The author visits a beautiful town in New Mexico that drew an endless stream of artists, writers, poets and musicians.
For most lovers of Literature, the word Taos is not likely to ring a bell. Located against the exotic ‘backdrop of the [American] South West scenery, Indian and Hispanic cultures, and expatriate Anglos’, Taos is a quaint little town in the border state of New Mexico, in the United States. To the discerning few who can free themselves from the lure of the metropolis: New York, Boston, Los Angeles or San Francisco, Taos is a literary cultural destination that few in the world can rival. As Frank Waters puts it memorably: “Taos has possessed the curious magic of seeming to be newly discovered by every person drawn into its mountain-ringed valley.”
Waters could not be more right as I discovered to my heart’s content during my two visits to this literary idyll [during1990 and 2005]. The sights and sounds are most overwhelming and truly spectacular. Indeed, beginning from the 1920s of the last century, an endless stream of artists, writers, poets, novelists, and musicians were drawn to Taos, and were transformed by its magic. The travellers read like the ‘who’s who’ of the contemporary culture and the art world: Mary Austin, Willa Cather, D.H. Lawrence, Carl Jung, Aldous Huxley, Witter Bynner, Spud Johnson, Dorothy Brett, Maynard Dixon, Maurice Sterne, Carlos Chavez, Leopold Stokowski, Martha Graham and Georgia O’Keeffe, among others.
What could be the reason for this abiding appeal? Like members of the “lost generation that fled to Europe” after the war, artists and writers flocked to Taos, beckoned by its pristine and idyllic appeal. Leaving behind the decrepit White civilisation, they strove to create “an art and literature of affirmation”. The cultural regionalism they propounded was in sharp contrast to the literary modernism of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Eliot and Pound. It’s a story not widely known.
The foremost of the literary travellers to Taos undoubtedly was Mabel Dodge Luhan, iconic Irish revolutionary and wealthy patroness of art. After a series of revolutionary experiments in Ireland, England, and in the New World, Mabel chose Taos, and a third companion in life, the Native American Antonio (Tony) Luhan, in order to found the Lawrentian dream commune ‘Rananim’, an organic community of likeminded believers. Like her, others saw in Taos the regeneration of their personal selves as well as that of the dying American culture with its ‘commercialism, Mammon worship and mechanical contrivances.’ For a cultural historian of the American South West, nothing is more mindboggling than to witness the cavalcade of writers and artists who shared the hope of Mabel. The local culture they discovered was part of a larger cosmos.
The progenitor of the whole movement was perhaps the celebrity artist Maurice Sterne, the former husband of Mabel. Sterne was drawn to Cezanne in contrast to Picasso and Matisse; he carried out experiments in living in Greece, Russia, Germany, Bali and New York attempting ‘the garden of Eden’. Once at Taos, Sterne wrote to his wife:
‘Dearest girl — do you want an object in life? Save the Indians, their art-culture —
Reveal it to the world.’
The euphoria was short lived, however. Angered by the increasing proximity between Tony Luhan and his wife, Sterne parted company with Mabel, never to return to Taos. But he left behind a lasting legacy.
Like Maurice Sterne, the novelist Mary Austin’s tryst with Taos turned out to be equally noteworthy. With her adolescence in the company of Paiute Indians in the semi arid desert of South Western California, she produced Land of the Little Rain (1903) and Land of the Lost Borders (1909). She arrived at Taos in the midst of a nervous collapse due to lack of finances and companionship and was quickly assured by Mabel that the crisis was only a ‘prelude to the joy of full realisation’. Austin made both Taos and Santa Fe her home, campaigned for the Indians’ rights in the American Congress and elsewhere, and wrote a body of significant work like Earth Horizon, an autobiography, Land of Journey’s Ending (1924), Taos Pueblo (1930) and a novel Starry Adventure (1931) — all of which underlined her belief that New Mexico could crucially revitalise the American eco-world.
Like Mary Austin, the legendary psychoanalytical thinker Carl Jung came to Taos in 1925, Antonio Mirabel and Jaime de Angulo playing a major role in his visit. Angulo himself was a maverick-Bohemian writer best known for his book: Indian Tales that was published much later thanks to Allen Ginsberg of the Beats generation. Jung was deeply impressed by the life of the Pueblo Indians and admired the secrecy with which they treated their sacraments. His Taos impressions are seen in the later work Man and His Symbols as well in his essay ‘The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man’. Jung saw the Native Americans and the African Americans as the White Americans’ ‘shadow selves’, a position close to that of D.H. Lawrence’s.
Mabel invited D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda in 1921 to see ‘the dawn of the world’ and to serve ‘as a midwife to the birth of her millennial vision’. Lawrence’s idea of the ‘Great Mother’ was close to Jung’s student Erich Neumann’s concept of the ‘Magna Mater’. The former urged the Americans to ‘take up the life where the Red Indians, the Aztec, the Maya and Inca left it off’. His New Mexico experience can be seen in works like St. Mawr, The Plumed Serpent, The Woman Who Rode Away, None of That, Altitude, the fragment of a play, and his many New Mexico poems. He wrote aptly: ‘New Mexico was the greatest experience that came from the outside world. It changed me forever.’
Inspired by the belief that the New Mexico landscape would enhance the restorative value of poetry, Berkeley academic-poet Witter Bynner moved from California to New Mexico in 1924 at the invitation of Alice Corbin Henderson. Bynner became a supporter of the Indian cause, wrote poems like ‘New Mexican Portrait of Mabel Sterne’ and the play ‘Cake’ based on Mabel’s ‘feminine wiles’. His one-time student and later companion, Willard (Spud) Johnson moved to Taos with him. Spud, a gadfly, set up a printing press and a journal called The Laughing Horse that featured the local artists as well as the more established international ones.
Willa Cather is the other notable writer who made Taos her temporary home. She came there for the first time in 1912. A second trip to Taos in 1925 proved to be more fruitful from the literary point of view. Her 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, in all likelihood, was influenced by her Taos experience.
Painters were not left behind. Although many came, mention may be made here of at least two. Dorothy Brett came with Lawrence and Frieda in 1924. Brett lived here until her passing in 1977. She became an influential member of the Taos Arts Colony. Her paintings used a fluid style and elongated rhythmic bodies. ‘She laid claim to the landscape as a domain for her female imagination’.
Georgia O’Keeffe was Mabel’s guest in 1929. O’Keeffe’s New Mexican art is seen as ‘life –regenerative’. Her portraits show an art ‘that is embedded in natural form and a mysticism that respects the power of polymorphous sexuality’.
The visits continued up to the 1970s. In the Hippy generation, the filmmaker Dennis Hopper came to the town almost by accident while making the film ‘Easy Rider’. He spent two memorable weeks and vowed to come back.
Today, as I discovered, the literary Taos jostles for space amidst the growing crowd of Texaco gas station, Starbuck Coffee, and the K. Marts. But high up in the Sangre de Christo Mountains, there is the memorial to Lawrence with his emblem of the Phoenix. The Estate of Mabel Dodge Luhan still beckons the old faithful, just as the Gallery of Georgia O’Keeffe continues to sport her luminous art.
In the above article, the name of Georgia O’Keeffe was misspelt. The error is regretted.