California Studies Association

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“Mary Austin and the American West” — reviewed by Peter Richardson

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The new biography of (originally) Californian writer Mary Austin (author of The Land of Little Rain), Mary Austin and the American West, by Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson, was reviewed in the L.A. Times Sun., Jan. 25, 2009, by Peter Richardson.  From the review:

The arc of Austin’s career would present a challenge for any biographer, but, in “Mary Austin and the American West,” Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson meet that challenge head on. They pore over Austin’s spirited correspondence and map her extensive contacts, which came to include Jack London, Herbert Hoover, D.H. Lawrence and Willa Cather. They track her advocacy on women’s issues and on the preservation of Indian and Mexican culture in the Southwest. Sifting through her published work, they acknowledge its shortcomings, attributing most of them to her need for income. They also compare her to contemporaries, including John Muir, who shared Austin’s astonishing powers of observation but lacked her feeling for people and culture.

The force of Austin’s personality wafts up from Goodman and Dawson’s portrait. As a professional lecturer and self-styled expert on race, gender and psychic phenomena, Austin offered her opinions freely and magisterially. In an unfinished Lawrence play, a character based on Austin says, “Won’t you all sit down and discuss the situation, while I solve it?” Her pronouncements produced an occasional irony. Having claimed that she preferred an unfaithful man to a stingy husband, for example, she was flummoxed when Lincoln Steffens put that assertion to the test. (After he terminated their affair, she threatened to demand reparations for loss of work and suffering.) But Austin could deploy irony as well. Proposing a literary collaboration with Sinclair Lewis, she wrote, “I know I’m feminine, damnably feminine, and not ashamed of it, but I’m not ladylike. You can count on my behaving like a gentleman.” Her blend of brass and innocence exasperated some and endeared her to others.

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