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Mary Austin and the American West

Susan Goodman
Carl Dawson
Copyright Date: 2008
Edition: 1
Pages: 344
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  • Book Info
    Mary Austin and the American West
    Book Description:

    Mary Austin (1868-1934)-eccentric, independent, and unstoppable-was twenty years old when her mother moved the family west. Austin's first look at her new home, glimpsed from California's Tejon Pass, reset the course of her life, "changed her horizons and marked the beginning of her understanding, not only about who she was, but where she needed to be." At a time when Frederick Jackson Turner had announced the closing of the frontier, Mary Austin became the voice of the American West. In 1903, she published her first book,The Land of Little Rain,a wholly original look at the West's desert and its ethnically diverse peoples. Defined in a sense by the places she lived, Austin also defined the places themselves, whether Bishop, in the Sierra Nevada, Carmel, with its itinerant community of western writers, or Santa Fe, where she lived the last ten years of her life. By the time of her death in 1934, Austin had published over thirty books and counted as friends the leading literary and artistic lights of her day. In this rich new biography, Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson explore Austin's life and achievement with unprecedented resonance, depth, and understanding. By focusing on one extraordinary woman's life,Mary Austin and the American Westtells the larger story of the emerging importance of California and the Southwest to the American consciousness.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94226-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  5. one DESERT PLACES: 1868–1892
    (pp. 1-23)

    In 1836, over fifteen feet of snow fell in Carlinville, Illinois. Farmers hauling corn and livestock to the Mississippi River town of Alton frantically reversed their routes, dumping wagonloads of feed and abandoning hogs that, piggybacking against the cold blast, froze in gruesome stacks. Wagons froze, and men with them, trapped in a “polar wave” of blinding speed.¹ Mary Hunter Austin, who wrote about the disaster nearly a century later, grew up in Carlinville during the 1870s. She remembered town elders dating events before and after the Great Snow, and in her autobiography,Earth Horizon(1932), she uses the storm...

  6. two OWENS VALLEY: 1892–1900
    (pp. 24-47)

    In summer, to visit her mother, Austin rode the worn, rocking stage-coaches that advanced in eighteen-mile relays from Keeler, at the head of Owens Lake, to the town of Mojave, where she boarded the Southern Pacific train for Bakersfield. In a phrase that captures the distance and division among people living in the same state, locals called their journeys to the San Joaquin going “over beyond,” as though the train were a chariot and Bakersfield the site of pearly gates.¹ It was the first, rough stretch to Mojave that Austin liked best. She made a point of engaging the open-air...

  7. three INDEPENDENCE: 1900–1905
    (pp. 48-68)

    In predawn darkness on may 21, 1924, almost twenty years after Mary Austin left the Owens Valley, a convoy of cars made its way from the small town of Bishop to a point fifty miles south, near Lone Pine. The forty or so men who dynamited the Los Angeles aqueduct that day considered themselves ordinary people—husbands, fathers, merchants, and ranchers—forced to defend their property against the water-guzzling Goliath of Los Angeles. On November 16 of that same year, seventy men, led by the banking brothers Mark and Wilfred Watterson, once again left Bishop, this time to seize the...

  8. four CARMEL: 1904–1907
    (pp. 69-92)

    One evening in july 1904, Mary Austin strode into Coppa’s restaurant on the arm of the poet George Sterling. A favorite San Francisco hangout, Coppa’s sported crimson walls, capped by a frieze of black cats, and gas chandeliers, which gave the restaurant the aura of a Parisian art gallery or Left Bank brothel. “One dined so very well at Coppa’s,” Austin later reminisced. “Such platefuls of fresh shrimps; such sand dabs and crisp salads; such almond tartlets” and such “dago red.”¹ The wine must have been especially seductive to someone raised by and as a Methodist temperancer.

    Sterling, the so-called...

  9. five IN ITALY AND ENGLAND: 1907–1910
    (pp. 93-118)

    Expecting to die but ready to fight for her life in the fall of 1907, Mary Austin prepared for her voyage to Europe by tying up loose ends at home. She stopped first in Los Angeles to visit her brother Jim and his new fiancée, though mainly to see the other Mary, Jim’s troubled daughter, “a cross” for her to leave behind and someone for whom she had begun to feel responsible.¹ From Southern California she took the train to New York City where, for reasons of money and ego, she made arrangements to speak with her editors at Houghton...

  10. six NEW YORK: 1911–1914
    (pp. 119-144)

    Mary austin returned to the united states with the bitter realization that if she had not failed by her own measure, neither had she succeeded. Despite every effort, none of her books had found their way to the best-seller list or to book clubs, which sold in the hundred thousands.Isidroled all her books with 11,700 printed copies. Her stories brought in about two hundred dollars each, the going rate, but small reward for long labor.¹ Then there was, as she put it, “the difficulty that my books were always of the West, which was little known” and “never...

  11. seven THE VILLAGE: 1914–1920
    (pp. 145-171)

    Like most writers, austin deposited papers of all varieties into a kind of savings account—in her case, notebooks and diaries—for future projects. In the New York diary she kept for Lincoln Steffens, she introduced a document written for her by Joseph Boardman Jr. of the Boardman Detective Bureau, located at 104 East Twentieth Street, on the edge of Greenwich Village. In her autobiography, Austin mentions her own brief stint in a detective agency, possibly Boardman’s, and she may have used the connection for a new if risky kind of research. Austin either hired or cajoled Boardman to gather...

  12. eight THE CALL OF THE WEST: 1920–1924
    (pp. 172-197)

    On 8 january 1922, a cross-section of New York’s literati gathered at the National Arts Club to pay tribute to Mary Austin. Nearly twenty years had passed since publication ofThe Land of Little Rain, during which Austin had made herself into a different writer. As the master of ceremonies noted that evening, “Bret Harte continued to write California mining stories long after he had put that state behind him, but Mrs. Austin has made the world her field and has written of human nature as she has found it in various parts of the earth.”¹ His point may have...

  13. nine SANTA FE: 1924–1929
    (pp. 198-217)

    On the penitente trail behind Mabel Dodge Luhan’s house, Mary Austin had experienced another vision, this one announcing New Mexico as her future home. Still at the time a resident of New York, she may well have chosen Santa Fe because of that vision, or because Taos seemed too small for both Mabel Luhan and herself. Then, too, she had helped to launch Santa Fe’s first civic theater and felt more connected to the larger and historically rich city, which touted itself as the oldest capital in the United States. Not only the state capital but Spain’s governing town in...

    (pp. 218-238)

    Four years after moving to Santa Fe, Mary Austin wrote an article called “Indian Detour,” describing the detour as a back route through Indian territory and a state of mind. She invited readers to join her. We ask a similar indulgence for our own detour, if not into cactus country, then into the shifting landscape of Austin’s mind, on topics that had long engaged her and became, after her move to Santa Fe, near obsessions. With good reason had Herbert Hoover asked how she was, outside of Indians, and he might have added Spanish descendents and Mexican immigrants.

    Austin had...

  15. eleven LAST YEARS: 1929–1934
    (pp. 239-263)

    Albert bender, the affable, gnomelike chairman of the California Book Club, sent Austin this advice about Virginia and Ansel Adams in 1929: “There is only one thing about which you should not be unaware,” Bender told her, “and that is their appetite. Please do not let them go hungry. They need food every hour in large quantities, and if you have no mortgage on your house now, you will have at the time of their departure. If the circulatory system permits, I think a special pipe should connect with Ansel’s room, through which a cup of coffee could be furnished...

  16. twelve THE ACCOUNTING
    (pp. 264-272)

    Any person’s death calls for an accounting, a reading of the will, a sorting out of legacies, an assessment of debits and credits—quite apart from matters of trusts, taxes, and the bureaucracy that turn a once vital person into someone as socially or administratively dead as he or she is dead in body. Biographies as part of that accounting run their own risks, sifting through the detritus and often missing the life itself in the welter of gathered documents and erratic memory.

    It might be said that Mary Austin’s legacies remain in a kind of probate, awaiting overdue closure...

  17. NOTES
    (pp. 273-312)
  18. INDEX
    (pp. 313-323)
  19. Back Matter
    (pp. 324-324)
  20. [Illustrations]
    (pp. 325-348)