A Woman of Genius

By Mary Hunter Austin, 1912
A Woman of Genius

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Excerpt

CHAPTER I

It is strange that I can never think of writing any account of my life without thinking of Pauline Mills and wondering what she will say of it. Pauline is rather given to reading the autobiographies of distinguished people—unless she has left off since I disappointed her—and finding in them new persuasions of the fundamental lightness of her scheme of things. I recall very well, how, when I was having the bad time of my life there in Chicago, she would abound in consoling instances from one then appearing in the monthly magazines; skidding over the obvious derivation of the biographist's son from the Lord Knows Who, except that it wasn't from the man to whom she was legally married, to fix on the foolish detail of the child's tempers and woolly lambs as the advertisement of that true womanliness which Pauline loves to pluck from every feminine bush.

There was also a great deal in that story about a certain other celebrity, for her relations to whom the writer was blackballed in a club of which I afterward became a member, and I think it was the things Pauline said about one of the rewards of genius being the privilege of association with such transcendent personalities on a footing which permitted one to call them by their first names in one's reminiscences, that gave me the notion of writing this book. It has struck me as humorous to a degree, that, in this sort of writing, the really important things are usually left out.

I thought then of writing the life of an accomplished woman, not so much of the accomplishment as of the woman; and I have never been able to make a start at it without thinking of Pauline Mills and that curious social warp which obligates us most to impeach the validity of a woman's opinion at the points where it is most supported by experience. From the earliest I have been rendered highly suspicious of the social estimate of women, by the general social conspiracy against her telling the truth about herself. But, in fact, I do not think Mrs. Mills will read my book. Henry will read it first at his office and tell her that he'd rather she shouldn't, for Henry has been so successfully Paulined that it is quite sufficient for any statement of life to lie outside his wife's accepted bias, to stamp it with insidious impropriety. There is at times something almost heroic in the resolution with which women like Pauline Mills defend themselves from whatever might shift the centres of their complacency.

But even without Pauline, it interests me greatly to undertake this book, of which I have said in the title as much as a phrase may of the scope of the undertaking, for if I know anything of genius it is wholly extraneous, derived, impersonal, flowing through and by. I cannot tell you what it is, but I hope to show you a little of how I was seized of it, shaped; what resistances opposed to it; what surrenders. I mean to put as plainly as possible how I felt it fumbling at my earlier life like the sea at the foot of a tidal wall, and by what rifts in the structure of living, its inundation rose upon me; by what practices and passions I was enlarged to it, and by what well meaning of my friends I was cramped and hardened. But of its ultimate operation once it had worked up through my stiff clay, of triumphs, profits, all the intricacies of technique, gossip of rehearsals, you shall hear next to nothing. This is the story of the struggle between a Genius for Tragic Acting and the daughter of a County Clerk, with the social ideal of Taylorville, Ohianna, for the villain. It is a drama in which none of the characters played the parts they were cast for, and invariably spoke from the wrong cues, which nevertheless proceeded to a successful dénouement. But if you are looking for anything ordinarily called plot, you will be disappointed. Plot is distinctly the province of fiction, though I've a notion there is a sort of order in my story, if one could look at it from the vantage of the gods, but I have never rightly made it out. What I mean to go about is the exploitation of the personal phases of genius, of which when it refers to myself you must not understand me to speak as of a peculiar merit, like the faculty for presiding at a woman's club or baking sixteen pies of a morning, which distinguished one Taylorvillian from another; rather as a seizure, a possession which overtook me unaware, like one of those insidious Oriental disorders which you may never die of, but can never be cured. You shall hear how I did successfully stave it off in my youth for the sake of a Working Taylor and Men's Outfitter, and was nearly intimidated out of it by the wife of a Chicago attorney who had something to do with stocks; how I was often very tired of it, and many times, especially in the earlier periods when I was trying to effect a compromise between it and the afore-mentioned Taylorvillian predilections, I should have been happiest to have been quit of it altogether.