American author Mary Hunter Austin (1868-1934) primarily wrote fiction and essays, with many of her works focusing on Native American culture. The novel The Land of Little Rain (1903) was her best known work.
Austin was born on September 9, 1868, in Carlinville, Illinois, the fourth of six children born to George and Susannah (Graham) Hunter. George Hunter was a lawyer who emigrated from Yorkshire, England, in 1851. Austin's mother was of Scotch-Irish and French descent.
A veteran of the Civil War who had reached the rank of captain, George Hunter was ill for much of his daughter's young life with malaria that he had contracted in the conflict. He died when she was ten years old. A short time after, Austin's most supportive and understanding sister, Jennie, died of diphtheria. These deaths greatly affected Austin's life. Her mother ignored her, did not understand her, and was far more concerned with her older brother. Thus, from an early age, Austin looked to herself for support.
At the age of five, she had a spiritual experience that led to her formulating her own private religion. She also communicated with an inner, deeper personality that she called the "Inknower," "Genius," or "I-Mary." Austin later said that she drew from this part of herself when she wrote. She was often in a trance when she wrote.
From an early age, Austin had wanted to be a writer, but writing became her life after her father and sister died. She began writing poems at ten, immersed herself in academics and was a good student.
In 1884, Austin entered Blackburn College in Carlinville to study art and later changed her major to science. She also spent sometime at the State Normal School in Bloomington, Illinois, in 1885. In 1888, she graduated from Blackburn College with a degree in science.
After Austin graduated, she moved to California with her mother and brother Jim. The family settled on a desert homestead near the San Joaquin Valley. Austin grew to love the desert. She taught school in Mountain View, California, but would spend much time alone in the desert at night. She was also friendly with those who were not part of white society, such as Native Americans and Chinese laborers in the area.
In May 1891, Austin married Stafford Wallace Austin, who was a teacher and grape grower. He later became the manager of an irrigation project that failed, causing the couple many hardships. Adding to their challenges was that their daughter, Ruth, was born with mental disabilities.
Because of her husband's failures, including his inability to keep another job as a superintendent of schools, Austin had to return to teaching, and soon she also began to look to writing for income. The family moved between desert towns in California. Austin taught at the Methodist Academy in Bishop from 1895 to 1897, the Lone Pine School in 1897, and the Normal School in Los Angeles in 1899. Eventually, Austin put her daughter in an institution because she could not care for her.
Austin often wrote stories and poems for the amusement of her students. In 1892, she sold her first short story and soon began contributing to the magazine Overland Monthly. Many of her early works were about Native Americans and the desert. She had been taking notes and writing sketches since moving to the desert.
In 1903, Austin published her first book, The Land of Little Rain, which became a classic and her best known work. It consisted of 14 sketches that focused on the Mojave Desert and the Native Americans who lived there. Many essays concerned the battle between life and death. The book gave her instant fame.
While Austin was becoming a successful writer, her marriage failed. Her husband was not compassionate and could not support her intellectually, physically, or financially. She left her husband in 1903 or 1905 and divorced him in 1914.
During this period she was described by a visitor quoted by Grant Overton in The Women Who Make Our Novels: "Mrs. Austin has an Indian-like solemnity, a pervading shyness. All that she says has a certain value. She speaks seldom. Her utterance is rather slow and her remarks are usually grave. The desert has cloistered her."
Beginning in 1904, Austin lived in Carmel, California, where she built a home. At different times, Austin also lived in an artist colony there, as well as in Los Angeles and Greenwich Village in New York City. She associated with bohemian authors such as Jack London.
Austin began writing about one book a year. She published The Basket Woman (1904) about Paiute Indian legends. In 1905, Isidro, a romantic novel about missions in California, went to press. One of her more successful books was The Flock (1906). This follow-up to The Land of Little Rain focused on sheep herding and sheep raising in the desert Southwest. An underlying theme of the book was how people abused the land.
Austin's failed marriage also served as source material. In 1908, she published the novel Santa Lucia, a book about women and marriage. In this novel, she argued against the conventions of the day, in particular the taboo against wives working outside the home and the mandate that husbands should take charge of family finances even if they were not equipped to do so.
In 1910, Austin traveled to Italy because she was told by a doctor that she was dying of breast cancer. There, she studied prayer techniques under the tutelage of the Roman Catholic church. Austin believed that her prayers cured her cancer.
Austin resumed writing, and two works were directly influenced by her experience in Italy. They were Christ in Italy: Being the Adventures of a Maverick among Masterpieces (1912) and The Man Jesus: Being a Brief Account of the Life and Teachings of the Prophet of Nazareth (1915).
On her way back to the United States, Austin stopped in London. There she learned that she had a wide audience that included such authors as W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, and H.G. Wells.
When Austin returned to the United States, she first went to New York, where her drama The Arrow Maker was being prepared for staging. This play was produced in the spring of 1911. It was about an ambitious Paiute medicine woman. Austin wrote another play, Fire, also about Native Americans, which was produced in Carmel in 1912.
From 1912 to 1924, Austin split her time between New York and California, though she lived primarily in New York City. In 1912, she published what many believed was her best novel, A Woman of Genius. This work, which featured some autobiographical elements, was about women having to chose between marriage and career. As in many of her books about women, Austin also explored how and why women were subjugated by men. This early feminist novel led to Austin later being embraced by the women's movement of the 1970s.
Austin continued to address social issues, though in a heavy-handed manner, with The Ford (1917) and No. 26 Jayne Street (1920). The latter explored the idea of an equal marriage. Many critics preferred her books about Native Americans.
After recovering from a nervous breakdown, Austin in 1924 moved to New Mexico, where she built an adobe which she named La Casa Querida. That same year, she published The Land of Journeys' Ending, a collection of sketches about New Mexico and Arizona. Austin became an activist while living in Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico. She was involved in conserving the arts and handicrafts of Native Americans. In 1927, she was a representative for New Mexico at the Seven States Conference concerning the proposed Boulder Dam and related water diversion problems.
Late in her career, Austin published a number of different kinds of works. In 1928, she published her only collection of poetry, targeted at children, entitled The Children Sing in the Far West. Four years later, she published her autobiography, Earth Horizon. Writing in the third person, Austin covered the whole of her life and philosophies, including her experiences with God, her love of the Southwest, her difficult family life, and feminism. In 1934, she published One-Smoke Stories, a collection of short stories and sketches about Native American legends and folk tales, many with Southwestern themes.
In all, Austin published 32 books and over 250 articles. Most were about Native Americans and their heritage and nature but others dealt with such topics as socialism, feminism, and issues of the day. Austin was also a lecturer and public speaker. She spoke in a number of places about Native Americans, including her ideas about the sources of their poetic rhythms. She was also a social activist who was part of the suffrage and birth control movements and a socialist sympathizer.
While beginning a new novel, Austin suffered a heart attack and died in her sleep on August 13, 1934, in Santa Fe. She was cremated and her ashes set in a cave in the mountains.
Austin did not live the typical life of a woman of her era and that was reflected in her writing. Stacy Alaimo wrote in Studies in American Fiction: "Austin sought in nature a place that was not domesticated and that did not domesticate women… . No utilitarian ground, Austin's land pulsates spiritually, aesthetically, and erotically. Sometimes Austin celebrates the borderland as a place to think beyond the confines of gender; sometimes she couples women and nature through mutual strength and resistance to male domination. Often, by picturing the land as a mistress, Austin creates a feminine land that counters domestic ideology and conjoins women and nature not as a victims but as powerful allies."
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Overton, Grant, The Women Who Make Our Novels, Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1928.
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Studies in the Novel, Spring 1998. □