By Peter Richardson
January 25, 2009
the American West
Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson
University of California Press:
324 pp., $29.95
Few writers of her period overcame more obstacles than Mary Austin. Stuck in a disappointing marriage, Austin (1868-1934) spent the 1890s attending to her developmentally disabled daughter and teaching school in the bookless Owens Valley, where her literary aspirations seemed absurd. But her writing about the California desert and its inhabitants managed to find its place in the Atlantic Monthly, and she then wrote a slender masterpiece, "The Land of Little Rain," in 1903.
At that time, Americans were consuming a vast literature on the West and its exotica. Blending local color and nature writing, "The Land of Little Rain" transcends both genres. Much of its charm depends on humanizing an inhospitable and seemingly empty landscape. "There are three kinds of noises buzzards make, -- it is impossible to call them notes, -- raucous and elemental," Austin observes. "There is a short croak of alarm, and the same syllable in a modified tone to serve all the purposes of ordinary conversation."
The book's loosely arranged sketches are as unpredictable as they are original. Their central symbol is water, which Robert Hass has noted is "what marriage is in a novel by Jane Austen: the element that explains everything." As if to underscore Hass' point, one chapter begins by echoing the opening line of "Pride and Prejudice": "It is the proper destiny of every considerable stream in the West to become an irrigating ditch."
Originally published as a holiday book, "The Land of Little Rain" established Austin as a professional writer. She soon shrugged off her husband, institutionalized her daughter and spent the next decades moving restlessly from one bohemian enclave to the next, making stops in Carmel, London, Greenwich Village and finally Santa Fe. Mixing fiction, poetry, journalism, plays and political advocacy, Austin eventually produced a large body of work and formed an impressive literary network.
Austin's itinerancy broadened her outlook, but it didn't lead to superior writing or financial success. Her versatility and activism lured her away from her strengths, which she later identified as "the relation of letters and landscape, of life and its environment." Even she concluded that she had spent too many years of her life, as her latest biographers note, "potboiling in the wrong kitchens." When she died in 1934, she left little that matched "The Land of Little Rain."
The arc of Austin's career would present a challenge for any biographer, but, in "Mary Austin and the American West," Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson meet that challenge head on. They pore over Austin's spirited correspondence and map her extensive contacts, which came to include Jack London, Herbert Hoover, D.H. Lawrence and Willa Cather. They track her advocacy on women's issues and on the preservation of Indian and Mexican culture in the Southwest. Sifting through her published work, they acknowledge its shortcomings, attributing most of them to her need for income. They also compare her to contemporaries, including John Muir, who shared Austin's astonishing powers of observation but lacked her feeling for people and culture.
The force of Austin's personality wafts up from Goodman and Dawson's portrait. As a professional lecturer and self-styled expert on race, gender and psychic phenomena, Austin offered her opinions freely and magisterially. In an unfinished Lawrence play, a character based on Austin says, "Won't you all sit down and discuss the situation, while I solve it?" Her pronouncements produced an occasional irony. Having claimed that she preferred an unfaithful man to a stingy husband, for example, she was flummoxed when Lincoln Steffens put that assertion to the test. (After he terminated their affair, she threatened to demand reparations for loss of work and suffering.) But Austin could deploy irony as well. Proposing a literary collaboration with Sinclair Lewis, she wrote, "I know I'm feminine, damnably feminine, and not ashamed of it, but I'm not ladylike. You can count on my behaving like a gentleman." Her blend of brass and innocence exasperated some and endeared her to others.
Goodman and Dawson make the most of Austin's personality and peregrinations. In the end, however, their portrait suggests that Austin's most important literary contribution preceded the invention of her public persona. Perhaps compensating for that suggestion, they commit a rare exaggeration when they claim that she became "the voice of the American West." For a book whose title stresses that vast and variegated region, this one misses several opportunities to consider Austin's direct influence on younger Western writers. Goodman and Dawson mention her connection to Louis Adamic and Carey McWilliams, for example, but make surprisingly little of the fact that Austin introduced McWilliams to the water controversy that engulfed the Owens Valley during her years there. McWilliams' account of that incident inspired Robert Towne's Oscar-winning screenplay for "Chinatown," one of the finest American films of its generation. The authors say little about McWilliams' work and pass over the film in silence. They do, however, cite parallels between Cather's work and Austin's, Ansel Adams' claim that Austin influenced his photography, and Edward Abbey's acknowledgment that Austin was a precursor.
Minor factual errors and editorial lapses dot the narrative. Goodman and Dawson claim that Muir farmed in the San Joaquin Valley; in fact, he grew fruit in the East Bay. These oversights make it more difficult to accept the book's grandest claim, but they don't diminish its main achievement: a complete portrait of a strong female writer set against dramatic backdrops, one of which was her main subject. As for the arc of Austin's career, let the record show that she produced one more masterpiece than most artists.
Writing Austin's obituary for this newspaper, McWilliams asked readers to imagine "a woman with the emotional background and experience of an American housewife, the stout mental courage of a Huxley, and a streak of ineradicable mysticism, and you have a fair understanding of the incongruous traits that were dominant in Mary Austin." Bringing these and other traits to the surface for a full and honest inspection, Goodman and Dawson's judicious biography makes a worthy contribution to our understanding of the literary West.
Richardson lectures on California culture at San Francisco State. His forthcoming book on the history and influence of Ramparts magazine is scheduled for publication this fall.
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