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Auction 12: The Zamorano 80 Collection of Daniel G. Volkmann Jr.

Lots 2, 2A & 2b

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Item 2. Mary Austin’s Land of Little Rain—“Ranks among the all-time great books on California, and an acknowledged classic of the desert” (Edwards).

2. AUSTIN, Mary [Hunter] (1868-1934). The Land of Little Rain. Boston & New York: Houghton, Mifflin, 1903. xi [5] 280 [2] pp., pictorial title page, frontispiece, 3 halftone plates and numerous marginal decorations by E. Boyd Smith, text illustrations. Square 8vo, original gilt-lettered olive green pictorial ribbed cloth, t.e.g. Very slightly shelf-slanted, overall fine and bright. Front pastedown with two bookplates (Edward Robeson Taylor and Edward Dewitt Taylor, noted fine printers of San Francisco; see Hart, Companion to California, p. 440). With pencil notes on lower pastedown by Warren R. Howell of John Howell–Books: “$37.50 HME 1st ed. Very fine copy Zamorano 80.” Consignor code HME indicates that this copy came from the collection of Dr. Herbert M. Evans, bibliophile and discoverer of Vitamin E.
First edition of author’s first book, first printing; distinguishing factors of the first printing include tipped-in publisher’s note about illustrator (rather than integral) and illustrations printed in dark brown ink. Cowan II, p. 24. Dykes, Fifty Great Western Illustrators (Smith) 29. Edwards, Enduring Desert, p. 14. Graff 114. Howell 50, California 273: “The illustrations and marginal decoration by E. Boyd Smith vividly capture the atmosphere of the desert life described in this literary classic.” Howes A400. Huntington Library, Zamorano 80...Exhibition of Famous and Notorious California Classics 2. LC, California Centennial 278. Norris 155. Notable American Women I, pp. 67-69: “Mary Austin determined upon a writing career. While moving with her husband from one parched desert town to another she worked at the craft and made studies of the Indians she encountered. A dozen years of ‘picking and prying’ into the mysteries of the wastelands at last crystallized in fourteen sketches which she wrote at white heat. They were published in 1903 as The Land of Little Rain, her first book, which brought her sudden renown and survives yet as a Western classic.... Mary Austin’s chief accomplishment as an author remains her treatment of the arid regions of the West and their manifold life, including that of the Indian.” Powell, California Classics, pp. 44-52; Land of Fact 1: “The California-Nevada borderlands east of the Sierra Nevada are the setting of these clairvoyant essays, which won the author a place in American literature.... There are many editions of her first book to choose from. The first and a later one, with Ansel Adams photographs, are costly.” Streeter Sale 3029. Walker, A Literary History of Southern California, pp. 189-99, 219-22. Zamorano 80 #2. ($250-500)

2A. AUSTIN, Mary [Hunter]. The Land of Little Rain. Boston & New York, [1903]. x [6] 280 [1] pp., pictorial title page, frontispiece, 3 halftone plates and numerous marginal decorations by E. Boyd Smith, text illustrations. 8vo, original tan pictorial cloth. Fine in very good d.j. (lightly worn, chipped, and darkened).
Later printing. The d.j. blurb includes a comment by H. G. Wells: “Mary Austin will live when many of the portentous reputations of to-day may have served their purpose in the world and become no more than fading names.” ($30-60)

Item 2B. Photograph by Ansel Adams in the 1950 edition of Mary Austin’s The Land of Little Rain.

2B. AUSTIN, Mary [Hunter]. The Land of Little Rain. Boston & Cambridge: Houghton Mifflin and Company & Riverside Press, 1950. xviii [2] 133 [2] pp., 48 photoplates by Ansel Adams, endpaper maps. 4to, original yellow and orange cloth. Very fine in near fine d.j. (light chipping and slightly faded).
First printing of this handsome edition of Austin’s 1903 classic, enhanced by the addition of Ansel Adams’s superb photographs. Introduction by Carl Van Doren. ($100-300)


This paean to the high California desert consists of fourteen sketches based on personal observation following solitary sojourns tramping through desert trails and “the streets of the mountains.” Mary Austin, naturalist, feminist, mystic, and poet, wrote thirty-five books and hundreds of articles during her lifetime, but The Land of Little Rain, her first book, is regarded as her masterpiece. Her nature writings have been compared to those of John Muir (q.v.), John Burroughs, and Henry David Thoreau. Living in the little town of Independence, Inyo County, she, more than anyone, succeeded in conveying the beauty of this simultaneously forbidding yet magnetic landscape with its hardy mixture of plants, animals, and human beings. Lawrence Clark Powell summed up the beauty of her words, writing: “With her feet on earth and her head in the sky, she gave voice in singing prose to the soul of a hitherto unsung land.” Through her carefully crafted essays, she conveyed to her readers the feel of the soil, the inherent beauty of the desert flora, the graceful movements of the rattlesnake, and the pleasant aromas emanating from a Native American cooking bowl. Importantly, Austin painted a word picture of an Owens Valley that would soon be changed forever when a thirsty Los Angeles siphoned off the life-giving water from this “land of little rain.”
Living in the Mojave Desert represented an acquired taste and her sense of place dominates the book. Austin develops wonderful portraits of the people she encountered and befriended, in addition to the landscape and flora. Miners, ranchers, and Native Americans all struggled to scratch out a living. In describing this grudging coexistence, she wrote, “For all the toil the desert takes of a man, it gives compensations, deep breath, deep sleep, and the communion of the stars.” While not claiming to be an authority on the various tribes, she acquired a keen insight and respect for the ways of the first people. They knew how to make peace with the land. Her best essay, “The Basket-Maker,” focused on the heroic life of Seyavi, one of the surviving Paiutes who lost her husband and had to somehow support her baby boy alone in this desert land. Austin strongly identified with her independence, writing “how much more easily one can do without a man than might at first be supposed.” Gaining strength, Seyavi returns to her art of making baskets for both love and money until age takes over, her skills diminish, and she becomes blind, patiently awaiting death. Austin reflected: “Indian women do not often live to great age, though they look incredibly steeped in years. They have the wit to win sustenance from the raw material of life without intervention.”
A number of Austin’s desert sketches were first published in the Atlantic Monthly. Bliss Perry, editor at both the Atlantic Monthly and Houghton Mifflin, was so impressed that he agreed to publish these and others as a book. It was published in October 1903 and succeeded in bringing the author a comfortable income and launched her career as a serious writer. Houghton Mifflin embellished The Land of Little Rain with handsome full-page and marginal line drawings by Elmer Boyd Smith. The publisher proudly noted that “His familiarity with the region and his rare artistic skill have enabled him to give the very atmosphere of the desert.” An otherwise laudatory review of the book by George Hamlin Fitch for the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle (November 1, 1903), unbelievably called Smith’s illustrations “an impertinence” believing that Austin’s powerful verbal pictures were quite enough. Smith’s illustrations, however, added considerably to the overall charm of the book and, with its generous page margins, superbly complement Austin’s prose and make it a classic of book illustration. Apparently Smith pleased the author as he illustrated three more of her books.
The Land of Little Rain was one of several California desert books published in the first decade of the twentieth century, demonstrating that writers of merit were finding this vast barren land an appealing subject. John C. Van Dyke’s The Desert (1901), Ida Strobridge’s In Miner’s Mirage Land (1904), and George Wharton James’s The Wonders of the Colorado Desert (1906) all deserve recognition. James’s elegant two-volume work closely contests The Land of Little Rain for inclusion in this elite listing.

——Gary F. Kurutz

Additional sources consulted: Augusta Fink, I—Mary: A Biography of Mary Austin (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1983); Jacqueline D. Hall, “Mary Hunter Austin,” in A Literary History of the American West (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1987), pp. 359-69; Lawrence Clark Powell, California Classics (Los Angeles: The Ward Ritchie Press, 1971), pp. 44-52.

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