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Monday, July 8, 2013

July 8, 2013: Southwest Stories: Mary Hunter Austin

[This week, a series on some of the many AmericanStudies stories that can be found in the Southwest—in addition to those included, for example, in this prior series on Mexican American histories. Leading up to a special post on folk heroes!]
On three of the many interesting and inspiring sides to the muse of the Southwest.
If Mary Hunter Austin’s only claim to fame was The Land of Little Rain (1903), that would be more than enough to guarantee her a place in both the Southwestern and American cultural and historical landscape. Much like another book from the same year, The Souls of Black Folk, Austin’s pioneering work brought together many different genres: the book is at once a naturalistic account of California’s deserts and an engaging description of the region’s mythologies and spiritualities, an autobiographical glimpse into Austin’s immersion in the area (after moving there from her native Illinois) and an ethnographic study of its Native, Mexican, and Anglo American communities, and more. Land does justice to all of those goals but, like Du Bois’ book, is also more than the sum of its parts, and as such comprises a unique and vital American text.
Land might exemplify Austin’s unique perspective and style, however, but it’s also only the first of the more than twenty books she wrote and published in the next three decades, before her too early death in 1934 at the age of 65. Those include: The Arrow Maker (1911), one of the first New York-produced plays to focus on Native American life; collections of regional folklore and children’s stories such as The Basket Woman (1904); and regionalist and proto-modernist novels such as Santa Lucia (1908), which anticipates Willa Cather’s Southwestern fiction. She also collaborated with photographer Ansel Adams on The Taos Pueblo (1930), a beautiful combination of prose and photographs that rivals its contemporary Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as an exemplification of the possibilities of that kind of artistic collaboration and regional representation.
Those works all reflect just how much Austin lived as well as wrote about the Southwest, and so too do two other, distinct but complementary sides of her California experiences. In the first years of the 20th century, Austin and her husband Stafford were deeply involved in the California Water Wars, fighting on behalf of the farmers and residents of Owens Valley whose water was being diverted to supply Los Angeles (a largely forgotten history that was fictionalized in one of the greatest American films, Chinatown [1974]). And after separating from her husband and leaving the area, she moved to Carmel, where she joined an experimental artistic community that included the likes of Jack London and Ambrose Bierce and helped found the modernist Forest Theater. Much of the period’s social and artistic history of California can be illustrated by those two communities—and thus, like much else in the Southwest, by Mary Hunter Austin.
Next Southwest story tomorrow,
Ben
PS. What do you think? Southwest stories or histories you’d highlight?

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