Grant Martin Overton.

The women who make our novels. online

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this place. It is so wrong from beginning to end
that no problem of living in it can be solved right.
Everybody must therefore beg the question. These
girls are not fit to become wives, these men are not
fit to become husbands, so they are to be saved by in-
forming them of what they miss in marriage. I doubt
if it saves them.

"However, they have got as far as naming the prob-
lem 'eugenics/ They hold conventions around about
this place to decide how a thoroughbred human animal
can be produced. Laws are being passed, or framed
for passing, which require a physician's certificate
of health from the contracting parties in marriage. It
sounds right. It would be right if such laws could
be enforced. But they cannot be. You might as
well pass a law that smoke shall not rise, that stones
shall not fall. When two people love one another
that way they will marry whatever their physical rat-
ing may be."

When A Circuit Rider's Widow was published it
was interpreted in some quarters as an attack on Meth-
odism or upon the Methodist Church, South; there
were also allegations that Mrs. Harris had been blas-
phemous in certain passages. The charge of blas-
phemy was foolish and the conclusion respecting Mrs.
Harris's attitude toward Methodism must be modified
upon reading her very direct statement :

"I believe in the Methodist church, its doctrines, the
liberty and breadth of its original purpose. I believe
in Felix Wade [the central figure in A Circuit Rider's
Widow] as the preacher to come who will deliver this


church from what is almost a military system of gov-
ernment, menacing to its spiritual power. In short, I
believe in the democracy of the religion of Jesus Christ.
Such spirituality cannot be properly interpreted by
an autocracy nor by a commercialized civilization
which we are very rapidly developing in this coun-

The reader will be mindful, reading the last sen-
tence, that it was uttered in 1916, a year before Amer-
ica's entrance into the war against Germany.

Mrs. Harris's books require reading, not critical
discussion. And having read them the criticism en-
suing will not be literary criticism but a criticism of
life which literature is sometimes held to be. In the
valley she lives with her daughter Faith, now Mrs.
Harry Leech. It should be noted that the acknowl-
edged original of Susan Walton in her book, The Co-
Citizens, was Mrs. William H. Felton, Georgia's pio-
neer suffragist, a woman much honored for her pub-
lic spirit and for public services rendered as a private
person, notably the production at the right moments of
a scrapbook in which were pasted all sorts of bits of
information about officeholders and candidates. Mrs.
Felton collected these items for years. She was over
80 when Mrs. Harris wrote her into The Co-Citizens
and although she lived in Cartersville, near "the val-
ley," the two women did not meet until after the pub-
lication of the novel.

No better close for this chapter than its opening
Mrs. Harris's own words! She is picturing her life
and quite as vividly herself to Isma Dooley. It is
after her visit to the European battlefronts. She re-


vives not what she saw of horror and struggle there,
but what she has known of pettiness and greatness in
her peaceful home:

"I was so worried over the feuds between the breth-
ren and the choir and my own fault-finding spirit that
I used to go round behind the church sometimes and
sit down among the graves to comfort myself.

"We have buried our people there for sixty years.
Men who never could get on with each other in the
church are lying side by side, like brothers in the same
bed. I say it encourages me to know that the time
will come when we, too, will finish our day's work
and the strife with which we test each other's spirits,
and lie down out there like the lion and the lamb,
together. But we shall be dead, which, in my opin-
ion, is the only safe way for lions and lambs to lie
down together.

"I'd sit there and watch the fallen autumn leaves
come whirling and tipping over the tombs like little
brown spirits of the dust, blown in the wind. I thought
of what a good man old Amos Tell was, though no-
body could get on with him in the church. But his
contrariness didn't count now in my thoughts. I only
remembered how he bore the burdens of the church;
how cross, but generous he was with the poor; how
he made the coffin for Molly Brown's husband and
didn't charge for it. Then I'd bend down and pull a
few weeds from among the violets that grew round
his monument, as I'd have dusted his coat for him
after a long journey. And I would walk over and
look at John Elrod's fine tomb John, who didn't
know whether he was willing to be a fool for Christ's


sake and who surpassed the wise in the simplicity of
his faith.

"I'd look down at Abbie Cai-michael's grave as I
passed such a dingy little grave, with such a meek
little monument over it. We used to think she was a
great trial in the missionary society, always wanting
to turn it into a spiritual meeting instead of attending
to the business and collecting dues. She was hungry
for the -bread of life from morning till night. Now
she was satisfied, with her dust lying so close to the
roots of the great trees. People look better when you
remember them after they are gone, and you do not
need to contend with just their mortal frailties; and
you wonder why you ever put so much stress on them

"I always feel as if I can bear with the living more
patiently after I've spent an hour in this churchyard
and seen how far removed the dead are from their
transgressions. "


A Circuit Rider's Wife, 1910.

Eve's Second Husband, 1911.

The Recording Angel, 1912.

In Search of a Husband, 1913.

The Co-Citizens, 1915.

A Circuit Rider's Widow, 1916.

Making Her His Wife, 1918.

The first two books are published by Henry Alte-
mus, Philadelphia; the rest by Double day, Page &
Company, New York.


[Spellings and punctuation, even though inadvertent,
have been faithfully transcribed for the sake of pre-
serving something intensely human in the personal
sketch below.]

[Typewritten] Independence, Cal.

Nov. 25th, 1902.
Messrs. Houghton, Mifflin and Co. ;


Enclosed you will find the biographical sketch of
my life and some account of my work, in reply to
your request for the same. I have no doubt that you
can get some expression of opinion from Mr. Muir
in regard to my book "A Land of Little Rain", but I
will take pains to make sure of the matter and write
you again in regard to it. Chas. F. Lummis, editor
of Out West, and George Hamlin Fitch, literary editor
of The San Fransisco Chronicle, and also the reviewer
of the Argonaut can be counted on to give me some
friendly notice, especially Lummis as he is my first
and warmest friend in the west. ... I have written
the biographical sketch in the third person to avoid
the use of so many "I's," which always makes me



miserable, you can cut out all that is not to the point.

Sincerely yours


P. S. I am afraid you will be disappointed with
the notes but it is the best I can do.

[Enclosure. Typewritten]

Mary 'Hunter Austin was born in Carlinville, Illi-
nois, descended on her mother's side from the family
of the celebrated French chemist, Daguerre. Being
born fortunately before the flood of so-called children's
books, she began to be familiar with the English
classics as soon as she could read, and the study of
these and an intimate acquaintance with nature occu-
pied most of the years until the end of her university
work. At that time very serious ill health drove her
to California, and a friendly destiny provided that
she should settle in the new and untamed lands about
the Sierra Nevadas and the desert edges. Although not
yet twenty, she had already made some preparation
for following the profession of teaching, and in the
unconventional life of mining towns, and in the wick-
iups of the Indians found exceptional opportunities
for pushing her investigations in child-study.

Mrs. Austin's work in this direction met with in-
stant recognition in her state, and before long many
excellent positions were open to her, but by this time
she discovered that she did not want them. Like most
desert dwellers, Mrs. Austin had come under the spell
of its mystery, and after teaching a short time in the
Los Angeles Normal School, was glad to return to the


life of the hills, and soon after began to devote herself
seriously to writing.

Very early her work attracted the attention of The
Atlantic Monthly, St. Nicholas, and the Youth's Com-
panion. Most of the monthly magazines have pub-
lished work of hers.

All of Mary Austin's work is like her life, out
of doors, nights under the pines, long days' watchings
by water holes to see the wild things drink, breaking
trail up new slopes, heat, cloud bursts, snow, wild
beast and mountain bloom, all equally delightful be-
cause understood.

[At this point the typewriting stops ; the "biograph-
ical notes" continue in pen and ink, Mrs. Austin writ-
ing on both sides of the sheets of paper.]

N. B. I can't do it, when I wrote the letter that
accompanies this I thought it would be easy to do, but
it isn't. There is really nothing tc* tell. I have just
looked, nothing more, when I was too sick to do any-
thing else I could lie out under the sage brush and
look, and when I was able to get about I went to
look at other things, and by and by I got to know when
and where looking was most worth while. Then I got
so full of looking that I had to write to get rid of
some of it to make room for more. I was only two
months writing "A Land of Little Rain" but I spent
12 years peeking and prying before I began it. After
a while I will write a book about my brother the coyote
which will make you "sit up," I mean that is the way
I feel about it.


I have considered a long while, to see if I have any
interesting excentricities such as make people want to
buy the books of the people who have them, but I
think not. You are to figure to yourself a small,
plain, brown woman with too much hair, always a
little sick, and always busy about the fields and the
mesas in a manner, so they say in the village, as if
I should like to see anybody try to stop me.

Years' ago I was a good shot, but as I grew more
acquainted with the ways of wild folks I found it
He heavy on my conscience and so latterly have given
it up. I have a house by the rill of Pine creek, looking
toward Kearsarge, and the sage brush grows up to
the door. As for the villagers they have accepted me
on the same basis as the weather, an institution which
there is no use trying to account for. Two years
ago I delivered the Fourth of July oration here, and
if, when there is no minister of any sort here, as fre-
quently happens, I go and ring the church bell, they
will come in to hear me in the most natural manner.

When I go out of this valley (Owens) to attend or
to talk to large educational gatherings I ride 130 miles
in the stage across the desert to Mojave, and the driver
lets me hold the lines. Once when he said the water
of Mojave made him sick, I put him inside and took
the stage in from Red Rock to Coyote Holes. The
other passengers who were a barber with a wooden leg,
and a Londoner, head of a mining syndicate, took
care of my baby. You see I was the only one who
knew how to drive four horses.

For a long time before I came to Independence, I
lived in Lone Pine where the population is two-thirds


Mexican and there gained the knowledge of their
character which informs many of my stories. I should
say that my husband who is Register of the U. S.
Land office, is also a botanist and much of my out-
door life is by way of assisting his field work.

Now for my work the best is "A Land of Little
Rain," and the child verse in the St. Nicholas. I
think the best and worst of it is that I am a little
too near to my material. Where I seem to skimp a
little, I can understand now that the book is cold, it
was only that I presupposed a greater knowledge in the
reader. During the last six months I have discovered
that the same thing is happening to me that I com-
plained of in Jimville. the desert has "struck in." But
I shall do better work, and still better. I am pleased
to learn through some of my editor friends that my
verse is rather better paid for and more widely copied
than the average product of verse makers, and I con-
ceive it possible that this might be traced to the in-
fluence of Piute and Shoshone medicine men and
Dancers who are the only poets I personally know.
For consider how I get nearer to the root of the poetic
impulse among these single-hearted savages than any
other where. But if I write at length upon this point
you will say with my friend Kern River Jim, "This
all blame foolishness." And this brings me to my
work among the Indians in which I am somewhat gen-
erally misrepresented. If I deny what is commonly
reported, that the Indians regard me worshipfully for
the good I do, then is the denial taken for modesty
which it is not, but merely truth. They tell me things
because I am really interested and a little for the sake


of small favors but mostly because I give them no
rest until they do. Says my friend Kern River Jim,
"What for you learn them Injun songs? You can't
sing um, You go learn songs in a book, that's good
enough for you." Nevertheless I have been able to
do them nearly as much good as they have done me.

This is the best I can do for you in this way, but
whatever you are minded to say of my work say this
that P have been writing only four or five years and
have not yet come to my full power, nor will yet for
some years more.

So wrote Mary Austin in late fall, 1902. Very
nearly a year later Houghton Mifflin Company pub-
lished The Land of Little Rain, a collection of four-
teen sketches that were read with admiration and joy,
that are re-discovered every year, that established in-
contestably Mary Austin's qualifications as a writer.

"East away from the Sierras, south from Pana-
mint and Amargosa, east and south many an uncounted
mile, is the Country of Lost Borders.

"Ute, Paiute, Mojave, and Shoshone inhabit its
frontiers, and as far into the heart of it as a man
dare go. Not the law, but the land sets the limit.
Desert is the name it wears upon the maps, but the
Indian's is the better word. Desert is a loose term
to indicate land that supports no man; whether the
land can be bitted and broken to that purpose is not

The reader draws in his breath sharply. This is a
writer! And she has style. Yes, but so have dozens
of others. And they never do anything with it. They


write charming little essays, fanciful, forgotten. What
else has she?

She has keen eyes, a keen mind, a heart to under-
stand and a silence and time to come to the under-
standing. This much you make sure of as you go
deeper into the book, reading the accounts of The
Pocket Hunter and Jimville: A Bret Harte Town.
When you have finished you know Mrs. Austin's
promise but unless you have read her later books you
do not know her performance.

It began right after the appearance of The Land of
Little Rain with her next work, the novel Isidro, a
romance dealing with the California of the padres,
and it reached its high and sustained level with A
Woman of Genius.

She did not remain on the edge of the desert. To
do so would have been fatal. She moved about and
with benefit to herself and her work. Now she lives
in a house facing on Gramercy Park, New York, where
she has a studio. She has exchanged the Mojave
desert for the desert of Manhattan, but she is shel-
tered in an oasis touched with the lingering loveli-
ness of the New York H. C. Bunner knew. Ask
her about the advantages of her new environment and
she will tell you a story :

"A young Californian who came East to try his
fortune gravitated naturally to Washington Square
where Genius is supposed to germinate. He was per-
sonally conducted to the Liberal Club where a young
woman in bobbed hair and a futurist dress asked him
if he didn't think the Liberal Club the most remark-
able thing in America.


"'Well,' said the Westerner, 'there's the Grand
Canyon, you know.'

"There you have it," concludes Mrs. Austin. "If
you haven't seen the Grand Canyon you had better
keep away from the Liberal Club; but once you have
caught the lift and bigness of America outside New
York, then New York is the most inspiring place in
the world in which to work."

Ask her about her fine novel The Ford, a story of
present day California which takes its title from a
river shallow where the boy Kenneth Brent rescues
a lamb from drowning :

"The book records incidents in my own life in the
struggle for the waters of Owens River which the
city of Los Angeles stole from us," Mrs. Austin ex-
plains. "That was a very wicked episode, and I did
not begin to do justice to the chicanery of Los An-
geles. I am saving some of these things for the sequel
to The Fordl 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 Anne and Kenneth Brent doing in the

We have had Mary Austin's portrait of herself in
1902; let us have a portrait of her by a visitor who
met her about that time. Elia W. Peattie, writing in
the Boston Transcript, supplies just those externals
that we need to round out our picture :

"I met another desert woman, too [she had been
describing r. visit to Ida Meacham Strobridge] Mary
Austin, who has within the last eighteen months ap-
peared twice in the Atlantic in sketches which could


have been written only by one who knows the soli-
tude and understands it. A Shepherd of the Sierras
and The Little Coyote were the titles of these stories.
She has also written much verse and of a peculiar
order. It is for children, and has a wild and curious
quality. This has appeared chiefly in the Youth's
Companion and St. Nicholas.

"Mary Austin lives down in Independence, where
her husband is Government land agent. She is fairly
on the edge of Death Valley, and her companions
are principally Piute Indians. . . . Mrs. Austin has an
Indian-like solemnity about her. She has a pervading
shyness and likes the philosophy of the Indians and
their poetry. Instinctively she is artistic in all she
does, and her writing has undeniable style as well as
remarkable individuality. Her paper on The Indian
Arts read at one of the art sessions of the biennial
meeting of the General Federation of Women's Clubs
was the most purely literary paper of the entire con-
vention. It was written too well, if anything. It was
so smooth that it failed to arrest the attention of the
more casual listeners. . . .

"All that Mrs. Austin says has a certain value.
She speaks seldom. Her utterance is rather slow,
her voice very soft, and her remarks are usually grave.
. . . The desert has cloistered her; she is a religieuse,
serving her kind, wearing no habit, subscribing to no

A bit of a purple patch, that last! The truth is that
the desert molded Mary Austin without stunting her.
She is like one of those desert plants of which she
tells us, whose maturity may be attained at ten feet or


four inches, according to moisture and the region in
which they grow. Herself, she is a desert species
but transplanted in time! She made her final escape
before the desert "struck in" too deeply; had she not
done so dwarfing would have been inescapable ; instead
of the ten-foot maturity she would have given us her
best her all, her completion at four inches.

She has been lucky, yes, but not beyond her deserv-
ing. The Atlantic which printed her first offerings
was, you will remember, the same Atlantic which gave
Jack London his first chance. The Boston magazine
seldom prints serials, how seldom may be gathered
from the fact that five years elapsed after the appear-
ance of Mary S. Watts's Van Cleve before the "con-
tinued" line footed one of its pages. Yet the Atlantic
serialized Isidro. The North American Review, no
less severely selective than the Atlantic, the North
American, which had printed serially novels by Henry
James and Joseph Conrad, elected to print Mary Aus-
tin's The Man Jesus month by month. The Man Jesus
is a biography such as none but an American steeped
in the wilderness, steeped in fine literature, with a
deeply developed reflective habit could have written. It
might almost have been predicted from a woman who
remarked in 1904, who threw out in the course of a
casual lecture the arresting words: "Most of the
great religions have originated in desert countries."

If we say that The Man Jesus called for unusual
knowledge and an unusual faculty, what shall we say
of A Woman of Genius? Some readers were doubt-
less shocked by this novel on its first appearance; the
number must be smaller to-day. It is as honest as


George Meredith and as finely wrought as anything
by Henry James. Genius, in the experience of Olivia
Lattimore, a superb actress of tragic roles, is a gift,
a possession in the sense in which we say that a man
or a woman "is possessed of" or by a devil. Liv-
ing in Chicago on 85 cents a week was not only not
in any way important to her artistic development, it
was actually "a foolish and unnecessary interference
with my business of serving you anew with entertain-
ment." In other words, the people who think that pov-
erty and heartbreak are inevitable in the case of a
person of genius, are even desirable or requisite for
the growth and flowering of that genius, are a pack of
silly souls. Worse than that, they are guilty souls;
for their attitude allows misery and wretchedness to
befall the gifted mortal to such an extent that the
wonder is the world has any geniuses at all, or any
who survive to reveal what is in them.

And so Mrs. Austin makes her Olivia Lattimore
bare her life for us pretty completely. It is an austere
and serious revelation.

"About a week before my wedding we were sitting
together at the close of the afternoon ; my mother had
taken up her knitting, as her habit was when the
light failed. ... On the impulse I spoke.

" 'Mother/ I said, 'I want to know . . . ?'

"It seemed a natural sort of knowledge to which
any woman had a right. Almost before the question
was out I saw the expression of offended shock come
over my mother's reminiscent softness. . . .

" 'Olivia ! Olivia !' She stood up, her knitting rigid
in her hands, the ball of it speeding away in the dusk


of the floor on some private terror of its own. 'Olivia,
I'll not hear of such things! You are not to speak of
them, do you understand! I'll have nothing to do
with them !'

" 'I wanted to know/ I said. 'I thought you could
tell me. . . ."

But the question "had glanced in striking the dying
nerve of Jong since encountered dreads and pains. We
faced them together there in the cold twilight.

" Tm sorry, daughter' she hesitated 'I can't help
you. I don't know ... I never knew myself/ '

We follow the girl through marriage, the birth of
a son and his death in infancy, the almost accidental
disclosure of her gift for the stage, her struggle with
her husband, the gradual breach between them and his
defection involving the village dressmaker, the long
and harrowing period in Chicago after his death when
Olivia was without work, without money and often
without hope. Success came, of course ; it takes death
itself to extinguish genius such as she possessed, "of
which I was for the moment the vase, the cup." The
finest thing in this remarkable story is the portrayal
of that last struggle between Olivia and Helmeth Gar-
rett in which the woman's gift (or possession) bests
even love. But the chapters on Olivia's childhood are
wonderfully penetrating glimpses into the mind of a
young girl and the depiction of other characters is of
a high order; one of the best being the sketch of
Olivia's brother, Forester, "Forrie," who made a voca-
tion, a life work, of the business of being a dutiful son.
A Woman of Genius is the work of a woman of


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Online LibraryGrant Martin OvertonThe women who make our novels. → online text (page 11 of 23)