Mary Austin (1868-1934)
Contributing Editor: Vera Norwood
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Students have difficulty responding to Austin's strident individualism and her vacillation between ardent feminist and male-identified writer. The best approach is to provide contextual background that reveals that Austin was not alone in her struggles to write from both inside and outside her culture.
Once we have addressed some of the difficulties of voice in this autobiography, I have the best luck with teaching what I think Austin as a writer was best at evoking. Her strength was in describing and evaluating the interior domestic spaces of her house and the natural and built environments of the Midwest and Far West, thus raising questions about the sort of material world women valued and created. Teaching sections of the autobiography in conjunction with The Land of Little Rain and Lost Borders encourages literature students to think about various ways in which women have created appropriate spaces and changed the places they settled, both indoors as craftswomen and outdoors as gardeners and preservationists.
The main question Austin's autobiography engenders is how accurate a reflection she provides of late-nineteenth-century women's lives. Not that this is an issue with the particular selection made for the anthology, but Austin's depiction of the American Indian and Hispanic populations of the Southwest raises more questions and issues than the gender-related material. Teachers who branch out into other of her regional works will need to be prepared for these questions.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Austin was a Progressive Era writer, deeply involved in supporting regional diversity, multicultural perspectives, and environmental preservation. Students understand her authorial voice better when they know something about her work in these areas. Austin belonged to a generation of creative women struggling to shift from nineteenth-century lives as private, housebound, husband-and-father dominated people, to twentieth-century roles as modern, independent individuals influencing social and political trends. Students should also know something of her private circumstances: the long separation and eventual divorce from her husband, the birth of a retarded daughter, the necessity that she write a great deal to earn her living--each played a part in the sometimes contradictory voice appearing in her work.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Obviously, some familiarity with autobiographical conventions is useful. Gender is an important variable when reading any autobiography. We discuss male and female voices, stressing that women began to write after men had established the basic form and so their works often combined male traditions with female experimentation. In Austin's case, the experiment is in her use of different voices for the visionary, individualistic persona and for the traditional, good daughter.
Austin's audience in her time was more male than currently. Her reputation as a political activist and writer was with regionalists and environmentalists, among whom the leading lights were men. In many ways, her autobiography was written with an eye to setting herself off from the "ordinary" woman of her generation, of claiming a specialness that would put her in the male leagues while also encouraging other women to break free from gender-role proscriptions. In the process of this somewhat divisive attempt, however, she created a persona with a strong feminist character. In our time, it is that visionary woman who speaks to a much larger audience of women readers. For this audience, Austin is less interesting for what she did in the public sphere of environmentalist politics than for her scathing critique, and frustrated rejection, of the nineteenth-century gender-role model offered her by her mother.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
I teach Austin with Sarah Orne Jewett and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. All three worked in approximately the same time period and struggled with the same gender-role restrictions. Jewett and Gilman are particularly useful in tempering some of the negative reactions students have to Austin's voice. Also useful are Benjamin Franklin's and Frederick Douglass's autobiographies. Teaching these with Austin provides students with a better understanding of the genre in which Austin worked.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. The main introduction I make to any autobiography is to suggest that students think about what sort of people have written their life story. Generally, such authors are engaged in an act of self-creation, which assumes that there is something unique to their life. I ask students to look at strategies the author uses to present herself as, in some way, remarkable. With autobiographies by women this becomes a particularly useful question to begin the study of how gender comes into play in issues of genre.
2. Selecting comparative/contrastive passages from the writers mentioned above and having students look for similarities/differences has been successful. With Austin, Jewett's story "The White Heron" provides a good starting point for looking at landscape values as they are impacted by gender. Also, "The Basket Maker" chapter in The Land of Little Rain offers an opportunity for students to analyze how material from the autobiography matches Austin's more "fictional" work. This is a good exercise for demonstrating how much Austin created her autobiographical persona out of her earlier writing.
Really the best additional reading a teacher could seek is more Austin. Mary Austin was a prolific, wide-ranging writer and one should be aware of the work on which her reputation is based. I would advise reading some of the stories in Lost Borders and a few chapters of Land of Little Rain as the best preparation for teaching Austin.