The Concern of Women for Nature. Mary Austin’s Appreciation of the Desert in "The Land of Little Rain"

Term Paper, 2014

13 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Nature Writing
2.1 Desert Literature
2.2 Definition of the Term “Desert”
2.3 The Desert as a Critical Concept in Literature

3. Austin’s Appreciation of the Desert in The Land of Little Rain

4. The Concern of Women for Nature
4.1 Definition of Ecofeminism
4.2 Traces of Ecofeminism in The Land of Little Rain

5. Conclusion

6. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“In response to the industrial revolution of the late 18th century” (Scheese 6), a new field of literary studies has established. Derived from former pastoralism, authors now engage into what is called ‘nature writing’. Addressing the concerns of life in the country (Gifford 1), attention is directed to the different forms of nature as well. One of these nature writers can be found in Mary Hunter Austin, a female American writer who expresses her “affinity for nature, and more particularly the desert” (Scheese 76), by describing the landscape of the Mojave Desert in Southern California the way she perceived it during her walks through it. Although the theme of the desert is often referred to in literature as a symbol of “anxieties of loss, disorientation, and death” (Gersdorf 16), Austin successfully creates a whole new picture of it in her work The Land of Little Rain:

Through her celebration of a land often perceived as sterile and uninteresting, Austin helped create in America what had not existed before the turn of the century: a desert aesthetic. (Scheese 75)

What Scheese here calls “a desert aesthetic” (Scheese 75) describes the establishment of a literary discourse exclusively centered around literature about the desert. Desert literature itself offers numerous possibilities for writers at the beginning of the twentieth century, especially for female writers as it “inspired cultural fantasies and enabled real and imagined experiences of solitude, comntemplative repose, divine revelation” (Gersdorf 16). As a consequence, the stories of female writers can be understood as symbolic since the action is moved from a former domestic space to the public sphere in form of the desert. This also conforms to the character of the concept of ‘New Womanhood’ which signifies a newly gained freedom for women at the end of the nineteenth century as their determination of staying within the domestic sphere was finally abandoned ( Cott 459).

To prove this statement, the following essay initially gives a short overview of the literary study of nature writing and its more recent descendant, namely ‘desert literature’. Moreover, the second part of the essay will show how Mary Hunter Austin succeeds in transferring her appreciation of the desert into her short story collection The Land of Little Rain, where she attributes utopian qualities to the theme of the desert. The third part will finally analyze Austin’s The Land of Little Rain with regard to her gender, her concern for nature and the developments concerning the ecofeminist movement at the beginning of the twentieth century.

2. Nature Writing

As already indicated in the introductory chapter, the form of nature writing plays an important role with regard to the analysis and interpretation of The Land of Little Rain in this paper. Hence, the following chapter elaborates on the genre of nature writing and the features which are typical of it.

The field of nature writing was initially established “in response to the industrial revolution of the late 18th century” (Scheese 6). As the process of urbanization took its course, metropoles, built environments, which were full of people and buildings but limited to a certain space, were created. This lack of space uneffected by humans led to criticism which even made its way into literature. Being regarded as the “most popular form of pastoralism” (Scheese 6), its originis date back to “early Greek and Roman poems about life in the country, and about the life of the shepherd in particular” (Gifford 1).

However, the modern understanding of nature writing suggests “a broader use of ‘pastoral’ to refer to an area of content’ (Gifford 2). Indeed, the term ‘nature writing’ is used in order to refer to literature which describes the country either “with an implicit or explicit contrast to the urban” (Gifford 2). Moreover, critics, such as Buell, use the term for describing a kind of writing “that celebrates the ethos of nature/rurality over against the ethos of the town or city rather than the specific set of obsolescent conventions of the original literary form” (Buell 23). Accordingly, modern naturalists are not determined to limit their works with regard to the literary form they were originally derived from, but rather have the freedom to create a work that enhances and praises the advantages and positive features of nature in contrast to the man-made concept of modern cities. In addition to this, a typical work of naturalism is usually a first-person, nonfiction account of an exploration, both physical (outward) and mental (inward), of a predominantly nonhuman environment, as the protagonist follows the spatial movement of pastoralism from civilization to nature. (Scheese 6)

Furthermore, it is important to draw attention to the aspect of ‘nature’ when defining the genre of nature writing. Nature, in the broadest sense, can be defined as “the physical world and everything in it (such as plants, animals, mountains, oceans, stars, etc.) that is not made by people” (Webster n.p.). As this definition of nature includes a variety of different kinds of landscapes, it is not a surprise that different subgroups in nature writing have formed: one of them is the tradition of desert literature which will be discussed in the next chapter.

2.1 Desert Literature

This chapter is dedicated to the study of desert literature. Before focussing on desert literature as a critical concept in literature (Gersdorf 20), it is necessary to agree on a proper definition of the term ‘desert’ as it represents not only a territory of geographical, but also one of symbolic significance (Gersdorf 22).

2.2 Definition of the Term “Desert”

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the term ‘desert’ describes “any large, extremely dry area of land with sparse vegetation” (Encyclopedia Britannica n.p.). Concerning its geographical features, it becomes obvious that the desert is not the perfect place for humans to live in as the days are very hot, the nights are extremely cold and there is a great aridity at all times in this area. As a consequence, the land is not very fertile and humans cannot survive in this area without bringing nutrition and equipment, which are essential for life, with them. Nevertheless, the desert can still be identified as a type of ecosystem as it has a variety of distinctive plants and animals at its disposal, which have adapted to the conditions of the desert environment (Encyclopedia Britannica n.p.).

2.3 The Desert as a Critical Concept in Literature

Besides the geographical mapping of the desert, it is safe to say that the term can also have a variety of different meanings according to the place, time, and context in which it is used or referred to. Nonetheless, there exists one element which all of the different meanings seem to have in common, namely the “lack” (Gersdorf 16). This “lack” or absence can, depending on the context in which it occurs, either be associated with water, vegetation and/or animal life (Gersdorf 16). Thus, “as a region so arid that it supports only sparse and widely spaced vegetation or no vegetation at all” (Webster cited in Gersdorf 16), the desert often serves as an image or symbol that inspired cultural fantasies and enabled real and imagined experiences of solitude, comntemplative repose, divine revelation as well as anxieties of loss, disorientation, and death. (Gersdorf 16)

Especially the negative aspects of deserts, such as anxieties of loss, disorientation and death, are frequently named in the literary discourse as for example, Cather introduces the French missionary Father Latour, who emphasizes on the aspect of incompleteness which is closely related to the deserts’ characteristics of lacking something (Gersdorf 22) in her famous novel Death comes for the Archbishop. Correspondingly, the clergyman concludes that “the country was still waiting to be made into landscape” (Cather 95). This statement once more reveals the popular belief that God’s creation concerning the desert yet remains unfinished and, thus, lacks of completeness and perfection.

Apart from this, the notion of the desert in literature is on many occasions mentioned in connection with “metaphors such as garden, wilderness, frontier, the West, and virgin land” (Gersdorf 23). As all of these metaphors can be found in Mary Austin’s The Land of Little Rain, the following part of the essay will analyze Austin’s first and best known book (Wright 13), which was first published in 1903, in terms of how she expresses her appreciation of the desert.

3. Austin’s Appreciation of the Desert inThe Land of Little Rain

In The Land of Little Rain, a famous short story collection containing fourteen different stories about Mary Hunter Austin’s walks through the landscape and her meetings with the inhabitants of and around the Mojave Desert in Southern California (Wright 13), Austin uses a variety of metaphors in order to relate to the desert. She not only refers to the desert as a “land of lost rivers” (Austin 4), which matches the definition of the term mentioned in Chapter 2.2 where the desert is primarily identified by some sort of lack, but she also emphasizes the geographical mapping which is described in Chapter 2.1 as she claims that 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 proven. Void of life it never is, however dry the air and villainous the soil. (Austin 3)


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The Concern of Women for Nature. Mary Austin’s Appreciation of the Desert in "The Land of Little Rain"
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
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concern, women, nature, mary, austin’s, appreciation, desert, land, little, rain
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Ann-Kathrin Stahl (Author), 2014, The Concern of Women for Nature. Mary Austin’s Appreciation of the Desert in "The Land of Little Rain", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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