Women and Western American Literature

By Helen Winter Stauffer; Susan J. Rosowski | Go to book overview

The Moral in Austin's The Land of Little Rain

James C. Work

Mary Hunter Austin was born in 1868, the year Alcott published Little Women, and died in 1934, the year Millay published Wine From These Grapes. During those sixty-six years she published thirty-four books and plays as well as an extensive assortment of articles in periodicals; became known as a mystic, a philosopher, a naturalist, a feminist, an editor, critic, and compiler (as well as an author); had the acquaintance of Charles F. Lummis, Jack London, John Muir, and Ambrose Bierce (among others) in America, and met Henry James, Joseph Conrad, George Bernard Shaw, Hilaire Belloc, and W. B. Yeats (among others) in Europe; and managed overall to leave behind her enough evidences of her literary significance to occupy quite a respectable number of critics and scholars.

In the final assessment of Mary Austin's contribution to literature-if a final assessment is ever possible- The Land of Little Rain, published in 1903, will be recognized as one of the touchstone works of American nature writing. In subject matter it may be said to be similar to Krutch The Desert Year or Eiseley The Night Country, and in its use of the autobiographical approach it reminds one of Thoreau Walden or Muir Yosemite. But there are two respects in which The Land of Little Rain is incomparable. One is the set of abstract impressions left by the book in the reader's mind, and the other is the set of moral statements concerning the proper relationship of the human animal to the land in its natural state.

The best initial approach to The Land of Little Rain is the impressionistic one; the reader should simply let the book affect the sensibilities and then should analyse the resulting impressions to whatever extent seems natural. No other approach, for the first-time reader, fits the material so well.

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