Mary Hunter Austin

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Mary Hunter Austin
Mary Austin c.1900.jpg
Austin c. 1900
Mary Hunter

(1868-09-09)September 9, 1868
DiedAugust 13, 1934(1934-08-13) (aged 65)
Alma materBlackburn College
SpouseStafford Wallace Austin

Mary Hunter Austin (September 9, 1868 – August 13, 1934) was an American writer. One of the early nature writers of the American Southwest, her classic The Land of Little Rain (1903) describes the fauna, flora, and people – as well as evoking the mysticism and spirituality – of the region between the High Sierra and the Mojave Desert of southern California.

Early years and education[edit]

Graduation photograph of Mary Hunter Austin, 1888

Mary Hunter Austin was born on September 9, 1868, in Carlinville, Illinois (the fourth of six children) to Susannah (née Graham) and George Hunter. She graduated from Blackburn College in 1888. Her family moved to California in the same year and established a homestead in the San Joaquin Valley.[1]


Wedding portrait of Mary Hunter and Wallace Austin, 1891.[2]

She married Stafford Wallace Austin on May 18, 1891, in Bakersfield, California. He was from Hawaii and a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley.[1]

For 17 years, Austin made a special study of the lives of the indigenous peoples of the Mojave Desert. Her publications set forth the intimate knowledge she thus acquired. She was a prolific novelist, poet, critic, and playwright, as well as an early feminist and defender of Native American and Spanish-American rights.

Austin is best known for her tribute to the deserts of California, The Land of Little Rain (1903).[3] Her play, The Arrow Maker, dealing with Indian life, was produced at the New Theatre, (New York) in 1911, the same year she published a rhapsodic tribute to her acquaintance H. G. Wells as a producer of "informing, vitalizing, indispensable books" in the American Magazine.

Austin and her husband were involved in the local California Water Wars, after which the water of Owens Valley eventually was drained to supply Los Angeles.[4] When their battle was lost, he moved to Death Valley, California.

She moved to the art colony at Carmel-by-the-Sea, California about 1907.[5][6] There Austin was part of the cultural circle that included Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, Harry Leon Wilson, George Sterling, Nora May French, Arnold Genthe, James Hopper, Alice MacGowan, Gelett Burgess, Sinclair Lewis, and Xavier Martinez.

She was one of the founders of the local Forest Theater, where in 1913 she premiered and directed her three-act play Fire. In July 1914, she joined William Merritt Chase, the distinguished New York painter who was teaching his last summer class in Carmel, at several society "teas" and privately in his studio, where he finished her portrait. The well-known artist Jennie V. Cannon reported that he began the painting as a class demonstration after Austin claimed that two of her portraits, which were executed by famous artists in the Latin Quarter of Paris, had already been accepted to the Salon.[5] Apparently, Chase was not deterred by Austin's "pushiness and claims to extra-sensory perceptions", but was more interested in her appointment as director of East Coast publicity for San Francisco's Panama-Pacific International Exposition.[5][7] On July 25, 1914, Chase attended her Indian melodrama in the Forest Theater, The Arrow Maker, and confessed to Cannon that he found the play dreary. Apparently, Dr. Daniel MacDougal, head of the local Carnegie Institute, paid for most of her production costs, because of his not-so-secret love affair with the writer.[5][8][7] When one of Chase's students, Helena Wood Smith, was brutally murdered by her Japanese lover, Austin joined the mob who disparaged local authorities for their incompetence.[5] After 1914 her visits to Carmel were relatively brief.

After visiting Santa Fe in 1918, Austin helped establish The Santa Fe Little Theatre (still operating today as The Santa Fe Playhouse[9])[10] and directed the group's first production held February 14, 1919, at the art museum's St. Francis Auditorium.[11] Austin also was active in preserving the local culture of New Mexico, establishing the Spanish Colonial Arts Society in 1925 with artist Frank Applegate.[12]

In 1929, while living in New Mexico, Austin co-authored a book with photographer Ansel Adams. Published a year later, the book, Taos Pueblo, was printed in a limited edition of only 108 copies. It now is quite rare because, rather than reproductions, it included photographs made by Adams.[13]

Her home in Santa Fe, at 439 Camino del Monte Sol, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing building in the Camino del Monte Sol Historic District.[14]

Death and legacy[edit]

Austin died August 13, 1934, in Santa Fe. Mount Mary Austin, in the Sierra Nevada, was named in her honor.[15] It is located 8.5 miles west of her long time home in Independence, California. A biography was published in 1939.[16]

photo of Mary Hunter Austin's home in Independence, California
Mary Hunter Austin wrote about her Independence, California home in The Land of Little Rain

The Austin home in Independence, California, designed and built by the couple, became a California Historical Landmark.[17]

A teleplay of The Land of Little Rain was written by Doris Baizley and presented on American Playhouse in 1989; it starred Helen Hunt. A 1950 edition of The Land of Little Rain and a 1977 edition of Taos Pueblo each included photographs by Ansel Adams.

  • The California Historical Landmark reads:
CHL No. 229 Austin Home - Inyo NO. 229 MARY AUSTIN'S HOME - Mary Austin, author of The Land of Little Rain and other volumes that picture the beauty of Owens Valley, lived in Independence. "But if ever you come beyond the borders as far as the town that lies in a hill dimple at the foot of Kearsarge, never leave it until you have knocked at the door of the brown house under the willow-tree at the end of the village street, and there you shall have such news of the land, of its trails and what is astir in them, as one lover of it can give to another ..." excerpt from The Land of Little Rain.[18]

Selected works[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Biography of Mary Hunter Austin". New Mexico History. Retrieved December 31, 2018.
  2. ^ "Mary Austin".
  3. ^ a b c Rolfe, Lionel (January 18, 1981). "Obscurity threatens works of California author Mary Austin". Los Angeles Times: The Book Review. p. 3. Retrieved January 9, 2019.
  4. ^ Reisner, Marc (1993). Cadillac Desert. Penguin. p. 79.
  5. ^ a b c d e Edwards, Robert W. (2012). Jennie V. Cannon: The Untold History of the Carmel and Berkeley Art Colonies, Vol. 1. Oakland, Calif.: East Bay Heritage Project. pp. 49, 68, 70, 135, 141, 143–145, 150–152, 173, 490, 547. ISBN 978-1467545679. An online facsimile of the entire text of Vol. 1 is posted on the Traditional Fine Arts Organization website ("Jennie V. Cannon: The Untold History of the Carmel and Berkeley Art Colonies, vol. One, East Bay Heritage Project, Oakland, 2012; by Robert W. Edwards". Archived from the original on April 29, 2016. Retrieved June 7, 2016.).
  6. ^ Los Angeles Times, November 15, 1907, pp. 1–13.
  7. ^ a b Fink, Augusta (1983). I-Mary, A Biography of Mary Austin. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press. pp. 170–213. ISBN 978-0816507894. OCLC 9081799.
  8. ^ Stineman, Esther Lanigan (1989). Mary Austin, Song of a Maverick. New Haven & London: Yale University Press. pp. 84–132. OCLC 19123321.
  9. ^ "Mission + History – Santa Fe Playhouse". Retrieved April 18, 2016.
  10. ^ Cline, Lynn (2007). Literary Pilgrims : The Santa Fe and Taos Writers' Colonies 1917–1950. University of New Mexico Press. p. 48. ISBN 978-0826338518.
  11. ^ Weigle, Marta (1982). Santa Fe & Taos : The Writer's Era 1916–1941. Santa Fe. NM: Ancient City Press. p. 155. ISBN 0941270084.
  12. ^ Lewthwaite, Stephanie (2010). "Modernity, Mestizaje, and Hispano Art: Patrocinio Barela and the Federal Art Project". Journal of the Southwest. 52 (1): 42. doi:10.1353/jsw.2010.0002. JSTOR 27920208. S2CID 109908580.
  13. ^ Hammond, Ann (2002). Ansel Adams: Devine Performance. New Haven: Yale University Press. pp. 20–22. ISBN 0300092415.
  14. ^ Corinne P. Sze (February 12, 1988). "National Register of Historic Places Registration: Camino del Monte Sol Historic District". National Park Service. Retrieved July 8, 2019. With accompanying 30 photos
  15. ^ "Mount Mary Austin". Geographic Names Information System. United States Geological Survey, United States Department of the Interior.
  16. ^ Helen McKnight Doyle, Mary Austin: Woman of Genius (New York: Gotham House, 1939).
  17. ^ "Mary Austin's Home (No. 229 California Historical Landmark) | Sierra Nevada Geotourism".
  18. ^ "CHL # 229 Austin Home Inyo".
  19. ^ a b From 1921 through 1930 Fire and The Arrow Maker were produced outdoors in Tahquitz Canyon near Palm Springs, California. See: Browne, Renee (August 8, 2015). "History: 'Ramona' inspired early Palm Springs plays". The Desert Sun.
  20. ^ "Fire: a drama in three acts". Playbook. 2 (5–7). October–December 1914.OCLC 17287569, 593527817
  21. ^ Performed as an outdoor pageant at Tahquitz Canyon, Palm Springs, California in 1921. Culver, Lawrence (2010). The Frontier of Leisure: Southern California and the Shaping of Modern America. Oxford University Press. p. 162. ISBN 978-0199891924. OCLC 464581464, 811404022

Further reading[edit]

  • Alaimo, Stacy. "The undomesticated nature of feminism: Mary Austin and the progressive women conservationists." Studies In American Fiction 26, no. 1 (Spring 98 1998): 73–96.
  • Baer, Morley, Room and Time Enough, The Land of Mary Austin, Northland Press, Flagstaff, Arizona 1979, ISBN 0873582055
  • Becher, Anne and Richey, Joseph. American Environmental Leaders: From Colonial Times to the Present (2 vol, 2nd ed. 2008) vol 1 online pp. 33–36.
  • Hoffman, Abraham. "Mary Austin, Stafford Austin, and the Owens Valley." Journal of the Southwest, 53 (Autumn–Winter 2011): 305–322.

External links[edit]