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  • Mary Austin, Stafford Austin, and the Owens Valley
  • Abraham Hoffman (bio)

In 1918 Mary Hunter Austin, her reputation as an important regional writer secure, was interviewed by Grant Overton for his book The Women Who Make Our Novels. During the interview Austin discussed her most recent novel, The Ford, and its resemblance to incidents in the Owens Valley-Los Angeles water controversy. The story of how the City of Los Angeles had obtained the water rights to part of the Owens River, more than two hundred miles away from the city, "was a very wicked episode," commented Austin, "and I did not begin to do justice to the chicanery of Los Angeles." She planned a sequel to The Ford in which more of the struggle between city and valley would be given. Austin then informed Overton, "It was I who discovered and made public the attempt of the city to secure the surplus rights of the river in just such fashion as I have described in the book."1

A decade later, Mary Austin expressed second thoughts about this interview and disavowed Overton's chapter on her career. "Grant Overton is very generous to me without being very accurate," she wrote to Carey McWilliams, then a new arrival on the southern California literary scene. "I seem to be the sort of person about whom more myth than truth is in circulation." Yet within a year Austin again was claiming credit for being first to learn of the city's intentions. Although her husband, Stafford Wallace Austin, had written the initial open letters to President Theodore Roosevelt and to the Department of the Interior, accusing Los Angeles business leaders of a water grab, Austin stressed her own part in exposing alleged double-dealing by the city. She told McWilliams that "of course I had a hand in them. . . . In fact, I discovered the [End Page 305] trouble before anyone else." Austin credited her "gift of prevision" for alerting her to the danger presented to the Owens Valley.2

Mary Austin's claims to the credit for publicizing the plans of Los Angeles in the Owens Valley ultimately diminish the role played by her husband, Stafford Austin, in this famous controversy. At the time of the city's secret maneuverings to obtain water rights to the Owens River from Owens Valley farmers, Stafford Austin held the post of land registrar (referred to in correspondence of the time as land register) in Inyo County. He caused an uproar in the Department of the Interior when he accused Reclamation Service officials of malfeasance in permitting the city to gain important water rights to the Owens River. In the summer of 1905 Austin became the hero of the season as the valley's spokesman against the city's encroachment. During this period Mary Austin seems to have acted in a subordinate role to her husband's campaign for continuance of the federal reclamation project that had been scheduled for Owens Valley.3

If there is contradiction between Mary Austin's claim of "prevision" and her husband's much-publicized accusations against Los Angeles and federal officials, similar disagreement can be found between the historians who have written about the water controversy and Mary Austin's biographers. Stafford Austin's spirited defense of the valley, as traced by Willie Chalfant, for example, contrasts with the disparagement cast upon his temperament and abilities by such writers as Helen McKnight Doyle, T. M. Pearce, and Donald Ringler.4

Much of the biographers' negative view of Stafford Austin derives from Mary Austin herself, who in her autobiography painted a depressing picture of life with Stafford. Even the index entries for Stafford in Mary's autobiography illustrate how she perceived their marriage and relationship: "unsuccessful as a vineyardist, 227; unsuccessful irrigation project at Lone Pine, 233-36, 239, . . . ignorance of economy and lack of foresight, 241, 242 . . no defined way of life, 269, 270; made no use of his success in teaching, 270; failure to grasp significance of his situation, 271, . . . always expecting, 284, 285, . . . hereditary taint, 294; divorce, 249, 350."5

Unsuccessful, unsuccessful, ignorance, failure—this was how Mary Austin viewed her years of marriage to Stafford. "Men of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-1371
Print ISSN
0894-8410
Pages
pp. 305-322
Launched on MUSE
2012-05-20
Open Access
No
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