Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Meet Mary Austin

One of the January books I read that fascinated me on many fronts is a biography of Mary Austin, author of The Land of Little Rain, a seminal book about the West, and about nature and humankind. I sink into biographies about writers and artists, hoping to learn about creativity, and morbidly intrigued by the inevitable suffering. Here's my response to this tale of a spirited woman and writer with a sharp sense of life's inclusiveness.

Mary Austin and the American West.
By Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson.
2009. 352p. illus. Univ. of California, $29.95 (9780520246355).

Goodman and Dawson paired up to write William Dean Howells: A Writer’s Life (2005), and now continue their inquiry into the lives of seminal yet glossed-over American writers with a much needed reconsideration of the vagabond life and influential achievements of Mary Austin (1868–1934). Austin and her best-known book, The Land of Little Rain (1903) are often namedropped in books about the ecology of the West and the battles over water use, but Austin herself remains a cloaked figure. Goodman and Dawson convey all the trauma, originality, audacity, and courage of this against-type Illinois-raised woman’s adventures, from her college studies in psychology and botany, to her move to California with her widowed mother and siblings to her discovery of her great affinity for the “frightening beauty” of the desert and fascination with the culture of the Native Americans who truly called it home. Austin harbored an “anxiety to know,” and explored with world with a “double perspective of a poet and scientist.”

For all her brilliance, instinct for tolerance and justice, and mystical sensibility, she quarreled with her family, married a man she couldn’t live happily with, and had a mentally handicapped daughter she had no help caring for as she had to teach to earn a living. By sheer dint of her curiosity, empathy, and habit of chronicling her thoughts, Austin propelled herself out of the most isolating and depressing situations and wrote many works of nonfiction, nine novels, two hundred articles and essays, poems, plays, and short stories while traveling from coast to coast, sending herself to Rome when she believed at 39 that she was dying of breast cancer, effected a remarkable recovery, and befriended cowboys and shepherds as well as William James, Jack London, H. G. Wells, Lou and Herbert Hoover, W. E. B. Du Bois, Mabel Dodge, Robinson Jeffers, Ansel Adams, and many more.

We learn that Austin was an anthropologist by nature, a realistic advocate for Native Americans, women, and African Americans, a woman who excelled at friendship, worked under impossible conditions, supported herself with grueling lecture tours, speaking about an astonishing array of subjects, and became a member of the art scenes in Carmel, San Francisco, Greenwich Village, and Santa Fe. Unconventional, dynamic, prophetic in her environmental concerns and awareness of the dangers of big business infilitrating government, and an early practitioner of multicultural studies, Austin wrote “exalted,” outspoken, independence, and intrepid works. She was an “eclectic thinker and an intellectual magpie,” a phoenix, and, for all her posturing and infuriating assertiveness, she was fiercely private and deeply self-critical.

In their compelling biography, Goodman and Dawson achieve the perfect balance between fact and analysis, creating a deeply dimensional and genuinely illuminating portrait of a woman struggling to free herself to be an artist, while being pulled in different directions by money and health woes, good causes, and loneliness. Mary Austin is an important figure to bring forward in the pantheon of American writers and Western seers, and Goodman and Dawson have done so with empathy, drama, and clarity.

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