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Mary Austin, Woman Alone

ISSUE:  Spring 1937

It was clear that I would write imaginatively, not only of people, but of the scene, the totality which is called Nature, and that I would give myself intransi-gently to the quality of experience called Folk, and to the frame of behavior known as Mystical.” Thus Mary Austin wrote in the introduction to “Earth Horizon,” her autobiography, published two years before her death in 1934. The pattern of her life, she wrote, had been distinctly clear in her consciousness before she had lived the first third of a normally long life. From the moment she communicated with God under a walnut tree in the orchard in Carlinville, Illinois, when she was between five and six years old, there were intimations that she was to have an important destiny. The details were yet to be filled in, but the pattern was there. That destiny led to lonesome, rebellious, but profitable years in a California desert, to association with Pacific Coast radicals and poets such as Jack London and George Sterling, to some years of activity in the suffragist movement, to association with the Fabians, to a study of prayer-techniques in Italy, to a championing of the American Indian against “the folly of the officials,” to years of studying and writing about the cultural resources of the Southwest, to a career as writer of novels, plays, poems, stories, and articles of great variety of subject and worth. If, throughout such amazing activity as the cyclopedic account indicates, she went unhurriedly and reflectively, it was perhaps because of the pattern. Knowing so clearly what she had to do, and wanting to do so little else, she achieved unity in her life. This is not to say that her ideas were always consistent. The unity is in the method of approach more than in the results reached.

Throughout the thirty or more books and fifty or more articles in periodicals, there runs an intense moralizing and an eager search. She was a born pragmatist and radical, she said, never believing anything that was told her but always wishing to bring belief into line with innate moral sense. She rebelled against the Methodist Church, and spent the rest of her life seeking, out of experience, an answer to the religious problem. She rebelled against the status of woman in the ‘eighties and ‘nineties, and never rested until she had worked out her own naturalistic and empirical defense of women’s rights. She rebelled against the bleakness of life in America, and was never content until she found roots for a more expressive American life. Her approach to every problem was a double one. First there was plain introspection to discover what seemed most right and most life-giving. Then there was a testing of all in the light of what primitive, well-adapted peoples had to show. “The frame of behavior known as Mystical” and “the quality of experience called Folk” are nearly always inextricable; they work together to some fruitful conclusions. They also account for whatever is called Rousseauistic, primitive, absurdly mystical, and inaccurate in Mary Austin’s thought. Despite all her learning in some fields, she was always an amateur, the pioneer who believes nothing, hardly knows where to go to find out, and finally has to discover everything unaided, by looking deeply within and observantly around. That is why all her ideas seemed, to her, so original, and still seem, to her devoted readers, so powerful.

A radical in an Illinois town in the ‘eighties was a lonesome person. “Earth Horizon” and “A Woman of Genius” are evidence of it. Her own family was frightened by her disrupting insights. In the small settlements of the California desert and mining regions, a woman who wanted independence, who wanted to be judged by her intrinsic worth and not by what she could make some man feel, and who wished that life might give outlet for play and for impulses to self-expression—such a woman was strange and misunderstood. There was no one for her to talk to but herself. Some stories clearly autobiographical, such as “Frustrate,” other stories in “Lost Borders,” the novel “Santa Lucia,” and “Earth Horizon” all attest this. In the eastern metropolis, a woman who stood up and told the critical cliques that they were woefully ignorant of America, who told economic radicals that their radicalism and most of their morality were “topsy-turvy,” was tolerated but misunderstood. When she said that New York re-discovered her about every seven years, she should have said that New York was only made aware of her every seven years. She saw to that herself. She was never at home there, except possibly in one brief period when she was a problem-solver and could enjoy the stir that New York was making in introducing a little realism into the discussion of American life. Even in Santa Fe, she was suspect, because she was often erratic, irascible, and egotistical. “Women Alone” she called herself.

One does not need my fancy psychology to see that her aloneness was a great impulsion toward the Folk. She wanted to belong, to be one of a race, to have a home, to express herself and be understood. But she was not at home in the America which emphasized a repressive morality, worshiped bigness, and divorced its living from its way of getting a living. She could find her cultural home among the Folk, who were still immune to the evils of the dominant American culture and whose qualities pointed a way for the whole American future. Sometimes, indeed, she could not wait upon that future; her aloneness drove her to see the dominant American way itself as a folk way. For example, she once saw in the 1926-1929 era a fine cultural movement led by “SatEvePost” and men with a good “medicine for Things.” Usually, however, she saw that she would have to wait, and she spurned the dominant American way and looked to the Folk for a future. Mary Austin’s ideas about the Folk and their possibilities are very complex, but they will reveal a very representative Mary Austin. “Folk-ness” was central in her method of thinking, and led to all her regional activities and whatever regional philosophy she had.

From the time of some of her earliest works, “The Land of Little Rain” and “The Flock,” a great part of Mary Austin’s power lay in a sense of what people gain from a complete adjustment to the land they live upon. The desert Indians and sheepherders in the high pastures of the Sierras had taken a fresh start in the land, had integrated morality, religion, and economics into a pattern that was wise because it was naturally adapted to the physical environment. Before the California days, as a girl of fourteen, Mary Austin felt that the American community, as she knew it in the Middle West, lacked this wise adjustment. She tells of first going to the house which her mother had built, shining and new, and of being “struck with a cold blast of what she [Mary Austin] was to recognize long after as the wind before the dawn of the dreary discontent with the American scene, which has since been made familiar to us all by the present generation of writers in the Middle West.” When she turns from primitives to a representative Anglo community on the California frontier, she has her heroine, Serena Lindley of “Santa Lucia,” feel the lack of co-ordination in her life, the gap between the means to life and the living, which lets in boredom and the sense of frustration and rootlessness. By contrast, Dr. Caldwell, who has been in this land thirty-five years, finds contentment in the ramshackle old house where living has gone on. Dr. Caldwell exacts a promise from his prospective son-in-law that the old place will be kept and children brought up there. ” . . it is my belief that here in the West, perhaps in all America, we do not take enough account of the power of our inanimate surroundings to take on the spiritual quality of the life that is lived in them, and give it off again like an exhalation, and not pains enough when we have made such a place, to preserve it for those who come after from generation to generation. . . ” It is no wonder that when, some ten or more years later, such members of the eastern “radical-intellectual” group as Waldo Frank and Van Wyck Brooks rode through the Middle West and reported that America was a land of shacks which appeared never to have been lived in, Mrs. Austin’s scorn was derisive. She had beaten them to the observation, made it from the inside, with pity and tolerance, and with something to offer besides more and more rootlessness.

Criticism of American rootlessness is implied in almost everything Mary Austin wrote. A folk-like adaptation to the new land is the cure that is offered. A philosophy of Folk-ness develops by the time she is settled into the life at Santa Fe, but it does not appear explicitly in her books so much as in periodical writings. Originally, she says, the term “Folk” included all of us; recently it has come to mean “those minority groups whose social expression is the measure of their rootage in a given environment . . . people whose culture is wholly derived from their reactions to the scene that encloses, taking nothing from extra-tribal sources except as these forcibly constitute themselves factors of that scene.” “To be shaped in mind and social reaction, and to some extent in character, and so finally in expression, by one given environment, that is to be Folk.” The Folk have a sounder, better-rounded view of their group destiny than world-aware sophisticates have. Indeed, she continues, the lack of receptivity to the multiple influences that flow through the world is the mark of Folk-ness. Both the founders of the Republic, following the egalitarian ideal, and their successors, with their public schools and newspapers, failed to take proper account of this quality. Isolation from the main stream of world thought and world influences, an impenetrability and obtuseness, and a natural adaptation to the physical environment, are the requisites of Folk-ness. Two groups in America, she says, have had these conditions in perfection, the Anglos of the Appalachian highlands, and the Spanish-speaking peoples of the Southwest. The former have given us a poetic style in balladry and dialogue which reveals “touches of splayed Elizabethan rugosity,” its imagery displaying “an immortal freshness.” The latter, having taken over the Indian food-crop, the architecture, and the whole economic complex of Indian life, developed in their folk-product “an objective superiority” based on pictorial and plastic elements.

Naturally, one who insisted so constantly and so volubly upon the worth of the indigenous and well-established folk groups in the Southwest had to meet the charge of escapism, even of sheer mystical nonsense. Out of desperation and disgust with the obtuseness of many critics, Mary Austin’s final plea was on a basis of utility. The poetry of the Indian is not for our imitation; it is simply an indigenous object lesson, an example of how a true poetry reflects the landscape line and the native rhythms, and how its suggestive power is greater when it grows out of the integrated experience of a people. It should be collected, translated, explained, studied, and the way of life that produced it kept as nearly intact as possible. On this last point, Mrs. Austin was a fighter. Stupid officials, officious missionaries, and an indifferent public were targets of her wrath; loud pro-gressivists who assumed that the dominant Anglo culture was superior in every way to the Amerind were victims of her most ironic thrusts. Of all folk groups in America, the Indian was the one which most needed to be encouraged in keeping its integrity, for the simple reason that the Indian would suffer most and profit least from being dissolved into the huge current of the usual American life. She could admit, however, that the Indian’s tribal life was breaking up, his arts of dance and decoration dying (at least until resurrected by sympathetic groups of artists in the Southwest), his ceremonies and religion becoming meaningless conventions and formalities even to many Indians. This is the point at which her common sense came in. She bowed to nobody in respect for Indian culture and in comprehension of the wholeness and beauty of the Indian way of life, but she could nevertheless see that the concrete pattern of Indian life would ultimately be broken, the religious and esoteric meanings of the poetry, decorative design, and dance-drama lost. That was why, she felt, the Indian must be encouraged in his arts before all was lost. Let the forms continue, since they still existed, so that Indian life might make the contribution to an indigenous American culture that it was, to her notion, destined to make.

Despite the fact that Mrs. Austin’s later years were greatly devoted to the arts and the folk-lore of the Spanish-speaking people of the Southwest, the Indian was central in her thoughts. She hailed the political changes in Mexico, beginning in 1921, as evidence that Mexico was awakening to her fundamental Indian heritage, one of intense communal and artistic instincts, overlaid too long with the Conquerors’ culture. As long as her attention was directed specifically toward Mexico, she saw the Indian as the basis of a new Western culture, taking in both North and South America. The “wantlessness,” the innate community sense and artistic sense, the incorrigible Folk-ness (both in the sense of “environmental rootage” and “limited range of social perception”) of Spanish-Americans in New Mexico, she attributed chiefly to their Indian heritage. She recorded with glee the way in which the villagers in Mexico, as soon as the revolution had given them opportunity, seized again the ejidos, originally communally-owned strips of land. This was evidence, she thought, of their clinging to a pattern of social life older than the Spanish conquest. It was a folk manifestation, the resurgence of a loyalty that had lived, submerged, through generation after generation.

To Mexico and south she looked for the re-establishment on the American continent of the basic patterns of American life—not a state socialism, but an informal, spontaneous, small-scale communism enhancing Folk-ness. At one time, the best plea she could make for the revival and encouragement of Indian arts in the Southwestern United States was that the Indian pueblos and the villages of New Mexico could help Mexicans to find their way more directly to the old Indian patterns which, strangely, had been more broken up in Mexico than in New Mexico.

A rejuvenated Mexico was, for a time at least, the symbol which co-ordinated Mary Austin’s enthusiasms. But she never let enthusiasm for exotic Folk-ness carry her away from considerations of how Folk-ness was to operate among her own kind. True, after talking with Diego Rivera in Mexico, she came away feeling that his painting “came forth with charm such as is missed by Nordics.” “It was a relief to me,” she wrote, “to discover that there was no Nordic ’ taint in Diego Rivera.” This may mean, in its full context, that she was glad to find her intuitions, about the American rhythm and pattern corroborated by one of a different race. More likely, it means that she was sick of Nordic progres-siveness, maladjustment, and assertiveness. Nevertheless, Mary Austin was a pioneer American, of Anglo and Nordic stock. Folk-ness was not an exotic means of entertainment to her; it was a way of looking at and interpreting the life of the United States. If Mexico as a symbol most completely co-ordinated her enthusiasms and seemed to be the completest fulfillment of her prophecies, the next best symbol was the aridity of the Southwestern United States and the need there for irrigation. The Colorado River controversy focused her attention upon this physical fact and its implications.

The controversy was long and involved, as battles over water rights always have been. It began when Boulder Dam was projected, and it involved the seven states that had territory in the watershed of the Colorado River and its tributaries. It resulted in a fight between California and Arizona. California wanted half the water, although she could supply little to the drainage into the proposed reservoir, and wanted it because she could prove she needed it now, to supply electric power to Los Angeles and water to valleys lying hundreds of miles from the dam. Arizona wanted a good proportion of the water held for the other less populous states, with a view to their future development. For Mary Austin, it became a fight hazarding everything she held dear. It was the California cult of bigness, based on a short-sighted cultural and economic view, against her own idea of regional autonomy. She envisaged hundreds of small communities in valleys along the whole Colorado course. Isolated, well-integrated, having the fundamental Southwestern communal pattern enforced by the sharing of water-rights, these communities would be the focal points of the new American social pattern: industrialism on a small scale, community-mindedness, integration of the economic pattern with the physical background, a spontaneous, folk-like development of the capacities necessary to the functioning of such communities. For one of the greatest evils in American life, as she saw it, was that such hordes of people “benefit by, without understanding, the mechanistic basis of modern society.” “The proportion of any community which has only a button-pushing, spigot-turning acquaintance with its material advantages, is the measure of that community’s cultural inertia.” Small communities scattered throughout the Colorado basin would keep the population “on the stretch,” would call out “invention and foresight, among the people”

Mary Austin took an active part in the struggle, wrote articles, attended the seven-states conference as representative of New Mexico. She was aware that her views seemed poetic and impractical to economists, legislators, and business men; that California was not practising any economic atrocity, but a good economics, widely approved. What she was fighting for was the cultural future; her opponents, for the economic present. Mrs. Austin’s point was lost sight of in the final settlement. But the fight co-ordinated her views. All her writing at the time of the controversy and immediately afterwards reveals that the following implications of her regionalism, heretofore somewhat diffused, were brought together: her definition of culture; her belief that the Southwest was to be, or had the proper conditions for being, the seat of the world’s next great culture; the belief that the dominant Anglo culture, progressive and mechanistic, would be great only by the infusion of traits from a more poetic, leisure-loving, artistic, and religious-minded people; her advocacy of an essentially rural, spontaneous communism over against an urban-industrial state socialism. And one might hazard the speculation that the set-back her ideas received in this affair, their first practical test, was a great impetus towards her enthusiasm later for Mexico, where she was able to see in Diego Rivera and certain social movements in Mexico the village Folk-ness and communalism she admired. A practical set-back, of course, was for her only a delay, not a defeat. She turned, in the last years of her life, from an all-inclusive speculation about regionalism to finding out all she could about Indian and Spanish-American Folk-ness; from prophecy, to put it roughly, to collecting. And, of course, to “the frame of behavior known as Mystical,” explicitly.

Mrs. Austin’s views, however, are not often so well coordinated as when she was thinking about the future of the Southwest in relation to the development of water resources, or about Mexico. There are contradictions and confusions in her thinking. Folk-ness happens to lead on occasion to a regional philosophy, but Folk-ness, as a method of approach, a way of prophesying through intuition, often leads to concepts that do not readily fit together. The native communism of the Mexican village which she once discovered as the very pattern of the indigenous American life and the hope of the future, is in another place thought to bring in the “menace of cultural arrest through the perfection of economic adjustment.” Aboriginal communalism, whether in Mexico or in the pueblos of New Mexico, is traced from security to complacency to inertia to desuetude. The economic pattern forced a like rigidity on the whole cultural complex, which made the Indian incapable of coping with more individualistic peoples. Of course, Mrs. Austin was dealing in well-known anthropological fact; nevertheless, there is inconsistency between this view and the later enthusiasm for the Mexican pattern; also between this and the usual implication that the beauty of the folk way of life is in stability and resistance to change.

The greatest paradox of all perhaps lies in her wavering attitude towards “Big Business”—what other regionalists call finance-capitalism. Mary Austin usually found the dominant mores of American society, built around ideas of progress and rapid expansion and supported by the finance-capitalist regime, the enemy of all she had fought for. And yet we find her in 1920 writing that Mr. Herbert Hoover was a man “in travail with an idea,” feeling his way toward a deeper, more intuitive prepossession of the American people, the idea that “self-government means the release of the personal drive: liberty to perfect the technique of action. . . . Law-making and policing are relatively futile in the presence of working power.” And late in 1928 she wrote that she had found “the thing worth waiting for.” Eighteen years among Indians, and more years of study tracing social institutions from the Stone Age to the present, had revealed that all radicalism was wrong. She had discovered the “inescapable tendency of Things to accumulate about certain types of personality.” The discovery was contemporaneous with her finding The Saturday Evening Post America’s great folk voice; it helped her “return to the high-priesthood of man’s economic conquest of the earth,” to see “the spiritualization of business.” Spirituality for business men was a “specialized type of energy, working from within,” a subconscious mastery of business, a good “medicine for Things.” Accordingly, the solution for economic maladjustment was to take all the chains off and let Mr. Ford, Mr. Hoover, and their type exercise their medicine. Not to divide the heap but to increase it, everybody getting a larger share and admitting the rights of the leaders, the “good medicine” men, to inordinately large shares. It was, to her, a new spiritual insight for America. Today it sounds like Mr. Walter Lippmann’s “benevolent capitalism,” and one suspects that Mrs. Austin only gave anthropological and mystical support to a none-too-original idea. Folk-ness as a method, that is, exercise of the prophetess’s and witch-woman’s function, led to what is almost a betrayal of the Folk, even if “Folk” is taken to mean the dominant horde which had just voted for prosperity. If “Folk” is taken to mean those submerged minorities which cling desperately to non-progressive ways, there is decidedly a betrayal. The paradox can be explained only by saying that “Woman Alone” could not resist the temptation for once to get on the bandwagon. She failed to see that in modern society the men with “medicine for Things,” the producers, the small merchants, the technologists, are not necessarily the ones to whom Things gravitate. Between the more abundant production of things and the methods of modern finance-capitalism is a gap that Mrs. Austin’s primitives probably did not have to contend with. Of course, she was right in seeing, in 1928, that solutions offered by “topsy-turvy radicalism” were inimical to the American temperament; but she was absurd in calling this a new folk insight, the spiritualization of a national impulse.

There are other paradoxes. A regionalist whose philosophy was to a great extent founded upon primitivism and an advocacy of the “limited range of the social perceptions” of the Folk, would not be expected to be a worker in pro-gressivist causes, clamoring for more popularizations of science and history and journalistic re-writes of Freud and Jung, clamoring for woman suffrage, telling federated women’s clubs that they represented a new and valuable stirring of the American consciousness, excoriating American small-townness, advocating a court for domestic relations in terms that called out the satire of even her friends the Fabians, and generally conducting herself like either a metropolitan rationalist trying to bring enlightenment to the provinces, or an American business man believing that culture can be bought. Not that a regionalist is expected to be pure primitivist and against everything that world-aware sophisticates stand for. But in the light of her pronouncements on the impenetrability of the Folk, her tirades against intellectuals, and her challenge to the cult of Bigness, all her progressivist activities and ideas are inconsistent, to say the least.

Some of the inconsistencies can be explained away by chronology. On the whole, Mary Austin evolved from a progressivist, a radical, an intellectual problem-solver, to a regionalist whose faith was in the Folk; from a general desire to save America by lecturing at it, to an obsession that it had to find its roots, not necessarily by retreat, but by a poetic and mystical absorption in some elements of the past. Some of the inconsistencies disappear when her ideas are put into their proper period and long, gradual changes are plotted; but Mary Austin can never be made simple. There are back-trackings and reversions, and inconsistency holds all along the chronological line. Whatever pattern emerges is that enforced by the method of her thinking, the intuitional way of the Folk. The champion of Folk-ness, of course, had not the limited social perception of the Folk. She was world-aware. Indeed, she wrote of a future “folk-fixation,” and the implication is that the whole nation in that time will have the awareness and the state of consciousness that are now only for intellectuals, but will have them by automatic, subconscious means. She said that highly selfconscious and sophisticated artists were the Folk of the great world, as much at ease among world-ideas as is an Indian medicine-man among tribal myths and legends. Such a straddling of the gap between the universalizing tendency of radical intellectualism and the localizing tendency of out-and-out regionalism, leaves no room for any argument. Mrs. Austin stands everywhere, mystically divining. Her Folk-ness, therefore, was not altogether primitivism, or escapism, or a systematized regionalism, or anything that can be labeled. She is valuable not for giving a system but for making us more aware, for extending the range of our consciousness of our environment and our social possibilities.

It has long been the fashion to say that Mary Austin was greater as a woman than as a writer. Her personality did have, according to all reports, a “seminal” quality (the adjective was once applied to Rousseau’s mind). It created a stir in other people, in a way that her books alone perhaps never will. But ultimately she will have to be judged by her writing. And she seems to have divined well there. “The Land of Little Rain,” “The Flock,” “The Land of Journey’s Ending”—she was sure that these would be remembered. Her practical life closed with an absorbing interest in the arts and crafts of the New Mexican Folk. But one of the last things she wrote was a poem, “When I Am Dead,” full of nostalgia for such days and scenes as are portrayed in “The Flock.” Could it be that she recognized that such work as “The Flock” would ultimately be of much more importance than all the years she served as the oracle of Santa Fe and prophet-at-large to America? Her best mode was that of aloneness, when with quiet patience she set down the glamorous, cruel, strange beauty of the land, the great Sierra pastures, the desert, the canons and mesas. As for her attempt to predict the means and method of our adaptation to the land, she was perhaps as good a prophet as any.


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