of writing remained fairly conventional. Where she did break from the past was in the way she wrote about biological and cultural aspects of the environment simultaneously, as well as in the way she expressed women’s concerns of her era. It is for these reasons that she is considered important by contemporary readers.
Austin’s writings about life in the desert show the influence of earlier nineteenth-century writers like Henry David Thoreau, who documented his life at Walden Pond, and Sarah Orne Jewett, who wrote about the Maine woods. Austin shifted readers’ attention to the Southwestern desert, showing them in both prose and fiction how an environment some in the East might consider lifeless actually played host not only to amazing natural processes, but also a distinct and multicultural history of settlers. She challenged readers to re-think how they thought about the environment by crafting intimate portraits of the people, especially Native Americans, who made the desert home.
Austin grew up in the kind of world described in women’s literary texts like Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, which advocated the message that women best served society through moral influence and submissive family roles. However, like Jo, the main character in that novel, Austin grew up wanting something different for herself, and her writing shows the impact of her own struggle to break away from conventional femininity. Like Charlotte Perkins Gilman, one of her contemporaries, Austin wrote fiction in which women struggled to assert themselves as individuals and artists in a world that still prized them most as wives and mothers.
Works in Critical Context
Austin, though popular with her contemporaries and of interest to recent literary scholars, nevertheless has had a mixed critical reputation. In part, this unevenness results from her large output. Austin wrote at a fast pace about many different topics, and no matter the subject, she considered herself an expert. When reviewing the thus-far published works of Mary Austin in 1923, literary critic Carl Van Doren wrote that ”it may be that what Mrs. Austin lacks is the ability to focus her diffused powers and interests, however great, within a necessarily narrow field.”
The desert and its culture emerged as one of the most successful themes, in critics’ eyes, of Aus tin’s work. For this reason, her first book continues to be considered by many as her best. The Land of Little Rain modernized the spiritual outlook on nature held in previous years by popular Transcendentalist writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, riveting attention on the many layers of life sustained by the desert. ”What makes it more than a California classic, truly an American classic, is its fidelity to the landscape and lore of its region,” wrote critic Lawrence Clark Powell in 1971. ”Here we see a perfect conjunction of life, landscape, and literature.”
Austin’s autobiography, Earth Horizon, published near the end of her life, also ranks among her most critically successful. Her telling of her life story shows how place and identity wove together in her own life, with a particular emphasis on how moving to the Southwest enhanced her desire to redefine womanhood. As Vera Norwood wrote in 1982, Austin defined the desert as unconventionally feminine, defined by ”self-sufficiency and an unwillingness to be molded by the needs of men, rather than, to mold men to her needs.” This theme also emerges strongly in A Woman of Genius, but that book’s Eastern setting struck critics less forcefully than Austin’s own story.
Critics remain divided about how all of Austin’s books characterize her relationship to Native Americans: while her sympathy and admiration for indigenous traditions emerges strongly, what remains unclear is whether her efforts presume to know more about other cultures than is ethically acceptable to readers today. ”Whether or not she is successful in accurately portraying their experiences,” critic Jennie Camp wrote, in 2005 of Austin’s efforts to re-tell Indian stories, her efforts made it possible ”for varied cultures to come together” because of Aus tin’s desire to achieve ”multicultural empathy.”
- Fink, Augusta. I-Mary: A Biography of Mary Austin. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1983.
- Graulich, Melody and Elizabeth Klimasmith, eds.Exploring Lost Borders: Critical Essays on Mary Austin. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1999.
- Lanigan, Esther. Mary Austin: Song of a Maverick. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.
- Norwood, Vera. Made from This Earth: American Women and Nature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993.
- Powell, Lawrence Clark. ”Mary Austin: The Land of Little Rain.” In California Classics: The Creative Literature of the Golden State. 1971. Reprint by Capra Press, 1982. 44-52.
- Reed, Maureen. A Woman’s Place: Women Writing New Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.
- Jennie, Camp A. Review of One-Smoke Stories. The Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 59.1 (Spring 2005): 71-4.
- Langlois, Karen S. ”A Fresh Voice from the West: Mary Austin, California, and American Literary Magazines, 1892-1910.” California History 64 (Spring 1990): 22-35.
- Norwood, Vera. ”The Photographer and the Naturalist: Laura Gilpin and Mary Austin in the Southwest.” Journal of American Culture 5.2 (Summer 1982):1-28.
- Van Doren, Carl. ”Mary Austin: Discoverer and Prophet.” The Century. 7.1 (Nov. 1923): 151-156.
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