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A Rain Song for A m erica: Mary A u s t in , A m erican In d ia n s , a n d A m erican Liter a tu r e a n d C u ltu r e Ma r t h a L . V i e h m a n n In her autobiography, Earth Horizon (1932), Mary Hunter Austin recounts her family’s relocation to California with both bitterness and triumph. The stress of moving and the austerity of the land then avail­ able to homesteaders were hard on all the Hunters, but especially on Mary, who “suffered something like a complete collapse” (192). Insom­ nia and malnutrition debilitated her, while the haunting strangeness of the landscape “plagued [her] with an anxiety to know.” She spent three months in “unremitting vigilance of observation” by sun and moon light, yet still “the country failed to explain itself.” Eventually the land offered up the cure for her feeling of being “consumed with interest.” She recalls the twenty-year-old Mary discovering wild grapes, “and after a week or two of almost exclusive grape diet, Mary began to pick up amazingly.” Austin continues in the third person: “It was so like Mary, her family remarked, to almost starve to death on a proper Christian diet and go and get well on something grubbed out of the woods.” The break from her family’s “proper Christian” way and the turn to the wild make this incident emblematic of Austin’s writing. Austin also sees in it “the beginning of a notion ... of a poor appetite of any sort being cured by its proper food” so that the literal food, wild grapes, becomes a metaphor for the intellectual and spiritual nourishment that her “con­ suming interests” required. In addition, the notion that she could seek out a cure marks the beginning of independent thought and action, a foundation of her feminist and counter-cultural thinking, summed up in her declaration “that there was something you could do about unsatis­ factory conditions besides being heroic or a martyr. ... This, for young ladies in the eighteen-eighties, was a revolutionary discovery” (194-95). Independent seeking for “proper food” led Austin to another “revo­ lutionary discovery” in California, her fascination with American Indians. Through reading, observation, and personal contacts, first in the southern San Joaquin Valley and later in Owens Valley, she gained increasing knowledge of cultures different from her own. Like her in­ tense interest in the environment, her affinity for American Indians and their cultures helped Austin construct an identity in opposition to her W e s t e r n A m e r ic a n L it e r a t u r e S p r in g 2 0 0 4 midwestem, middle-class, Methodist upbringing. Both nourished her sense of selfand her writing, thereby marking the move to California and her later settling in New Mexico as pivotal for her personality and her art. Like the wild grapes, Indians provided a means to make a strange place home. Austin wrote extensively about Native peoples and cul­ tures, featuring Indian characters in stories, sketches, and plays. She recounted the lore and history of Indian groups, published translations of tribal chants and songs, and asserted that Indians and their cultures provided a model beneficial to herself and to the development of an “authentic” American culture. Indians helped Austin formulate her sense of self and her ideas about regionalism, literature, and the nation. As she recalls in Earth Horizon, Indians inspired the “illumination and reformation of my own way of thought” (266). Native Americans offered Austin the model of living intimately with the land, which echoed her interest in the natural world. The inspiration of Indians and the land influenced her ideas about regionalism, expressed implicitly and explic­ itly in The Land of Little Rain (1903), The American Rhythm (1923), The Land of Journeys’ Ending (1924), and other works.1 My analysis of Austin’s use of Indian imagery draws on both her representations and her self-representations. Out of the mix of Mary Austin’s imagery, theory, and persona, I draw a cautionary tale. Native Americans provided Mary...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 5-36
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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