The Land of Little Rain
THE LAND OF LITTLE RAIN
Mary Austin (1868–1934) could not have hoped for a better literary market when The Land of Little Rain, her first book, appeared in 1903. Half of the ten bestsellers in that year—novels by Frank Norris, Thomas Nelson Page, Thomas Dixon Jr., John Fox Jr., and Owen Wister—emphasized regional settings ranging from Virginia and Kentucky to Wyoming. At a time when the West, the South, and the Midwest still appeared to retain a provincial distinctiveness, East Coast American readers craved both fictional and nonfictional glimpses of the people and customs of these regions. Such local color interest informs the fourteen sketches that make up The Land of Little Rain, which features the diverse people, animals, and plants found in a stretch of California terrain located between the Sierra Nevada and the Mojave Desert.
The successful reception of Austin's book was also influenced by various apprehensions defining the opening years of the Progressive Era, a period defined in part by industrial corruption, destabilizing economic speculation, and an anarchist's assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 at the Pan-American Exposition. Nature too was markedly under assault, its resources ruthlessly exploited by corporate giants antagonistic to both governmental regulation and labor unionization. The conditions of overcrowded urban laborers, generally poorly housed and underpaid despite long work hours, starkly contrasted with the unspoiled nature celebrated by President Theodore Roosevelt when he established national parks as conservational preserves. As a result The Land of Little Rain appealed because it, like precedent books by the naturalists John Burroughs and John Muir, also celebrated a wild environment apparently on the verge of vanishing in a country increasingly defined by technology and urbanization.
Several of the sketches included in this collection had previously appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, whose editor, Bliss Perry, expedited Houghton, Mifflin's publication of Austin's volume as an illustrated gift book. The book sold well, its reviewers finding more to praise than to fault. The reviewer for The Dial was typical in speaking positively, if not especially enthusiastically, about Austin's representation of the desert: "Because she knows and loves it she can reproduce its atmosphere of romance, of silence, and of strangeness" (1 December 1903, pp. 421–422).
AUSTIN'S DISCONTENT WITH THE BOOK
Although Austin acknowledged that her collection required more than a year of planning, she was never particularly satisfied with it, at one point even indicating to a friend that its excellent sales conflicted with her own opinion of the book. Authors often come to view their early works with such reservations, but there were good reasons for Austin to be dissatisfied with The Land of Little Rain. The collection had been assembled primarily to earn money, and while the sketches included in the volume all relate to a single geographic region, they read as discrete units lacking a more pleasing principle of integration.
Austin's discontent with her first book may also have been fostered by an intuitive recognition of personal feelings subtly registered below the surface of her volume. She was an unhappy person before and during the composition of The Land of Little Rain. A lonely childhood, awkward social interactions, a seemingly unpromising career, chronic illnesses, a mentally challenged daughter, a failing marriage, and a sense of herself as unloved and unlovable all doubtlessly contributed to the book's emotional undercurrents. Austin, who at one point in her sketches specifically mentions her "poor body," tellingly identifies with the desert terrain as a "lonely land" with "little in it to love"—an "unhappy" place of "lost rivers," "thirsty soil," "demoniac yuccas," "tormented, thin forests," and the "dolorous [coyote] whine that comes from no determinate point" (pp. 5–6, 10–11, 13, 29, 106).
A third and even more likely source for Austin's discontent with her book is its failure to convey adequately a sense of the "mystical," a sense highlighted in her autobiographical Earth Horizon (1932). Missing, in short, is a style capable of representing the reverential awe occasionally inspired in her by the strange beauty of the desert. In this arid region Austin witnessed the "long and imperturbable . . . purposes of God" and detected a "presence and intention," an "eternal meaning" that "trick[s] the [customary] sense of time" (pp. 16, 186, 246, 262). She had explicitly hoped to give a literary impression of the "lotus charm" of the desert's stark minimalism so that her readers' normal apprehension of the familiar would be supplanted by a new understanding of a spiritual dimension behind temporal experiences (p. 16).
Austin's prose rarely approaches such a lofty goal. The style of the book, which Austin frankly admitted had hardly concerned her during its composition, lacks rhetorical coherence, tonal consistency, and syntactic grace. It often rapidly transitions from flatly rendered factual description and enumeration to self-conscious expression inflated by romantic sentiment. Frequently her sentences are pointlessly rife with absent transitions, obscured referents, shifts in point of view, confusing circumlocutions, and jarring ellipses. The book opens awkwardly: "East away from the Sierras, south from Panamint and Amargosa, east and south many an uncounted mile, is the Country of Lost Borders" (p. 3). There are, however, later moments of crystalline phrasing: "No tree takes the snow stress with such ease as the silver fir. The star-whorled, fan-spread branches droop under the soft wreaths—droop and press flatly to the trunk" (p. 256).
THE PROBLEM OF SELF-AWARENESS
Besides her hampering emotional disposition and limitations as a writer in 1903, Austin's time-freighted self-consciousness burdens her aspirations in The Land of Little Rain. While the desert may hint at transcendent otherness, it also indifferently insists on "purposes not revealed" to the very observer who glimpses some mystery there (p. 184). Austin may sense something divine communicated through the desert landscape, but any such "imperturbable . . . purpose" also taxes her whenever this "land that supports no man" makes her see herself as merely a time-bound witness "of no account" (pp. 3, 21, 186). In contrast to such lotus-eaters as old desert miners oblivious to temporal realities, Austin remains all too despondently aware of time as she self-consciously celebrates nature's divinity.
To become, in Ralph Waldo Emerson's image from Nature (1836), a "transparent eyeball" with "the currents of the Universal Being circulat[ing] through" her, Austin would have had to merge with "the splendor of the apocalypse," as she put it (p. 248). To yield to "the lotus charm" of the desert she would have to go "mad in time"—that is, forsake everything "but beauty and madness and death and God" (pp. 16, 69, 184). Such a state would require the total loss of her individual selfhood. This is not possible, however, because in order to appreciate the sublime otherness of nature, the perceiver must possess a temporal consciousness—the very time-bound identity that necessarily estranges the onlooker from the apocalyptic eternal. It is precisely through a sense of estrangement, as Austin's contemporary Amy Lowell often poetically observed, that one can value the beautiful otherness of nature. To some extent Austin acknowledges this unmitigated perceptual distance from the divine in nature when she refers to herself as "a mere recorder" "of no account" (pp. 21, 112). She, in other words, is not a forgetful lotus-eater blissfully at one with timeless beauty but remains instead an uncomfortably self-aware stranger in a strange land.
If certain old miners appear to have less of this sensibility of estrangement, Native Americans strike Austin as even more ideally unselfconscious in their relationship to nature's sublimity. Unwittingly participating in the early-twentieth-century romanticizing of the American Indian, Austin claims that Native Americans possess "a sort of instinct atrophied by disuse in a complexer civilization" (p. 234). The women in particular seem to enjoy the very Emersonian transparency that Austin (the reflexively theorizing and disfranchised observer) cannot experience: "Every Indian woman is an artist,—sees, feels, creates, but does not philosophize about her processes," Austin claims (p. 168–169). These women achieve an enviable "satisfaction of desire" (p. 171).
Even this imagined ideal does not finally escape the contrary impulse of Austin's self-consciousness. One comment in particular challenges such an idealization of Native American women and hints at Austin's own dilemma of unfulfilled desire: "Seyavi had somehow squeezed out of her daily round a spiritual ichor that kept the skill in her knotted fingers long after the accustomed time, but that also failed" (p. 176). This observation is intended to express an admiration of the union of universal spirit and Seyavi's basket art, in contrast to Austin's literary art registering an outsider's self-conscious separation from the divine. Yet Austin's appreciation here is compromised by her own unsatisfied desire. The qualifying word "somehow" recalls Austin's earlier point about "purposes not revealed" and hints as well at a frustration with her own occluded perception (p. 184). Likewise, the words "squeezed" and "knotted fingers" suggest Seyavi's painful rather than effortless labor—an impression less applicable to Seyavi's putative "satisfaction of desire" in her art than to Austin's own unfulfilled straining to translate the transcendent within her sketches (pp. 171, 176). And peculiar indeed is Austin's terse comment that the union of the eternal and Seyavi's artistry "failed" with the passage of time, an observation related to another passage about "strange pictures and symbols" by "an older, forgotten people" that now have "no meaning to the Indians of the present day" (p. 43). Such moments challenge Austin's privileging of Native American kinship with the eternal. It is as if time does not merely occlude higher vision (divinity) in the temporal world but possibly amounts to something far more real and intransigent.
Time's work, in fact, punctuates Austin's sketches with countless memento mori. The "ghastly sink" of the desert everywhere offers signs of the indifferent "elemental violence" of nature, including "the sawtooth effect" of majestic mountains with "long shark-finned ridges" (pp. 8, 108–109, 186). The land of little rain is a place where the "squalid tragedy" of "the struggle of existence" easily ends badly, "takes its toll of death" (pp. 8, 49). It is a place where rabbits, for example, "appear to have no reason for existence but to furnish meals for meat-eaters" (p. 34). There, for all to see more clearly than something transcendent, are "sun-dried mummies" and "shallow graves" (p. 18). Awareness of such intimations of the decomposing work of time is symptomatic of Austin's time-bound self-awareness resisting her mystical aspirations in The Land of Little Rain.
ANNEXING THE LANDSCAPE
The effects of time are also evident in what might be described as Austin's acts of rhetorical annexation, acts contrary to her express literary goals. In the preface she announces her intention to avoid using official geographic names because they "originate in the poor human desire for perpetuity" (p. viii), as if such nomenclature amounted to territorial claims on a land that should not be reduced to mere human memorials or real estate. But later in the preface she speaks of her own manner of identification, which sometimes relies on Native American designations, as designed to "keep faith with the land and annex to my own state a very great territory" (p. ix). Austin perhaps means to echo "I am the monarch of all I survey," Henry David Thoreau's nuanced play on land ownership in Walden (1854). But her own time-bound metaphor of spiritual annexation of the desert implicitly highlights her inescapable estrangement from nature. The unfortunate metaphor of annexation recalls another, more obvious lapse when Austin writes of a special tract of land: "I should have no peace until I had bought ground and built me a house beside it" (p. 126). Austin's metaphor of annexation accidentally links her artistic effort to convey nature's "eternal meaning" to the materialistic attitude of those who value landscape primarily as real estate defined by enclosing fences and names for the purpose of proprietary exploitation (p. 262).
Throughout The Land of Little Rain, Austin rhetorically tries to annex a landscape that always resists her desire for spiritual closure with its divine properties. Whenever she autobiographically projects her emotional disposition on the desert or anthropomorphizes its wildlife, she in effect subjectively appropriates the desert for her own emotional needs. In doing so she unwittingly enacts a version of land proprietorship that she explicitly deplores. Such language hardly indicates mystical transcendence in the desert; it instead subtly replicates the temporal "human occupancy of greed" that leads to the sort of "disfigurement" or "mark on the field" that banishes the wild (pp. 60, 128). Austin's effort to render the sublime through a rhetoric of personal appropriation effectively repeats the pattern of those who "are obsessed with [their] own importance in the scheme of things" (p. 281).
Mystical experiences, such as the rare episodes Austin knew as a child, are not encountered at will. They are, as Augustine indicates in Confessions, unexpected confiscations of the self. The authorial self in The Land of Little Rain, in contrast, remains a lonely observer, a mere recorder whose self-consciousness cannot escape a frustrating awareness of time. This narrative insistence on time's toll presses against Austin's transcendental goal and influences the textual decomposition of her book—its lack of a pleasing coherence in arrangement, style, and tone. Such memento mori narrative features are symptomatic of a time-bound self-awareness that disfranchises Austin from the divine in the desert even as, paradoxically, it enables her to treasure nature precisely because there she feels like a stranger in a strange land.
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William J. Scheick