Saturday, January 24, 2009

Review of New Mary Austin Bio

The Los Angeles Times ran my review of the latest Mary Austin biography today. Written by Susan Goodman and Carl Dawson, the book traces the unusual arc of Austin's career. After writing a slender masterpiece (The Land of Little Rain) while living in the Owens Valley in 1903, Austin achieved her dream of becoming a professional writer but rarely matched that early effort.

Austin was a big influence on Carey McWilliams, and though Goodman and Dawson mention the connection between the two shortly before Austin's death in 1934, they don't explore it thoroughly. It's worth noting, I think, that McWilliams learned about the Owens Valley water caper from Austin, who witnessed it firsthand. Writing about that episode in Southern California Country (1946), McWilliams eventually inspired Robert Towne's Oscar-winning screenplay for Chinatown.

I also suspect, but haven't confirmed, that Austin called McWilliams's attention to the great land and water empire of Miller and Lux, which figures prominently in Factories in the Field (1939). Again, Austin knew about Miller and Lux from her years living in the San Joaquin Valley in the late nineteenth century.

I enjoyed the Austin book as well as the chance to review it for the Times. (As Goodman and Dawson note, McWilliams wrote Austin's obituary for the paper.) She was a fascinating figure with a big personality, and The Land of Little Rain is an undisputed early classic of environmental literature. I say check it out--along with Goodman and Dawson's bio.



At 9:05 AM , Blogger Frank P. Barajas said...

Tight book review, Peter. And thanks for pointing fanatics of your blog to the Matthews' essay. Arellano also wrote incisive book reviews today in the times. I am using his _Orange County_ book for my Southern Califonian Chicana/o History and Culture class.



At 8:28 AM , Blogger Richard said...

Belated compliments on this post and your biography review, which were very interesting to this Mary Austin newbie. I hope you don't mind that I linked to it on my own blog. Cheers!


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