Mary Austin--and Ansel Adams

Chances are you’ve heard the name Ansel Adams. What about Mary Austin? An upcoming auction lot reminded me that Adams’ first book of photography, titled Taos Pueblo, was published in a limited, Grabhorn Press edition in 1930. Adams supplied twelve photos, while Austin wrote the text. The copy for sale at Swann Auction Galleries next week, signed by both the author and the artist, is estimated to reach $30,000-45,000.

Austin Adams.jpgBut who was Austin? Swann describes her “a popular nature writer,” which is true, if understated. Mary Hunter Austin (1868-1934) traveled extensively in the Southwest and wrote about what she saw and experienced there. Her first book, published in 1903, was The Land of Little Rain, a nature classic in the same league as Thoreau’s Walden or Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra. Austin’s evocative sketches of life in Death Valley and the Mojave Desert are mystical and life-affirming. Incredibly for the time, Austin often traveled alone through hostile environments to collect her stories, prompting Outside magazine to feature her recently in “Badass Women Chronicles.”  

Austin went on to write more than thirty books and hundreds of articles. As Adams wrote of her, “Seldom have I met and known anyone of such intellectual and spiritual power and discipline.” Still, she never quite cracked into the literary canon. The Land of Little Rain was reissued in 1920 and was notably included in the “Zamorano 80” list of distinguished California books in 1945. Five years after that, Ansel Adams published a photo-illustrated edition of Land, perhaps an homage to their first collaboration. Then Austin seems to drop off the radar for several decades.

51950.jpgA quick peruse of booksellers’ offerings online show copies of the collector-worthy first edition, bound in decorative gilt cloth (pictured above, courtesy of Ken Sanders Rare Books), in the $150-500 range, as well as the 1920 second edition in dust jacket for $175. Arader Galleries has a stunning extra-illustrated first edition for $35,000.

LandOfLittleRain copy.jpgCoincidentally, an audiobook of The Land of Little Rain was released earlier this month, read by Emmy Award winner Ellen Parker. (Full disclosure: it was produced by my husband, Brett Barry.) It is the first commercially available audio edition of Austin’s most famous work. There are also paperback editions now available from Modern Library, Penguin, and Dover, plus a 2014 coffee table edition with photos by Walter Feller.

It seems we -- readers, collectors, publishers -- are finally making shelf space for Mary Austin.

Images (Top) Courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries; (Middle) Courtesy of Ken Sanders Rare Books; (Bottom) Courtesy of Silver Hollow Audio.

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