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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Mary Austin

The second child of George and Susannah Hunter, Mary Hunter Austin was born in Carlinville, Illinois, and graduated from Blackburn College in 1888, with interests in both science and art. In 1888 her family moved to Southern California hoping to homestead in the lower San Joaquin Valley. By this time her father and older sister had died, relations between Austin and her mother were strained, and Austin had accustomed herself to a solitary life, in which her most vibrant, meaningful experiences came from a mystical connection to nature. Already predisposed to value the natural world, Austin explored, fell in love with, and began to write about the arid landscapes of the Southwest.

She married Stafford Wallace Austin in 1891, moving with him to the Owens Valley where both taught in several Southern California small towns, settling finally in Lone Pine. In 1892 her only child, Ruth, was born mentally retarded; eventually Ruth was placed by her mother in a mental institution, where she died in 1918. Austin's marriage to Stafford Austin was in shambles by the time her first, and most famous book, The Land of Little Rain, appeared in 1903. They lived separate lives for ten years, finally divorcing in 1914. Austin never remarried, devoting herself instead to intellectual and emotional engagement with the most important writers of her time, and to a life of public activism in various causes, including environmental conservation and regional advocacy. An important figure in the artists' colonies of both Carmel, California and Santa Fe, New Mexico, she also fought for water rights in the Southwest, first in the Owens Valley and later as a delegate to the Boulder Dam Conference in 1927, where she argued against the diversion of the Colorado River to supply water to Los Angeles.

As her autobiography, Earth Horizon, makes clear, early in her life Austin felt herself "marked" by a specialness which was evidenced in her drive to influence social customs and political policies through her writings. Author of twenty-seven books and more than two hundred and fifty articles, she saw her mission as essentially two-fold: to shift the center of culture from the Euro-American traditions of the East coast to the American Indian and Hispanic traditions of the Southwest, and to change her generation's attitudes toward women and women's rights. She was a regionalist who used her considerable energy, influence, and talent in collecting, preserving, and encouraging the continuation of Hispanic and American Indian folk arts. Her involvement with American Indian and Hispanic arts in the Southwest poses, however, complex interpretative issues. On the one hand, Austin and her colleagues helped engender national markets for art forms that had been ignored and even suppressed; on the other, they did so by applying Euro-American esthetic standards to indigenous arts, attempting to direct the local artists into patterns not necessarily in keeping with the crafts or their own cultural values.

Austin was also a vocal feminist, using her writings to argue for suffrage and birth control. Her most successful fictional effort, A Woman of Genius, ranks alongside Willa Cather's Song of the Lark as a study in the trials facing a creative woman of the Progressive Era. Austin's remarkable legacy of writings coheres around her intense focus on the conflicts experienced by women of her time. Earth Horizon most clearly delineates those tensions in Austin's inventive use of first, second, and third person voices in referring to herself. Realizing that women often operated in two spheres of consciousnessone that was their inner, true self and one that evidenced a husband's or father's projections of ideal womanhood (she, you, or simply, Mary)—Austin wrote movingly about her personal anguish in order to exemplify the changes she hoped to see accomplished. Her struggle was not only with beliefs about women's roles but with the physical spaces they were allowed to occupy. Whether she was writing about desert-induced mirages, or small-town life in Carlinville, Illinois, or the urban canyons of New York City, she described in detail the physical environment and its potential as a place of free movement for women. In this way, Austin's writing offers a broad-ranging critique of the environments—both perceptual and actual—in which women live their lives. Her counsel to herself in Earth Horizon remains valuable today as women continue the struggle to establish their own space: "There was something you could do about unsatisfactory conditions besides being heroic or martyr to them, something more satisfactory than enduring or complaining, and that was getting out to hunt for the remedy."

Vera Norwood
University of New Mexico

In the Heath Anthology
from Earth Horizon
      Chapter III (1932)

Other Works
Literary America (c.1903)
The Land of Little Rain (1903)
Lost Borders (1909)
A Woman of Genius (1912)
The Land of Journey's Ending (1924)
Starry Adventure (1931)

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Uncovering the hidden history of regionalism: The American regionalist insurgency of the 1920s-40s
An article from Cascadia Planet e-zine.

American Authors
Offers links and a bibliography.

Mary Austin's The Land of Little Rain
Text of Chapter 1 plus publication notes, biography, and review (frames only).

Secondary Sources

Reuben J. Ellis, Beyond Borders: The Selected Essays of Mary Austin, 1996

Augusta Fink, I-Mary, 1983

Elizabeth Harrison, " Zora Neale Hurston and Mary Hunter Austin's Ethnographic Fiction: New Modernist Narratives," in Unmanning Modernism: Gendered Re-Readings, eds. Jane Elizabeth Harrison and Shirley Peterson, 1997

Mark T. Hoyer, Dancing Ghosts: Native American and Christian Syncretism in Mary Austin's Work, 1998

Karen S. Langlois, "Marketing the American Indian: Mary Austin and the Business of Writing," in A Living of Words: American Women in Print Culture, ed. Susan Albertine, 1995

Esther F. Lanigan, A Mary Austin Reader, 1996

Esther F. Lanigan, Mary Austin: Song of a Maverick, 1997

Noreen Groover Lape, " 'There Was a Part for Her in the Indian Life': Mary Austin, Regionalism, and the Problems of Appropriation," in Breaking Boundaries: New Perspectives on Women's Regional Writing, eds. Sherrie A. Innes and Diana Royer, 1997

Anna Carew Miller, "Mary Austin's Nature: Refiguring Tradition through the Voices of Identity," in Reading the Earth: New Directions in the Study of Literature and Environment, eds. Michael P. Branch, et al., 1998

Vera Norwood, "The Photographer and the Naturalist: Laura Gilpin and Mary Austin in the Southwest," Journal of American Culture (Summer 1982): 1-28

James Ruppert, "Discovering America: Mary Austin and Imagism," in Studies in American Indian Literature, ed. Paula Gunn Allen, 1983

William J. Scheick, "The Art of Maternal Nurture in Mary Austin's 'The Basket Woman'," in Literature and the Child: Romantic Continuations, Postmodern Contestations, ed. James Holt McGavran, 1999.

Mark Schlenz, "Rhetorics of Region in Starry Adventure and Death Comes for the Archbishop, " in Regionalism Reconsidered: New Approaches to the Field, ed. David Jordan, 1994

Janis P. Stout, "Mary Austin's Feminism: A Reassessment," Studies in the Novel 30:1 (Spring 1998): 77-101

Michael W. Vella, "Theory, Discourse, Landscape," Isle 3:2 (Fall 1996): 157-63

Elizabeth Winston, "The Autobiographer and Her Readers: From Apology to Affirmation," in Women's Autobiography: Essays in Criticism, ed. Estelle Jelinek

David Wyatt, "Mary Austin: Nature and Nurturance," in his The Fall into Eden: Landscape and Imagination in California, 1986