Mary Austin and the American West

Mary Austin and the American West

Mary Austin and the American West

Mary Austin and the American West


Mary Austin (1868-1934)--eccentric, independent, and unstoppable--was twenty years old when her mother moved the family west. Austin's first look at her new home, glimpsed from California's Tejon Pass, reset the course of her life, "changed her horizons and marked the beginning of her understanding, not only about who she was, but where she needed to be." At a time when Frederick Jackson Turner had announced the closing of the frontier, Mary Austin became the voice of the American West. In 1903, she published her first book, The Land of Little Rain, a wholly original look at the West's desert and its ethnically diverse peoples. Defined in a sense by the places she lived, Austin also defined the places themselves, whether Bishop, in the Sierra Nevada, Carmel, with its itinerant community of western writers, or Santa Fe, where she lived the last ten years of her life. By the time of her death in 1934, Austin had published over thirty books and counted as friends the leading literary and artistic lights of her day.

In this rich new biography, Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson explore Austin's life and achievement with unprecedented resonance, depth, and understanding. By focusing on one extraordinary woman's life, Mary Austin and the American West tells the larger story of the emerging importance of California and the Southwest to the American consciousness.


Myths have grown up about me because I have done what I pleased.


Interview, the Boston Evening Transcript, 1928

MARY AUSTIN (1868–1934) PUBLISHED The Land of Little Rain in 1903, at the age of thirty-five. More than a century later, her book still attracts readers because of Austin’s originality and prescience, and because she brought to Americans a new perspective on the Western desert, its people, its barren beauty, and its place in a complex and misunderstood region. No one appreciated The Land of Little Rain more than Austin’s good friend Ansel Adams, who used his own photographs for a later, edited version of the book. “The sharp beauty of The Land of Little Rain,” Adams wrote, “is finely etched in the distinguished prose of Mary Austin. Many books and articles have probed the factual aspects of this amazing land, but no writing to my knowledge conveys so much of the spirit of earth and sky, of plants and people, of storm and the desolation of majestic wastes, of tender, intimate beauty, as does The Land of Little Rain.”

For Austin, the American West extended far beyond the scope of her first book to embrace the Southwest, the Northwest, the mountains, the missions, the indigenous peoples, the history of Spanish settlements, even the “Movie West.” Though wanting at times to escape her reputation as a Western writer—who, as she liked to say, never wrote “Westerns”—she returned obsessively to Western places, finding her strength and topics in the region that had fired her imagination. The West for Austin, as for many of her countrymen, shaped the ways she thought about America and about . . .

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