Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home pageNo. 35, Spring/Summer 1994
The Deserts in Literature

Desert Reading:
A List by Judy Nolte Temple

Associate Professor of English and Women's Studies at The University of Arizona


Mary Austin.The Land of Little Rain (1903). Reprinted in Stories from the Country of Lost Borders, edited by Marjorie Pryse. Rutgers: Rutgers University Press, 1985.
This small, personal appreciation of the desert lands east of the Sierra Nevada was Mary Austin's first published book. It brought her international acclaim from writers including Jack London and Joseph Conrad. Austin wrote lyrically about the desert, where "land, not the law, sets limits" and was careful to include detailed accounts of an inhabited landscape. Her book contains chapters on the adaptations of plants, scavengers, miners, Paiutes, and the Basket Maker. Be sure to find one of the many modern editions that include Austin's own preface, in which she explains why she prefers the Indian fashion of naming the land over conventional geographies.
Mary Austin. The Land of Journey's Ending (1924). Reprint, Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1983.
This modern edition contains a thoughtful essay by my colleague Larry Evers on Austin's last great desert book. Evers argues that what The Land of Journey's Ending gains in sophistication, compared to The Land of Little Rain, it loses in authentic experience of arid lands. Austin, who resided in New York City, was dependent for her information on Daniel Trembly MacDougal, director of the Carnegie field lab on Tumamoc Hill in Tucson and dedicated her book to him. Its organizing metaphor is the journey, be it of a river, of Coronado, or of Anglo pioneers. Austin both worshipped the land (she would retire in Santa Fe) and decried its desecration, which gives this book is strong voice and its tension.
Vera Norwood and Janice Monk (eds.). The Desert is No Lady: Southwestern Landscapes in Women's Writing and Art. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.
This anthology contains ten scholarly essays on women as image-makers between 1880 and 1980. Thoughtful introductory and concluding essays by the editors tie together their efforts to explore a variety of artistic expressions by Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo women. The volume explores for arid regions the questions Annette Kolodny (in The Land Before Her) raised about a unique female fantasy of the frontier-as-garden. This book has inspired the BBC to film a documentary in the Southwest about contemporary women and their relationship to the land.
Sandra L. Myres. Ho! for California. San Marino: Huntington Library Press, 1980.
Four extensive diary excerpts by women who traveled the southwestern trail in the nineteenth century are included in this volume. They represent women's observations about the landscape and the flora and fauna of a truly unfamiliar world. Careful reading of the works also enables one to see the differences that age and marital status make in a woman's perceptions of arid lands. Myres' introduction argues with feminist historiography about a unique woman's vision of the frontier, while the diaries seem uncannily alike in the writers' emphases on homes passed en route to California, on homes lost, and on the moveable home of a wagon train.
Ann H. Zwinger. A Desert Country Near the Sea: A Natural History of the Cape Region of Baja California. New York: Harper and Row, 1983. Reprint, Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1987.
Zwinger, winner of a John Burroughs Medal for natural history writing, is the premier woman nature essayist living today. In the tradition of earlier "lady naturalists" and Rachel Carson, Zwinger brings to her work an eye for interdependence between the landscape and humans. This study of Baja California is a loving rebuttal to the observations of a 1752 visitor to the region who called it "a pathless, waterless, thornful rock, sticking up between two oceans." The book contains detailed illustrations, photographs, and extensive documentation. Zwinger's use of the journal format, which includes attention to the people who guide her through their home landscape, effectively combines personal and scholarly voices.

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