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Spring/Summer 1994, Volume 11.2

Essay

 

Ann Ronald

Idah Meacham Strobridge: The Second Mary Austin?


Ann Ronald (Ph.D., Northwestern University) is Dean of Arts & Science and Professor of English at the University of Nevada—Reno. She is the author of The New West of Edward Abbey (University of New Mexico Press, 1982) and Words for the Wild (Sierra Club Books, 1987). She is currently working on a book entitled Nevada Landscapes.

 

"What Mary Austin has done for the California desert, in 'The Land of Little Rain,' Mrs. Strobridge has done for the desert lands of Nevada," wrote a Los Angeles Record reviewer at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Dial, in Chicago, was even more enthusiastic about Idah Meacham Strobridge's comparative talents. "A study of the American desert that has quite as much atmosphere as Mrs. Austin's 'Land of Little Rain,' and that even seems to get closer to the strange heart of the matter," reported the Dial's book editor.

Idah Meacham Strobridge? Closer to the strange heart of the desert than Mary Austin? Who was this Mrs. Strobridge whose prose, so enthusiastically read by her contemporaries, has been all but forgotten by later generations? What did she write? And was she really as accomplished as her reviewers insisted? "There is no author today," said someone at the old Kansas City Post, "who can write of the great stretch of cacti-studded, dull sand as Mrs. Strobridge" (Trilogy endpapers).

She was born in California in 1855, then moved with her family to Nevada a few years later. She grew up in Humboldt County, on a homestead located where the old Lassen-Applegate cutoff leaves the Overland Trail. She was well-educated, graduating from Mills College in 1883, and could have made a life for herself in the city, but chose instead to return to rural Nevada the following year. She married and gave birth to three boys. The first son died the day after he was born, then her husband and other two sons died from pneumonia during the harsh winter of 1888-89.

Such tragedy, however, did not seem to dim Idah Strobridge's enthusiasm for an intellectual life in the desert. Not only did she continue ranching in semi-isolated northern Nevada but she taught herself the art of bookbinding, an activity that led to several medals in later years. Charles Fletcher Lummis, one-time city editor of the Los Angeles Times, early recognized her worth: "though this sagebrush artisan has been studying out this exigent trade by herself, off there in the wilderness, her work is emphatically worth while. A commercial-bound book looks cheap beside her staunch and honest and tasteful bindings; and when I have a book that merits to endure longer than the commercial binds can make it, off it goes to Humboldt, and never in vain" (Trilogy Intro. 9).

At the same time, Strobridge began to pursue another artistic interest. She began to write. She already had published a few pieces when she finally sold the family property in Nevada and, in 1901, moved permanently to southern California. There she and her bookbindery ingratiated themselves into a circle of other writers that included Mary Austin, Eugene Manlove Rhodes and Maynard Dixon, and there she began to print her own creative efforts along with the work of others.

In just five years, her Artemesia Bindery published three books by Idah Meacham Strobridge—In Miners'Mirage-Land [1904], The Loom of the Desert [19071, and The Land of Purple Shadows [19091. While she regularly told friends that she was working on more tales and sketches, she never actually put together any more collections after that. But she remained active in California literary circles until her death in 1932, even though most of her energies were devoted to genealogical research rather than creative writing.

The University of Nevada Press recently reprinted Strobridge's three books in a single volume, Sagebrush Trilogy, with introductory materials by Richard A. Dwyer and Richard E. Lingenfelter. A perusal of her Sagebrush Trilogy accomplishments invites this comparison with Mary Austin, for not only were the two members of the same group of friends but the two published somewhat similar books about the high desert east of the Sierras at about the same time. Since their contemporary reviewers were quick to point out their similarities and differences, it should be interesting for the modern reader to look more closely at the so-called second Mary Austin (even though no present-day critic would put the two writers in the same category).

Strobridge, in fact, had few literary pretensions. She saw herself more as a wordsmith and described her verbal sketches as very like what "the painter brings back to his studio after his working-vacation is over. Mere suggestions and rough outlines are they-the first impressions of what he saw." In her Foreword to The Land of Purple Shadows she went on to explain, "Not for the galleries did he make them, nor for the critics, nor for the careless. But the portfolio is opened to those who will understand." So, too, her word portraits brushstroke the outlines of character, plot, and scene, leaving the reader to fill in the flesh and blood details of conflict and color.

Although most of her pieces can be categorized as rough hewn, they do vary in design. Some are nonfiction, reportorial glances at the high desert landscape, painterly rather than scientific, preliminary sketches rather than drawings in depth. Others are half-told tales, stories that introduce slightly developed characters and set them in motion only to stop them. Each such anecdotal episode seems more like a short sequence of still frames from a movie, with no beginning and no compelling end.

One memorable interlude from The Loom of the Desert can serve as typical of Strobridge's craft. In less than ten pages Martha Scott marries young, lives a life that "has become but a gray reflection of its never ending sameness," precipitously runs off to Hawaii for a year of romance (we are told she is "radiant with happiness"), then returns to "the old groove again" and "moves in the same apathetic way as before the stirring events of her life." But the sketchiness of Martha Scott's actions is not particularly offensive to the reader. The author tells us enough. She writes, for example, that Martha Scott's "limited intelligence only allowed her to perceive the dreariness of her own poor life, and when her longings touched no responsive chord in the man whom she had married, she deliberately took one year of her existence and hung its walls with all the gorgeous tapestries and rich paintings that could be wrought by the witchery of those magic days in the Pacific" (Loom 21). Such an overview allows us to add our own details. We do not need the facts of her flight and her return because the author trusts us to properly embellish the tale.

While this technique may not be particularly fashionable in the nineteen-nineties, it was well-received by readers at the turn of the century. "The author has the power of drawing a character in a few strong strokes," wrote F. Marion Gallagher in the Overland Monthly, "and she has the real dramatic quality that is so rare in the ordinary short story." Her men and women invite the imagination to fill in all the missing details. As Elia W. Peattie of the Chicago Tribune so clearly understood, "There is material for a dozen novels in these pages."

It is easy to believe that Strobridge intended her tales to be read by easterners, that she, like Mary Halleck Foote, meant to depict a landscape seen by few who had actually set foot in the American West. After all, many of her reviewers lived east of the Rockies, and most of her romances echo popular formulas of the times. However the dedication of her third book, The Land of Purple Shadows, belies that assumption. It opens with the following words: "To YOU Who were born in the West—who live in the West-who love the West." So Idah Meacham Strobridge wanted to speak to the very reader who felt a personal affinity with her world.

Her descriptive passages, for example, seem designed for those who already know the landscape, who can 'fill in the blanks' appropriately. "The mountains alter their outlines so rapidly that the eye can scarce note all their changes," she generalized in Miner's Mirage-Land,

They change from great heights to a low chain of hills; and leap back again, to shoot in spires innumerable into the violet sky, or drop into a long, flat table-land with overhanging top… Then they disappear, and island pinnacles lift themselves from the mass of changing panorama, and the slender shafts reach far into the sky. Then-even as you are watching—one by one they dissolve, and the mountains have resumed their wonted shapes. (Mirage, 4)

Mary Austin looks at mountains somewhat differently. For one thing, she sees God there. For another, she sees a sublimnity freshly wrought, a scene drawn boldly for the reader, a landscape portrayed with active voice and with neither trite phrase nor common word. A paragraph from The Land of Little Rain clearly differs from one in Mirage-Land.

The shape of a new mountain is roughly pyramidal, running out into long shark-finned ridges that interfere and merge into other thunder-splintered sierras. You get the saw-tooth effect from a distance, but the near-by granite bulk glitters with the terrible keen polish of old glacial ages. I say terrible; so it seems. When those glossy domes swim into the alpenglow, wet after rain, you conceive how long and imperturbable are the purposes of God. (Austin 116)

Strobridge's shapes are spires, flat table-land, pinnacles, shafts; Austin's are pyramidal, shark-finned, saw-tooth, bulk. Strobridge's verbs alter, change, disappear; Austin's run, merge, glitter, swim. Strobridge writes that "island pinnacles lift themselves from the mass of changing panorama;" Austin supposes that "the near-by granite bulk glitters with the terrible keen polish of old glacial ages." The difference is one of imaginative perception, of originality, of showing the reader a scene through eyes unencumbered by the expectations of tradition. Strobridge's readers see a hint of mountains on a printed page; Austin's see poetic recreation.

All of their readers, however, see an American West described with intimacy and with affection. With special fondness, both Strobridge and Austin looked sympathetically at the Indians who had been displaced from their lands and at the prospectors who roamed the remaining open spaces. These men and women emerge in Strobridge's writing as Old George, or Old Squaw, or Blue-Eyed Chief, or Little Savage. Or else they become types rather than individuals, exemplifying a species rather than a person. In any case, Strobridge tends to generalize about their lives, and makes them carry messages on their backs.

The Old George vignette relates a conversation between a well-dressed pair who, while waiting for a train, naively speculate about the life of a nearby Indian beggar. Next we are given an outline of the true story of Old George. Again Strobridge lets us fill in the fictional embellishments left out of the paragraphs, but then she tells us what conclusion we should reach. "It is a little story, but quite true," she explains. "It might very easily have been made a White man's story; but it isn't, it is only the true story of a Paiute."

George is an Indian; but one in a whole tribe—each having his own story. And the tribe is but one of the race. And the race—

Are we not brothers?

For, the world over, under white skin or skin of bronze-brown, the human heart throb's the same; for we are brothers—ay! brothers all. (Loom, 106)

Mary Austin concluded her portrait of an aging Indian with a message, too, but hers is at once more subtle and more profound than Strobridge's. "So in her blanket Seyavi, sometime basket maker, sits by the unlit hearths of her tribe and digests her life, nourishing her spirit against the time of the spirit's need, for she knows in fact quite as much of these matters as you who have a larger hope, though she has none but the certainty that having borne herself courageously to this end she will not be reborn a coyote" (Austin, 111). Austin's so-called message contains extended imagery ("the unlit hearths of her tribe"), metaphor ("digests her life, nourishing her spirit"), irony ("you who have a larger hope"), and even humor ("she will not be reborn a coyote"). Strobridge's does not, even though it is safe to say that Strobridge felt just as strongly about the comparative strengths of Indians and whites, just as deeply about their comparative fates.

If we turn to their prospectors, miners, and pocket hunters, however, we find Strobridge's depictions much closer to Austin's. Both writers well understood the peculiar character of those who search endlessly and both were well able to picture such souls. Strobridge introduces us to old man Berry—"gaunt, you would have called him; and you would have noticed at once how bowed he was. But not as other old men on whom age has rested a heavy hand. It was the head, not the back, that was bowed—as though he had walked long years, and far, with his eyes upon the ground" (Mirage, 28). Austin's pocket hunter is just as individualized in his own way, "a small, bowed man, with a face and manner and speech of no character at all, as if he had that faculty of small hunted things of taking on the protective color of his surroundings" (Austin, 43).

A visual quirk or two brings these characters alive, sets them into motion on the printed page. And, indeed, Strobridge's vignettes of mining exploration tend to be more vibrant, more knowledgeable (after all, Strobridge grew up among such wandering men), and even more amusing than Austin's. Yet Strobridge cannot resist typing a caption under herbrushstrokes,

And I wonder if he who follows the bell-wether is any wiser than that one who trails after the story of a will-o'-wisp mine that leads him across Desert valleys and rough mountain ridges where there is never a sign of gold? Which is the fool; and which is the wise man? And who has the right to judge? (Mirage, 53)

 while Austin rests content with a punctuation mark. Her "Pocket Hunter" closes with one of her most famous lines—"No man can be stronger than his destiny" (Austin, 52)—and says no more.

Perhaps that is a fitting epithet for Idah Meacham Strobridge. Despite the accolades of her reviewers, she never was stronger than a destiny that placed her in Mary Austin's literary circle but not necessarily in that more famous writer's intellectual company. When a discerning reader now looks at essays by the two, that reader will find many similarities in point of view, in subject matter, and even in technique. It is safe to say, however, that the discerning reader will also find a dirth of ironic tension, an emptiness of philosophic inquiry, and a lack of intellectual discipline in Strobridge's work. She wrote for Sunset Magazine; Mary Austin did not.

Yet it may be unfair to wholly discredit Strobridge's achievements, especially if we allow her a starring role as "First Woman of Nevada Letters" (Amaral 5). After all, not many men or women who grew up in the silver state in the years before the turn of the century became writers. Even fewer could boast of the kind of attention Strobridge received. "The author knows what she is writing about," applauded Bailey Millard in the San Francisco Examiner, "and that in this day of cheap literary superficiality is something so rare, and rich, and strange, that one is bound to feel a keen sense of elation and keen appreciation as one turns the pages… Ifanyone … has more clearly laid bare the secrets of the desert, I do not know of it." So let's be fair to Idah Meacham Strobridge, and let's look at her prose apart from Mary Austin's.

Strobridge was at her best when she immersed herself in desert landscape, especially desert landscape that boasted a history. Thinking about the great pioneer migration west, she was able to conceive and articulate changes. "Cities have sprung up out of the once silent plains, and a hundred thousand homes of the living now line the great pathway which was marked out by the skeletons of the dead. Half a century ago it was the land of the dried-up alkali lakes; of the far-reaching sage; of the biting, white dust; of the ever-beckoning mirage" (Mirage 121). Thinking about families like her own, she was able to explain a place that speaks most clearly through its silence and most deeply through its "utter desolation." The answer brings the readerback to Strobridge's reliance on a verbal brushstroke that requires the imagination to fill in the visual detail. "The sun rises each morning upon a scene which never alters, except when a change is wrought by the mirage in its illusive, elusive mystery" (Mirage 12). Her prospectors wear colors from the same palette.

Into the gray Desert (a land of gray sage, and gray sand; of lizards, and little horned-toads that are gray; a land where the coyote drifts by you, like a fragment from gray fog-banks blown by the wind), half a century ago, they came—the prospectors—seeking silver or gold. And some yet seek, in places where there is none. Some are following the mirage still. (Mirage 13-14)

So a reader who is willing to follow Strobridge's own mirages—willing to let shapes materialize slowly, willing to paint in the spaces between the lines, and willing to ignore the fortuitous moralizing—can take pleasure in her words. For her words are like prospectors themselves: "Up and down the creek bed they move so noiselessly, working with pick and pan, that one can very easily fancy them but gray ghosts haunting the quiet canons, even as the shadowy wraiths of the dead years linger about the unroofed walls and weed-grown trails" (Purple, 27).

Idah Meacham Strobridge is no second Mary Austin, it is true. But she is the first lady of letters in the vastness of Nevada's desert, the first lady of letters to love that isolation, the first lady of letters to communicate that love. "Idah Meacham Strobridge has given to the world one of the best and most characteristic collections of Western desert sketches ever written," said a Pasadena News reviewer at the turn of the century. "She has shown us the great gray desert in an entirely new phase, a phase that attracts us and lures us on, enticed by the very magnetism of her sympathy and understanding."

 

WORKS CITED

Anthony Amaral. "Idah Meacham Strobridge: First Woman of Nevada Letters," Nevada Historical Society Quarterly 9 (Fall 1967): 5-12.

Mary Austin. The Land of Little Rain. 1903. Rpt. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1974.

Idah Meacham Strobridge. Sagebrush Trilogy. IdahMeacham StrobridgcandHer Works. Intro. by Richard A Dwyer and Richard E. Lingenfelter. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1990. (Sagebrush Trilogy reprints all three of Strobridge's published works—In Miners' Mirage-Land, The Loom of the Desert, and The Land of Purple Shadows. "The Second Mary Austin?," rather than referring only to Sagebrush Trilogy in the text above, more appropriately indicates the three titles separately, as Mirage, Loom, and Purple. All of the reviews have been taken from excerpts printed at the back of Sagebrush Trilogy, excerpts which originally were taken from the endpapers of Strobridge's three books.)

 
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