Austin, Mary Hunter

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AUSTIN, Mary Hunter

Born 9 September 1868, Carlinville, Illinois; died 13 August 1934, Santa Fe, New Mexico

Daughter of George and Savilla Graham Hunter; married Stafford Austin, 1891

Mary Hunter Austin was born into a family that had little understanding of her unusual talents. Her father died from a malarial infection contracted during the Civil War, and with his death, Austin lost her one source of literary encouragement. In 1888 Austin graduated from Blackborn College and the family filed homestead claims in the Tejon district of Joaquin Valley, California. This landscape and way of life were to form the most important influence on Austin's writing.

Her first important book was The Land of Little Rain (1903), a study which drew heavily upon her experiences with nature. The Land of Little Rain is a collection of essays dealing with the Southwest—its people and its religion. A lover of the land, Austin writes: "One must summer and winter with the land and wait its occasions." Austin does not like the term "desert," which to her indicates a land which will support no man. The desert is full of that which will support life, although it is up to man to find this support, and the white man has not been blessed with this facility. Much of the collection is taken up with the struggle between life and death. It is not the land alone that interests Austin, but the people who inhabit it as well. Austin's style reflects an intimacy with the earth itself. She uses Indian names to describe nature, and her descriptions are lyrical with an instinct for the precise word to convey natural phenomena.

The Flock (1906) deals with the history of sheep-raising in the Southwest. Austin introduces into the work the allegorical idea of man being like sheep in possessing the instincts of the social "flock mind." Of the flock mind Austin observes, "I cannot say very well what it is, except that it is less than the sum of all their intelligences." Ecology is one of the major concerns of this work, and Austin is sympathetic to a land brutally abused by humans in their attempts to survive.

Austin also wrote on the feminist concerns of the day, and her novels reflect the problems women face in both marriage and career. A Woman of Genius (1912) contains both semiautobiographical material and Austin's strongest statement on the feminist choice between career and marriage. It has been compared favorably with Sinclair Lewis' Main Street. Critic Edward Wagenknecht believes the work covers "everything that is important in woman's rebellion against man, for on its deepest level the book is a study of creative power, of its connection with sexual power, and of the conflict between art and love." The childhood background of its heroine, Olivia Lattimore, is obviously based on Austin's own childhood. Olivia triumphs over hardship through her genius and becomes a success on the New York stage. The crisis of the novel is Olivia's decision whether to marry and fulfill the conventions or to follow her genius. When her lover telegrams "Will you marry me?" Olivia can only reply, "If you marry my work." He cannot accept this situation and marries another woman. Olivia faces a breakdown and eventually marries a playwright she has known for some time. She expects a good marriage between people of similar interests, but one lacking in the excitement of her early love.

Earth Horizon (1932) chronicles the life of Austin and is written in third person, as was Austin's style in nonfiction writing. The book describes the life of a gifted woman in a conventional world, and Austin makes a convincing case for the oppression of women through the examples of prejudice she personally experienced. Austin reports mystical experiences with God and nature that made her feel there was a particular pattern to her existence, a pattern which would make its shape known to her over the years. She concludes her story, "It is not that we work upon the Cosmos, but it works in us." The feminist bias of the work is particularly strong in her observations on marriage. She works from knowledge of both her mother's attitude toward marriage and her own unhappy experience. She deals with the struggle of women for equality in the Midwest of her own time, and speaks frankly of the instinctual sexual desire in women. The book also portrays Austin's love for the Southwest, and her feelings that she had to come into a mystical rapport with the region before she could write about it. Her love for the Indian people and her efforts to preserve their life and culture are given an important place in her history.

Other Works:

Isidro (1905). Santa Lucia (1908). Lost Borders (1909). The Basket Woman, A Book of Fanciful Tales for Children (1910). Outland (1910). The Arrow Maker (1911). Christ in Italy (1912). Fire (1912). The Green Bough (1913). The Lovely Lady (1913). California, Land of the Sun (1914). Love and the Soul Maker (1914). The Ford (1917). The Trail Book (1918). The Young Woman Citizen (1918). No. 26 Jayne St. (1920). The American Rhythm (1923). The Land of Journey's Ending (1924). Everyman's Genius (1925). The Man Jesus (1925). The Children Sing in the Far West (1928). Taos Pueblo (1930). Starry Adventure (1931). Experiences Facing Death (1931). Indian Pottery of the Rio Grande (1934). Can Prayer Be Answered? (1934). One Smoke Stories (1934).


Brooks, V. W., The Confident Years: 1815-1915 (1932). Campbell, J. L., "From Self to Earth and Back Again in the Fiction of Mary Austin" (thesis, 1997). Carew-Miller, A., Telling the Truth About Herself: Mary Austin and the Autobiographical Voice of Feminist Theory (dissertation, 1994). Church, P. P., Wind's Trail: The Early Life of Mary Austin (1990). Dickson, C. E., Nature and Nation: Mary Austin and Cultural Negotiations of the American West,1900-1914 (dissertation, 1996). Luhan, D., and A. C. Henderson, "Search for Revolutionary Change in the Desert Southwest" (thesis, 1998). Farrar, J. C., ed., The Literary Spotlight (1924). Fink, A., Mary, a Biography of Mary Austin (1983). Ford, T. W., "The American Rhythm: Mary Austin's Poetic Principle," in Western American Literature 5. Hart, T. J., Tender Horizons: The American Landscapes of Austin and Stein (dissertation, 1996). Hoyer, M. T., Dancing Ghosts: Native American and Christian Syncretism in Mary Austin's Work (1998). Jones, L. A., Uncovering the Rest of Herstory in the Frontier Myth: Mary Austin, Mabel Graulich. Klimasmith, M. & E., eds., Exploring Lost Borders: Critical Essays on Mary Austin (1999). Kircher, C. L., Women in/on Nature: Mary Austin, Gretel Ehrlich, Terry Tempest Williams, and Ann Zwinger (dissertation, 1995, 1998). Langlois, K. S., A Search for Significance: Mary Austin, the New York Years (dissertation, 1987). Lanigan, E. F., Mary Austin: Song of a Maverick (1989). Lyday, J. W., Mary Austin: The Southwest Works (1968). Milowski, C. P., Revisioning the American Frontier: Mary Hallock Foote, Mary Austin, Willa Cather, and the Western Narrative (dissertation, 1996). Nelson, B. J. D., Mary Austin's Domestic Wildness: An Ecocritical Investigation of Animals (dissertation, 1997). Pearce, T. M., Mary Hunter Austin (1965). Stineman, E., Mary Hunter Austin: An American Woman of Letters (dissertation, 1989 1987). Van Doren, C., in Contemporary American Novelists (1931). Wagenknecht, E., in Cavalcade of the American Novel (1952). Webster, B., "Owens Valley's Mary Austin" in Album (Oct. 1992). White, W. A., The Autobiography (1946). Wynn, D., A Critical Study of the Writings of Mary Hunter Austin (abridged dissertation; 1941).


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