In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Mary Austin

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Archival Collections
  • Correspondence
  • Biography
  • Personal Reminiscences

American Literature Mary Austin
Melody Graulich
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0117


Mary Hunter Austin (b. 1868–d. 1934) was born in Carlinville, Illinois, and graduated from Blackburn College in 1888. Later that year, she made the move that would most influence her writing when she went with her widowed mother and two brothers to southern California to homestead. The desert landscape and its inhabitants, notably the Paiute, became the inspiration for her earliest writing and transformed her life; she would remain interested in aboriginal art and cultures and write extensively about them until her death in 1934. In 1891, she married Stafford Wallace Austin; the two lived together only sporadically in a very unhappy relationship. In 1892, her prolonged childbirth without medical help was possibly a cause for one of the greatest tragedies in her life, her daughter Ruth’s mental incapacities. After separating permanently from her husband, always struggling for money, Austin made the difficult decision to institutionalize Ruth in 1905. Her first book, based on her years in the Owens Valley east of the Sierras, The Land of Little Rain (1903), received critical acclaim, leading Austin to give up school teaching and devote herself to writing. It established her as an innovative stylist and important nature writer. After meeting a number of other writers at Charles Lummis’s house in Pasadena, she moved to Carmel, California, then an artist colony. After a few years in Europe, where she met many writers and intellectuals, she moved to New York, primarily to be closer to her publishers. There she made many friendships and was active in a number of political causes: suffrage, birth control, communal kitchens. She became a prominent feminist, known for putting forth an agenda for social change called “Woman Thought.” While living in New York, she wrote her best-known novel, A Woman of Genius (1912). Having spent part of every year in the Southwest, after World War 1 she described herself as disillusioned with the city and its politics and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she continued to write, completing her autobiography, Earth Horizon (1932), and remained politically active, promoting Indian rights and Spanish Colonial art and history. With thanks to Joshua Anderson, Western American Literature editorial fellow, for assistance.

General Overviews

Despite being an influential writer and cultural critic for the first three decades of the 20th century, publishing with the best presses and in the best magazines, and praised near her death by such important voices as Carl Van Doren, Constance Rourke, Ansel Adams, and Carey McWilliams, Austin received very little sustained critical attention from the mid-1930s until the feminist resurgence and increased interest in multiculturalism of the 1980s and the evolution of ecocriticism in the 1990s. Exceptions are Wynn 1941, Pearce 1940, and Pearce 1965, introductory and largely descriptive books. These explorations of Austin’s work address key themes in Austin criticism from the late 1970s until 2013. Pearce 1940 and Graulich and Klimasmith 1999 address Austin’s feminism. Hoyer 1998 and Graulich and Klimasmith 1999 interpret Austin’s knowledge of American Indians. Lyday 1968 and Schaefer 2004 analyze her work in relation to nature writing and regionalism.

  • Graulich, Melody, and Elizabeth Klimasmith, eds. Exploring Lost Borders: Critical Essays on Mary Austin. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1999.

    The only collection of critical essays on Austin. Essayists Nicole Tonkovich, Kathryn DeZur, Mark Hoyer, Dale Metcalfe, Tara Hart, Anna Carew-Miller, Judy Nolte Temple, Linda K. Karell, Mark Schlenz, Michelle Campbell Toohey, Barney Nelson, Klimasmith, and Graulich explore a range of Austin’s writing, focusing on her representations of American Indians, feminism, and cultural criticism. Essential to anyone writing on Austin, especially to those interested in contemporary critical approaches to Austin such as consumer studies, construction of masculinity, postcolonialism, and others.

  • Hoyer, Mark T. Dancing Ghosts: Native American and Christian Syncretism in Mary Austin’s Work. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1998.

    Interdisciplinary, historically grounded American Studies scholarship at its best. Focused on how Austin’s encounters with American Indians and their cultures led to “syncretism.” Largely sympathetic to her representations and respectful of her knowledge. Focuses particularly on the Ghost Dance religion.

  • Lyday, Jo W. Mary Austin: The Southwest Works. Austin, TX: Steck-Vaughn, 1968.

    Introductory work useful to novice Austin readers focusing on her Southwest work in many genres.

  • Pearce, Thomas Matthews. The Beloved House. Caldwell, ID: Caxton, 1940.

    Early appreciation of Austin’s key themes by a critic who knew her well.

  • Pearce, Thomas Matthews. Mary Hunter Austin. New York: Twayne, 1965.

    Brief biography, summaries of Austin’s many writings. Useful only to novice Austin readers.

  • Schaefer, Heike. Mary Austin’s Regionalism: Reflections on Gender, Genre, and Geography. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2004.

    The most comprehensive monograph on Austin’s work. Explores how Austin turned to nature writing and regionalism to envision a more democratic and rich national culture. Original because it reaches beyond Austin to debates about regionalism, environmental writing, identity, and other issues, providing a rich analysis of Austin’s thoughts and writings.

  • Wynn, Dudley T. A Critical Study of the Writings of Mary Hunter Austin (1868–1934). New York: New York University Press, 1941.

    First critical monograph on Austin’s writings. Perceptive but outdated.

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