Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Biography and Memoir


Katherine Culkin

Committee Members

Sarah Covington

Subject Categories

American Literature | Literature in English, North America | Nonfiction | Other Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | United States History | Women's History


Mary Austin, California, Biography, Memoir, Home, Nature


From childhood, Mary Hunter Austin resisted the social conformity expected of a young girl in 1850’s Carlinville, Illinois. Instead, causing her mother to “shed tears of vexation,” she was outspoken, opinionated, and read the “wrong” books, which, according to her mother, “was what made you queer so that people didn’t like you.” Young Mary had a rich inner life and was drawn in a spiritual, mystical way to the minutiae of the natural world. Also, she questioned the strict social structure that caused her mother to be outcast as a widow, while, at the same time, young women were beginning to organize for temperance and then the vote. These seeds of her young life took root when Mary traveled with her mother and younger brother in 1888 to homestead in California’s Central Valley. Here, the cramped and lonely domesticity of Midwestern life gave way to vast open spaces of the western desert where geographical, social, and gender rules were less fixed, and Mary could fulfill her lifelong wish to “write books you could walk around in.”

Mary Hunter Austin’s story is a story interwoven with the roots of my own family tree. Though not related, both of my great-grandmothers heeded the same call to travel west, and both made their homes in the harsh, arid, and complicated landscape of California’s Central Valley and eastern Sierra Nevada. These regions that Austin calls “The Country of Lost Borders” are home to me, and Austin’s story is a strand of the same braid that tells my own. My thesis weaves these strands together in places, and it demonstrates that Austin’s search for belonging through Central California and the southeastern Sierras was essential to her personal and artistic growth and provided the backdrop against which she developed themes that pervaded her writing: freedom from societal roles, self-sufficiency, mysticism, environmental activism, racial and gender equality, and spirituality rooted in nature.

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