Friday, September 4, 2015

The Land

Mary Austin (1868–1934)
From Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology

In 1932 sixty-four-year-old Mary Austin published her autobiography Earth Horizon, which uses alternating third-person and first-person narration to describe what she thought of as her various selves, public and private, creative and unexceptional, “assured” and insecure. Her account recalls when she was twenty and her Illinois family settled as homesteaders in Tejon, north of Bakersfield, California, in 1888:
. . . Mary was consumed with interest as with enchantment. Her trouble was that the country failed to explain itself. If it had a history, nobody could recount it. Its creatures had no known life except such as she could discover by unremitting vigilance of observation; its plants no names that her Middlewestern botany could supply.
To help her family make ends meet, she took a job as schoolteacher in Mountain View (on the southern edge of the San Francisco Bay), and it was here that she realized she could become a writer:
. . . Mary found that not only was the ancient art of story-telling going on in the Mountain View district, but she could definitely profit by it. . . . At Tejon she had already picked up a number of animal stories such as men seldom think of telling to women, not because they are untellable, but because they seem perhaps to belong so exclusively to the male life. . . . These she filed for reference.
The landscape, people, and animals of the Southwest would become the subjects of Austin’s nearly two dozen books and hundreds of periodical publications—novels, stories, essays, plays, poetry, travel writing, ethnography, religious works, and even a collaboration with Ansel Adams (a copy of which, in the morocco-bound limited edition signed by Austin, will set you back $60,000).

“The Land” opens her 1909 collection Lost Borders, which evokes Austin’s characteristically tense relationship with the Southwest. The narrator, a writer of stories about the California desert, describes the people she will depict in the book’s subsequent stories: “a motley collection of drifters, prospectors, explorers, entrepreneurs, and sheepherders,” summarizes literary scholar Esther F. Lanigan, “most of whom demonstrate an astonishing insensitivity in their dealings with the women closest to them.” Austin describes the arid landscape as a place where the borders separating fact and fiction often blur. In this introductory sketch she remarks that her readers refused to believe “some elementary matters” in her fiction, yet “you can get anybody to believe any sort of a tale that has gold in it.” She even heard one of her imaginative forays repeated around campfires as if it actually happened, to the point where, she quips, “I had begun to believe the story myself.”

This week’s selection is preceded by a prescient headnote written by David L. Ulin thirteen years ago, when Austin’s sketch was included the Library of America anthology Writing Los Angeles.

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When the Paiute nations broke westward through the Sierra wall they cut off a remnant of the Shoshones, and forced them south as far as Death Valley and the borders of the Mojaves, they penned the Washoes in and around Tahoe, and passing between these two, established themselves along the snow-fed Sierra creeks. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection may be photocopied and distributed for classroom or educational use.