WHO IS MARY AUSTIN? [Letter, 22 Dec 03]

Dear JAS,

“Who is Mary Austin?” you ask—but I’m only just now finding out! “She [Mary Austin] wanted to write books that you could walk around in.” (EARTH HORIZON, Autobiography by Mary Austin). I am indeed meandering extremely slowly inside that house.

Her body of work may be part of the syllabi of advanced students of Western American letters; as an English lit major at a purportedly “progressive” college back East, my own undergraduate curriculum missed her entirely. Focused on the center of whatever was being taught me, yet watchful of the fringes too, I never heard mention of this Mary Austin with an “i”. Thereafter, opening my head and laying out my heart on many an under-read, under-praised page, I pretty much forsook literary criticism per se and also left not a little earning power and prestige by the wayside for those who would pursue writing’s commercial rewards—left it all behind, for what? Literature and life! Can one do it all? This one could not and cannot. Thus my autodidactic careening also missed Mary Austin until now—how? In any event, the result is occasion for rejoicing for I am at last reading her slowly, and without the sort of secondary-source homework that would instruct me how to read her, what one is supposed to think. On first coming onto Austin’s oeuvre, I remain in wild surpise, as if singing from a peak….

It may be that Austin enjoys cachet among the cognoscenti of Western American belles-lettres. She may even have entertained a chic, perhaps wide readership (she deserved one) in her time (deceased by 1950). I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that she was the sometime fair-haired child of bookish intellectuals whose trendings were nonetheless not quite within the framework of the great Northeast establishment of letters; I just don’t know enough about her assigned place in the standard intellectual history yet.

Having read only her first book, THE LAND OF LITTLE RAIN, and being midway through Part II of EARTH HORIZON, I do know this much: she was a writer, a prose stylist, a published author, and (rara avis) an original. One day I may get a purchase on the secondary sources. For the moment, I read and reread her, direct. And what language! What syntax, diction, and eccentric punctuation! What redolent tones of voice! Many the educated persons who can manipulate written words on a page in such a way as to render gracious facsimiles of her or his thoughts through well-gaited cadencing and verbal peripetea (HA!); few the writers who can, with force, transfer to the page the very pressures of their thinking, and communicate to us thinking that resounds and can suffer being sounded again and again (HO!).

“By prayer, my son,” he said, “not mumbling, or shouting, or wallowing like a hog in religious sentiments. Prayer is only another name for good, clean, direct thinking. When you pray, think well what you are saying, and make your thoughts into things that are solid.” HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, Richard Llewellyn

Never one to refrain from presenting an ill-prepared argument, I will nevertheless claim that passage upon passage of what Austin I have read approaches an aesthetic realm where Pound’s melo-, phana-, and logo-poeia merge. Gertrude Stein’s highbrow linguistic play seems childish alongside Austin’s heartfelt word-craft. I find it intriguing, if not compelling, that in her 1932 autobiography, Austin employed a narrative point-of-view which oscillates between the first and third persons; one year later, Stein used the third person in her own AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ALICE B. TOKLAS in 1933. Stein’s premise was more convoluted, and she was striving for a different, ironical effect. But could the Great Gertrude Scion have been copy-catting another American writer whose more homespun, organic originality came to the narrative device first? No doubt this ground has been trod by an elite hoard, and I am out of my element but ‘tis curious, no…?

Austin’s syntax, grammar, diction, the carefully controlled overarching design of ideas well-developed on the page—LAND OF LITTLE RAIN (1903) and EARTH HORIZON (1932) are blatant products of an earlier era in our national literature—and they turn me on! Her peculiar prose more than meets a standard of unabashed eloquence: it uniquely registers the thought processes of a woman of keenest intelligence and most intemperate sensibility. See how even now her 19th century vintage impacts my own phraseology here! No wonder: I read her phrases, sentences, paragraphs, passages, whole chapters over and over, unable or unwilling to proceed on to the next stage. Reading her lines is like vigilantly stepping over craftily placed stepping-stones in order to cross a fascinating brook. How much prosody of the last 100 years would have us quick rush to the other side, just to get it over with? How much prosody of the last 100 years would never let us arrive at all but leave us midstream to be dazed by its own self-congratulatory processes? Austin shows how to cross a true brook and get to know that brook in the crossing:

“In our kind of society, when a woman ceases to alter the fashion of her hair, you guess that she has passed the crisis of her experience. If she goes on crimping and uncrimping with the changing mode, it is safe to suppose she has never come up against anything too big for her.” M. Austin, “The Basket Maker”, THE LAND OF LITTLE RAIN

Reading her settles my restless mind. I perforce slow down to pick my path across the syllables. The way is calmative, as if in slowing down one becomes aware of thought linked to thought in a long caravan of genuine ideation. This is American prose, maybe Midwestern in its essence, proud issue of the dream foreseen by Whitman when he stated of LEAVES OF GRASS, “It is all a language experiment.”

Rue the day I come to find out Austin was of some precious clique including the likes of DH Lawrence and Georgia O’Keefe. They came by fame legitimately, I reckon. But please, spare me from learning that Mary Austin has long ago been trashed as some member of her day’s version of glitterati. Did she ever, in her oeuvre, pander to public taste? Fie upon it, fie! Will she betray me like the rest? Et tu, Marie?

I have an especially soft spot in my brain for women writers whose prose fiction, journals, and letters become my lens upon a certain pioneer American experience: Rebecca West’s FRIENDLY PERSUASION; Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ YEARLING and her memoir, CROSS CREEK; even the fin-de-siècle Westerns of M.K.Bowers—I can malinger in this old-fashioned stuff, thoroughly at home. Did you ever imagine that I’d be promoting literature as comforter? But MA does not really belong in these ranks: she’s a case apart. I really ought to knuckle down and read Willa Cather someday; I’m a dunce for exiling myself so far from the feeding troughs of academia or professional publishing. I’m sure there are thousands of Conestoga wagons loaded down with literature written by middlebrow women writers whom I have never read let alone heard of; there must be treasures there. I only thank my lucky stars that in my own wandering, I happened to have chanced upon a meteor, a falling star, for Mary, Mary Austin, for me that’s who you are!