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K A R E N S. L A N G L O I S The Huntington Library Mary Austin andHoughtonMifflin Company: A Case Study in the Marketing of aWestern Writer At the time of her death in 1934, Mary Hunter Austin was nationally recognized as a prominent spokeswoman for the American West and an important figure in regional literature. Included among her western works are essays on California, Arizona and New Mexico, collections of short stories and folk tales, translations of Indian songs, dramas of Indian life, four novels, and a volume of poetry. Although considerable attention has been given to analysis of her western writing, little notice has been paid to Mary Austin’s relationship with Houghton Mifflin Company, her major publishers, or to the design, advertising, and marketing of her regional work. Such an investigation can enhance our understanding of her literary career and our knowledge of how the work of a western writer was per­ ceived and marketed by the eastern publishing industry in the early decades of this century. At the turn of the century Mary Austin was a provincial frontier wife, school teacher, and aspiring author, who had been living in the California desert for most of her adult life. Originally from Carlinville, Illinois, in 1888 she had graduated from Blackburn College, a small denominational institution, where she had been class poet and editor of the school news­ paper. Shortly after graduation she had traveled west with her widowed mother and brother to homestead 540 acres in Tejon, California, at the edge of the Mojave Desert. In May 1891 she was married to Wallace Stafford Austin, a vineyardist, farmer, and speculator. Her only child, a mentally retarded daughter, was bom the following year. Mary Austin’s first short story, “The Mother of Felipe,” was published in the California periodical, the Overland Monthly, in November 1892. Overworked and in ill health, she struggled to continue her writing. In 1899 she relocated in Los Angeles to teach school and seek medical treatment for her daughter. There she became a member of the Arroyo literary circle of Charles Lummis, the editor of The Land of Sunshine, who published some of her 32 Western American Literature short pieces and encouraged her in a literary career. Her association with the genteel Boston publishing house of Houghton Mifflin Company began the following year with the publication of her short story, “A Shepherd of the Sierras,” in their periodical, the Atlantic Monthly. In 1900 Houghton Mifflin was considered the arbiter of good taste in literature and the reigning symbol of America’s literary tradition. Among the authors who appeared on its list, generally acknowledged as “one of the most formidable in the country,” were Emerson, Hawthorne, Howells, Longfellow, Thoreau, and Whittier. Also appearing under its distinguished imprint, a “guarantee ... of literary superiority,”1were the regional authors Sarah Ome Jewett and Bret Harte, as well as the naturalists John Bur­ roughs and John Muir, in whose company Mary Austin is now usually classed. In January 1902 Mary Austin sent several story sketches describing and interpreting desert life to Bliss Perry, editor in chief, asking if he thought a book of essays such as these might be published. In his reply Perry praised her “descriptive papers about the portion of California which you know best” and requested that she send more of her material. The follow­ ing July he informed her that “Houghton, Mifflin and Company [would] be glad to undertake the publication of the volume.” He no doubt recog­ nized the book’s literary promise and, in light of the general interest in the picturesque American West, believed that her volume of essays might be a fine addition to his house list. Emphasizing that the “appeal [of the book] would ... be to a comparatively limited number of readers,” he offered her a ten per cent royalty, “reserving the royalties due you upon the first thou­ sand until two thousand have been sold.”2 The Land of Little Rain was published in 1903 by the Cambridge Riverside Press, Houghton Mifflin’s manufacturing division. The press was well-known for the excellence of its design and the quality of its paper and fine bindings. The...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 31-42
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
Archive Status
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