Monday, December 5, 2011

Mabel Dodge Luhan and D. H. Lawrence: Writing and the Muse

In a large studio in Paris, hung with paintings by Renoir, Matisse and Picasso, Gertrude Stein is doing with words what Picasso is doing with paint. She is impelling language to induce new states of consciousness, and in doing so language becomes with her a creative art rather than a mirror of history. – Mabel Dodge, Arts and Decoration, March 1913

Out of sheer rage I’ve begun my book on Thomas Hardy. It will be about anything but Thomas Hardy I am afraid—queer stuff—but not bad. – D. H. Lawrence, quoted in Out of Sheer Rage [Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence] by Geoff Dyer

My desire to investigate Mabel's writing career and my participation earlier this year in two Taos-based events, both centered on D. H. Lawrence, inspired this post. On June 11th Katherine Toy Miller spoke on "Spiritual Connections: Georgia O'Keeffe and D. H. Lawrence" as part of  the Taos Public Library summer lecture series, which included a tour of the D. H. Lawrence Ranch.

Lawrence home on the ranch. Photo: Linda Lambert, © 2011

In her talk Kathy addressed the spiritual and personal connections shared by the artist and the writer. Both found inspiration in nature, which drew them to depict the same locations in Taos. For example, when Lawrence first arrived in Taos in 1922 he visited, then wrote about Taos Pueblo; seven years later O'Keeffe depicted the same subject.

Lawrence / O'Keeffe tree. Photo: Linda Lambert, © 2011

One morning, on his second visit to Taos in 1924, Lawrence woke at the ranch (deeded to Frieda by Mabel in exchange for the original autograph manuscript of Sons and Lovers) to see the trunk of a big pine tree that rose up like a guardian spirit. He included the tree in St. Mawr (1925), the novella he wrote during his five-month stay. O'Keeffe later memorialized the same tree on the D. H. Lawrence Ranch with a painting originally titled "Pine Tree with Stars at Brett's in New Mexico" and now known as The Lawrence Tree (1929).

Although Lawrence and O'Keeffe never crossed paths, they had the "Tony" guest house in common. And through Mabel, both were led to or discovered places they portrayed in word and paint.
This fall I had the pleasure of meeting and spending some time with radio producer Steven Rajam and author Geoff Dyer as they prepared for a BBC program on D.H. Lawrence in New Mexico. It was Steven’s first time in northern New Mexico, and over twenty years since Geoff first landed in our region. After Geoff’s first visit to Taos in the mid 1990s—part of his mission to retrace Lawrence’s footsteps by visiting all the places  the author lived and wrote—he penned Out of Sheer Rage [Wrestling with D. H. Lawrence] (1996), a volume Steve Martin called the “funniest book I have ever read.” As Steven Rajam explained to me, Geoff wrote not a book about Lawrence but a book about writing around Lawrence--filled with the kind of procrastination, rationalization and writer’s block that besets most authors.

Bill Haller, Steven and Geoff, Dorothy Brett's cabin*. Photo by Linda Lambert, © 2011

Since then I’ve thought about Lawrence and the writing he did in New Mexico, which Geoff considers his best work. For months I’ve also been pondering Mabel’s writing. In recent research conducted for the profiles I’ve been assigned to write for the Remarkable Women of Taos media campaign, I found a reference to Mabel as a gifted writer. Moved to investigate this part of her life, I delved into various sources and discovered a career for which she has received little recognition. As part of my exploration I also looked at the published and unpublished manuscripts of both authors to see how their work might have connected. My studies revealed a deeper, longer relationship around writing between Lawrence and Mabel than I had imagined. Here’s what I found out.

By 1912, Lawrence's novel The White Peacock (1911) had launched him as a writer. Likewise "Portrait of Mabel Dodge at the Villa Curonia" by Gertrude Stein established Mabel Dodge, who had returned to New York from her villa in Florence, among New York's avant garde. Until her departure for New Mexico in 1917, Mabel wrote for such leading modernist literary and art magazines as The Dial and Alfred Stieglitz's Camera Work, the leftist journal The International, and The Masses. For a brief time Mabel worked as a syndicated columnist for the New York Journal. She doled out advice on topics ranging from making quilts to setting up lending libraries for paintings. Her columns, which also conveyed her understanding of subjects of interest to her like Freudian psychology and the mind cure, appeared on the editorial pages of newspapers with some of the largest circulations in the U. S. Through her writing connections and her evenings surrounded by leading edge movers and shakers at 23 5th Avenue, Mabel became cognizant of D. H. Lawrence's modernist prose and poems, like Sons and Lovers (1912) and Love Poems and Others (1913).

After her move to Taos, Mabel read aother Lawrence work, Sea and Sardinia (1921), where he conveyed "the feel and touch and smell of places so that their reality and their essence are open to one, and one can step right into them."** Further, Lawrence's travel book made her think:

Here is the only one who can really see this Taos country and the Indians, and who can describe it so that it is as much alive between the covers of a book as it is in reality.

Mabel wrote Lawrence after reading Sea and Sardinia. She told him about Taos and the Pueblo Indians, about Tony Lujan and herself, and relayed how much she wanted him "to come and know the country before it became exploited and spoiled." Lawrence responded from Taormina, Sicily on November 5, 1921 saying that he and the q-b [queen bee, Frieda] would like to come to Taos. Mabel hastened to complete Tony's house for the Lawrences, who finally arrived in Taos on September 11, 1922, D. H.'s 37th birthday. A week later in a letter to S. S. Koteliansky, the writer described Mabel as a rich American woman who lent him and Frieda a "new and very charming adobe house which she built for us: because she wants me to write this country up."***

Writing up the country up happened within days of Lawrence's arrival. After attending a 5-day Apache ceremony near Dulce (NM) with Mabel and Tony, he penned "Indians and an Englishman," his first New Mexico essay. The piece disappointed Mabel: he hadn't captured the essence of the Indians the way she wanted him to portray them. So it thrilled her when one evening Lawrence asked her to collaborate on a book.

He said he wanted to write an American novel that would express the life, the spirit, of America, and he wanted to write it around me--my life from the time I left New York to come out to New Mexico. To take my experience, my material, my Taos, and to formulate it all into a magnificent creation.

The next day Lawrence came to Mabel's home to begin their joint venture. This beginning, seemingly full of promise, came with a foreshadowing of what would transpire. Lawrence wasn't sure how Frieda felt about  their collaboration. "She won't let any other women into my books." The next day he informed Mabel: "Frieda thinks we ought to work over in our house." When they arrived there, Frieda "stamped round, sweeping noisily, and singing with a loud defiance." (This incident sparked a life-long rivalry between the two women, but that's another story.)

Although their planned novel never appeared, Lawrence managed to write "The Wilful Woman," a short story about the journey that brought Mabel to Taos. While living in the Tony house, he also wrote several prose pieces and poems. By November, due to Mabel's overbearing ways, the Lawrences sought other quarters. They lived at the abandoned ranch twenty miles north of Taos that they later owned. With interim trips to Mexico and Europe, D. H. and Frieda spent contented months there on their two next visits in 1924 and 1925.
Cover for the May 1924 issue of Laughing Horse

During this time both Lawrence and Mabel had works published nationally in The Dial and locally in the Laughing Horse, a small magazine printed in Taos by Willard "Spud" Johnson. Poet, columnist and publisher, Spud worked for a time as Mabel's secretary and became a close friend of the Lawrences. In May 1924 he  featured Mabel's poem "Ballad of a Bad Girl" in the Laughing Horse. Two lines in the poem describing a "very, very angry man/With blue, blue eyes and a red, red crest" refers to Lawrence. It was written to him as a reconciliatory offering after his return to New Mexico that spring. The only known response to Mabel's overture is Lawrence's illustration that accompanied her poem. I considered this a collaboration of sorts.

Looking at later issues, I found two other Laughing Horse pieces that showed a continuing connection between Mabel and Lawrence. In 1926, after the publication of Lawrence's novel The Plumed Serpent, Spud printed Mabel's article "The Plumed Serpent," which instead of reviewing his new book provided a portrait of him. Spud published the last piece of Lawrence's in Laughing Horse in 1938, eight years after the author's death. It was the first scene from "Altitude," an unfinished play that caricatured "Mabeltown" and American attitudes.

I might have stopped my investigation there, but as I read on in Mabel's book, Lorenzo in Taos, I made a  discovery. Lawrence corresponded with Mabel from the time he returned to Europe in 1925 until shortly before his death in 1930. In parts of his letters, he occasionally made reference to his writing in progress or works he had submitted for publication. What surprised me was that he also commented and offered advice on Mabel's memoirs-in-progress. In 1926 Lawrence wrote that he was returning the "Villa" [Mabel's Villa Curonia period] manuscript which seemed all right--even though "a wee bit absurd, but expressive of the phase you wish to describe." Months later he noticed that Mabel's writing had "gone out of gear" perhaps because she didn't want to "do anymore." Lawrence advised her to "Let it rest, for a while." He also cautioned Mabel: "As for publishing the Memories, I don't think it's wise, while your mother lives." and "Don't write if you're out of mood. Don't force yourself. And wait for grace."

Lawrence recognized how Mabel's autobiographical history corroborated with his own views of life in the United States. He expressed this to her in his letter of April 12, 1926:

I should say it's the most serious "confession" that ever came out of America, and perhaps the most heart-destroying revelation of the American life-process that ever has or will be produced.
The decision to write her memoirs arose from what Freudian psychoanalyst A. A. Brill, who attended Mabel's salons and served as her analyst for 20 years, deemed a Cathartic Method whereby in reliving past experiences by giving voice to them, the painful emotions associated with those experiences would be exorcized. Willing to open old wounds to achieve psychic equilibrium, Mabel issued the first volume of her "Intimate Memories" in 1933, the year of her mother's death.

Three other volumes in the Intimate Memories series followed: European Experiences (1935), Movers and Shakers (1936), and Edge of Taos Desert (1937). She also wrote Taos and Its Artists (1947, a leading overview of the painters and sculptors from the art colony founders through the modernists of the 1940s. Up through the early 1950s Mabel continued to produce the occasional newspaper and magazine article, many dedicated to the history and culture of Taos.

Before any of her autobiographical works went to press, Mabel published Lorenzo in Taos, her memories of  D. H. Lawrence. Following the book's 1932 printing in the United States, the Martin Secker company issued an edition printed in London in 1933. Since then her book and Lawrence's volumes written in and about New Mexico have influenced generations of Lawrence scholars, and attracted writers like Geoff Dyer to the area.

Lorenzo in Taos was Mabel's tribute to Lawrence. He also honored her. In his April 14, 1927 letter to Mabel, Lawrence related receiving and correcting the proofs for Mornings in Mexico, a book of essays that he liked. He added: "I inscribe the book to you...since to you we really owe Taos and all that ensues from Taos."

Adios for now,

* Bill Haller, current president of the Taos-based Friends of D. H. Lawrence.
** Unless otherwise noted, quotes are from Mabel's book Lorenzo in Taos (1932).
*** Quote from D. H. Lawrence and New Mexico, edited by Keith Sagar.

I am indebted to Linda Lambert, author and one of the Friends of D. H. Lawrence for allowing me to use her photos memorializing Steven and Geoff's visit, to Nita Murphy of the Center for Southwest Research, Taos for providing access to the D. H. Lawrence and Laughing Horse materials used in this post, and to Lois Palken Rudnick, Mabel's biographer, whose book Mabel Dodge Luhan: New Woman, New Worlds is my constant companion and reference source--and, as always, to my husband and in-house editor, Skip Miller. Thank you all.

1 comment:

  1. Liz, thank you so much for taking the time to write this piece. I came across it quite by accident, but one of my mottoes is "Serendipity Rules" so that is fitting.

    I had the distinct pleasure of living and working in the Mabel Dodge Luhan house in 1971 while working on Dennis Hopper's film "The Last Movie."

    Your article takes me back to the spirit of Mabel and her home, still resonating with the creativity of the many wonderful folks who have had the great fortune to visit or stay there!

    Rol Murrow