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Exploring Lost Borders: Critical Essays on Mary Austin.

Edited by Melody Graulich and Elizabeth Klimasmith

Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1999. xxiv + 311 pp. $41.95.

Mary Hunter Austin (1868-1934), prolific Western writer of natural history essays, novels, poetry drama, short fiction, and cross-gender works, is well represented by this wide-ranging collection of critical essays. Known to most modern readers as the author of The Land of Little Rain, a classic of nature writing about the desert Southwest, Austin is a complex figure who engaged passionately and often contentiously in the powerful debates of her day: feminism, conservation, racial issues, and modernist aesthetics. Readers new to Austin as well as those more familiar with her work will enjoy the variety of scholarship in Exploring Lost Borders.

Co-editors Melody Graulich, the leading scholar behind Austin's recovery, and Elizabeth Klimasmith have selected an impressive range of articles in this first critical essay collection to focus on Austin's work. An introduction by Graulich, fourteen essays with accompanying headnotes, a composite Works Cited, and a thorough Index reflect the volume's coverage and its accessibility. Graulich's Introduction provides a useful summary of Austin scholarship to date in addition to an overview of the essays. The headnotes are especially valuable: they provide brief abstracts and make useful connections among the articles. As the dust jacket claims, these headnotes would make the volume a natural for "classroom use"--but only if a paperback edition becomes available.

One particular strength of Exploring Lost Borders is its combination of new scholarly approaches to Austin and serious attention to her lesser-known works, including some that were never published. Articles by Kathryn DeZur, Tara Hart, Mark Schlenz, and Michelle Campbell Toohey address The Land of Little Rain and Lost Borders, well-known works that have often been reprinted (including in a Rutgers UP American Women Writers Series combination edition, Stories from the Country of Lost Borders, edited by Marjorie Pryse). Other contributors (Anna Carew-Miller, Klimasmith, and Linda K. Karell) discuss Austin's autobiography Earth Horizon and her semi-autobiogaphical novel A Woman of Genius. Feminist approaches inform virtually all the essays, with interesting new directions mapped out by DeZur's postcolonial reading of Lost Borders, Klimasmith's investigation of "consumption and feminism," and Graulich's discussion of "The Construction of Masculinity in Cactus Thorn." Ecocritical investigations by Schlenz, Toohey , Barney Nelson, and Anne Raine provocatively extend the existing scholarship on Austin's nature writing. Mark Hoyer and Dale Metcalfe explore Austin's "Indian Plays" and "Indian Poetry," respectively, challenging previous assessments of these works to show Austin's sensitive and sophisticated portrayal of Native American art and ritual. With my appetite whetted to read more of Austin than is currently available in print, I was also pleased to find that several of the volume's contributors (Nicole Tonkovich, Schlenz, Nelson, Graulich) are in the process of editing reprints of Austin's works (xxiii, n. 11).

As the volume's title suggests, "border" and "crossing" motifs are explored and exploited in many of the essays as tropes both central to Austin's work and prevalent in current theoretical discourse. Some of the essays employ these concepts rather predictably, while others--such as Tonkovich's "At Cross Purposes: Church, State, and Sex in Mary Austin's Isidro"--give them fresh and lively attention. A welcome breath of playfulness comes from Judy Nolte Temple's piece of autobiographical criticism, "Can the Subalter Ego Speak? Experiences Representing Mary Austin on the Chautauqua Circuit." Having seen Temple's superb performance, I was eager to read her scholarly remarks on portraying the "living" Austin. In a combination of vibrant prose and incisive commentary, Temple succeeds in conveying what the whole collection in fact accomplishes: presenting the remarkable diversity of a larger-than-life figure in all her contradictions and complexity.

Another important scholarly contribution of Exploring Lost Borders is the extent to which Austin's work is analyzed within the context of her contemporaries, among diverse women writers and artists (Gilman, Cather, H. D., Stein, and O'Keefe) and male authors (Vachel Lindsay, Theodore Dreiser, John Muir, and John Wesley Powell). As Graulich states in the Introduction, Austin is "central to rereading some of the key paradigms in American studies scholarship: the construction of gender, the representation of ethnic minorities, multiculturalism, the fluidity of race and gender in the borderlands, genre crossings, modernism, the West and its 'geography of hope'" (xvi). As a later headnote suggests, this collection foregrounds the ways in which "Austin herself was a theorist anticipating the insights of later writers and visual artists" (88), a prescience that so far has ensured a continuing interest in Mary Austin. Exploring Lost Borders is an important addition to Austin studies and sets a high standard for forthcoming criticism.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Ingram, Ann Merrill
Publication:Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 2000
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