Reclaiming the indigenous: D.H. Lawrence, Mabel Dodge Luhan and the New World

Print edition : August 13, 2021

In September 1922, D.H. Lawrence accepted an invitation from Mabel Dodge Luhan to stay in Taos, New Mexico, a stint which ultimately led to his fashioning a new literary canon for American literature. Photo: By special arrangement

Mabel Dodge Luhan (1879-1962), arts patron and D.H. Lawrence’s New World heroine. Photo: By special arrangement

The Mabel Dodge Luhan house in Taos, New Mexico. A file photograph. Photo: AP Photo/Beth J. Harpaz

The British-born novelist D.H. Lawrence, along with the arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan, spearheaded a major movement in counterculture in New Mexico in the 1920s, the central tenet of which focussed on the lifeworld of the Native Americans.

"I think New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I have ever had. It certainly changed me forever. Curious as it may sound, it was New Mexico that liberated me from the present era of civilisation… the moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend.”1

D.H. Lawrence

In the Fall of 19902, I drove through New Mexico’s snow-clad Sangre de Cristo mountains—past arid rose-coloured deserts and mesas, punctuated by patches of cacti, sagebrush, greasewood and conifers—to the land of the Rio Grande, home to Spanish, Anglo and Pueblo Indians. It left lasting memories. At the approach to Taos, the cheeky signboard proclaimed its historical credentials: “D.H. Lawrence may have slept here!”

I renewed the journey from Albuquerque to Taos via Santa Fe during the summer of 20053. The literary Taos now shared space with bustling Texaco gas stations, Starbucks Coffee and Kmarts. Much had changed, and yet much remained the same. The pathways, meandering past the mud-coloured adobe houses, art galleries and the La Fonda Hotel, carried a smarter look. Newer batches of backpacking tourists in colourful costumes flocked to the quaint town and beyond to the Taos Pueblo. “Taos village,” Lawrence once wrote memorably, “is a Mexican sort of plaza—piazza with trees and shops and horses tied up.” Times have changed, and yet it was striking to see how the remote heartland of the United States’ Southwest continues to be home to writers and lovers of art, from coast to coast, for more than a century.

Artists’ communes

Nothing prepares a visitor from the outside world for the stunning spectacles of New Mexico4. Mabel Dodge Luhan5, the Irish-born revolutionary and Lawrence’s New World heroine, attempted to create in the artists’ communes at Taos the American counterculture of the 1920s. Writers, artists and conservationists of all hues, many of whom acquired legendary status in later years, came in the course of time to promote the cause of the Native Americans. They included Aldous and Maria Huxley, W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender, Tennessee Williams, Leonard Bernstein, Richard Aldington, Dorothy Brett, Kenneth Burke, John Middleton Murry, Diana Trilling, Carl Jung, Frieda and D.H. Lawrence, Witter Bynner, Spud Johnson, Maynard Dixon, Maurice Sterne, Carlos Chavez, Leopold Stokowski, Martha Graham and Georgia O’Keeffe, among others.

While credit is generally given to Mabel Dodge Luhan for starting this movement, it perhaps owes its genesis to Maurice Sterne, her former husband and celebrity artist. Sterne was drawn to the French artist Paul Cezanne. He carried out experiments in living in Greece, Russia, Germany, Bali and New York, attempting “the garden of Eden”. Arriving 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 experiment with paradise was short-lived, however. Distraught by his wife’s relationship with the Native American Tony Luhan, Sterne left Taos, never to return, but he left behind a legacy through Mabel.

Lawrence wrote evocatively about “the spirit of place”. One remembers the places he visited—France, Italy, Sardinia, Sicily, Ceylon, Sydney, Tahiti, California, New York. All these have been etched by him in memorable terms, and Taos was no exception.

Following in his footsteps, I savoured the sights and sounds of the place and picked up rare books, memorabilia and artefacts from the local Moby Dickens Bookshop and the Harwood Foundation of the University of New Mexico. The volumes, some of which are first editions, are precious items on my shelf; they have shaped much of my thinking offered here. Among them are works by writers/critics close to Lawrence’s time: William York Tindall’s early biography, D.H. Lawrence and Susan His Cow (New York: Columbia University Press, 1939); Richard Aldington’s D.H. Lawrence: Portrait of a Genius But... (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1950); and A Poet and Two Painters: A Memoir of D.H. Lawrence by the Danish artist Knud Merrild (New York: Viking Press, 1939). These early editions illuminate our understanding of Lawrence in the Southwest and offer us valuable background details.6

In this essay, I argue that Lawrence was central to the making of the American counterculture in New Mexico during the 1920s. He attempted to fashion a New World by constructing a new literary canon and sensibility for American literature. This he did by upholding the notion of what he called the “symbolic meaning”, a category that has attracted wide critical attention despite its subjectivity. He linked this canon to his myth of the Old World and Native American traditions. Finally, he carried out his mission through an impressive body of New Mexico writings, comprising prose, journalism, poetry, fiction, letters, diary notes and travel narratives, including Mornings in Mexico. While Lawrence’s canon and myth-making may be questioned, he nevertheless created an alternative world view, a counterculture that affirmed the lifeworld of the Native American.

There are other dramatic personae who play an important role in Lawrence’s life in the New World: Frieda Lawrence, Mabel Dodge Luhan and Dorothy Brett. All three gifted women were bound by a complex web of relationship during and after Lawrence’s life. Lawrence died on March 2, 1930, Frieda on August 11, 1956, Mabel on August 13, 1962, and Dorothy on August 27, 1977.

Life in a small commune, isolated from human habitation, breeds fear, anger, envy and intrigues. The Taos commune, despite the longings for utopia, was no different.

Return of the indigenous

A “counterculture”, according to the dictionary definition, “is a culture whose values and norms of behaviour differ substantially from those of mainstream society, sometimes diametrically opposed to mainstream cultural mores. ...When oppositional forces reach critical mass, countercultures can trigger dramatic cultural changes.”7 American counterculture—once a favourite of an earlier era of the hippie generation and later relegated, owing to the vagaries of history, to the archival and ethnographic past—may enjoy a new birth in changing circumstances in the U.S. today.

Thanks to recent developments in the U.S. such as “Black Lives Matter” and the centenary of the “Tulsa Race Massacre” of 1921, as well as the angst over the loss of missing children in neighbouring Canada’s First Nation, there has been renewed and welcome attention paid to notions of American identity, its “manifest destiny”, and belief in “American exceptionalism”, both in conceptual and existential terms. These are notions that were critiqued by the proponents of American counterculture in the 1920s in the Southwest.8

Less known, it was a movement that sought a rejuvenation of U.S. society by the recognition of the indigenous “other”. Indeed, revisiting the counterculture of the Southwest during the last century may well carry lessons for the U.S. and the world today for a progressive social order based on the true recognition of diversity.

Despite a considerable body of critical works and the celebrated biographer Harry T. Moore’s casual dismissal that “Taos was a mistake”, Lawrence’s visit to the New World marked a crucial watershed in his writing career. The visit, however, was preceded by a set of essays he wrote that came to be known as Studies in Classic American Literature.9

‘Studies in Classic American Literature’

On January 9, 1917, Lawrence wrote to his agent J.B. Pinker: “I want to go to New York and write a set of essays on American literature, and perhaps lecture. It is no use my sitting cooped up here any longer. ...I have got in my head a set of essays, or lectures on classic American literature. But I can’t write for America here in England. I must transfer myself.”10

While the story of Lawrence’s visit to Taos is an important account by itself, and worth narrating, it must be noted that it is primarily Studies in Classic American Literature that helped Lawrence to create an alternative world view affirming the life values of Native Americans. The text has received serious critical attention in journals such as D.H. Lawrence Review, The American Quarterly and volumes such as Theories of American Literature11, The Frontier Experience12 and The Unusable Past13. Lawrence’s originality, it may be argued, lay in the fact that he was one of the first to “take such authors as Edgar Allan Poe and James Fenimore Cooper seriously, to treat their work as literature, to confirm Americans in their supposition that the fiction of Melville, Hawthorne, Poe and Cooper really had something to say about a unique American national character.” (Emphasis mine.)

In his foreword to Studies in Classic American Literature14, Lawrence asks: “Where is this new bird called the true American?” T.S. Eliot15 had asked a similar question in his 1953 address entitled “American Literature and the American Language” delivered at Washington University, St Louis, Missouri, on June 9, 1953. The American critic Russell Reising posed an identical question in 1986: “What makes American literature distinctly American?”, “What is the American tradition?” and finally “What is the best American Literature?” (Emphasis added.)

The centrality of Studies has been confirmed by several leading U.S. critics such as Leslie Fiedler16, Richard Slotkin, Frederick C. Crews, David Cavitch, Richard Chase and Richard Poirer. Armin Arnold’s volume The Symbolic Meaning: The Uncollected Versions of Studies in Classic American Literature17 offers a valuable perspective comprising the many versions of the text. In his foreword, Harry T. Moore suggests: “These earlier versions of Studies in Classic American Literature are important contributions to studies of Lawrence himself.”18

Although the notion of the “uniqueness” of American literature has been challenged in recent years as “essentialist”, the concept of “national literature” continues to circulate in the vocabulary and discourse at the popular level. Lawrence’s belief that the American literary idiom has an affinity for “subterfuge” and that the best of the authors in Classic American Literature gravitate towards “blood consciousness” in contrast to what he termed as “cerebral consciousness” (briefly, a life of instinct/ vitality and sexuality rather than the life of the mind) would be questioned as subjective and may not find easy acceptance. It would be regarded more as idiosyncratic than as a cultural determinant, universally acceptable.

Further in spearheading a domineering male ideal, rooted to the instinctive self, as seen in his works like The Plumed Serpent and “The Woman Who Rode Away”, Lawrence seems to be espousing dangerously a form of proto-fascism and female masochism. In valorising the “primitivism” of the Native American as intrinsically superior to the effete white civilisation, based on an obsession with money, the “bitch goddess”, Lawrence seems to be extolling the life and lifeworld of the Native Americans in polarised terms. While the process may seem doubtful, the goal turns out to be noble and desirable. At the same time, Lawrence is aware that there is no going back to a previous era, that the clock cannot be put back. As he wrote pointedly in the essay “Indians and an Englishman”: “But I don’t want to go back to them, ah, never. I never want to deny them or break with them. But there is no going back. Always onward, still further.”

At Taos, New Mexico

Lawrence expressed a strong desire to visit the New World in a letter to his new American publisher Thomas Seltzer from Taormina in Sicily in October 1921. He wrote: “I wish I could find a ship that could carry me round the world & land me somewhere in the West—New Mexico or California—and I could have a little house and two goats, somewhere away by myself in the Rocky Mountains, I may manage that.”19

In a month’s time, Lawrence received a letter of invitation from Mabel Dodge Sterne (soon she would marry a Native American, Tony Luhan). She had read an essay from Sea and Sardinia in the October issue of Dial and was convinced that Lawrence would be the right spokesman of the Indians to the world. Keenly interested, Lawrence wrote to Mabel: “I believe I have heard of Taos, and even seen pictures of it, photographs—at Leo Stein’s house in Settgnano, Have I? And are you a relative of Maurice Sterne, artist, who was at Anticoli this summer? I’ve only heard of him. I believe in what you say—one must bring together the two ends of humanity, our own thin end, and the last dark strand from the previous pre-white era. I verily believe that. Is Taos the place?”20

Lawrence voyaged from Europe in March 1922 via Ceylon and Australia and arrived in Taos on September 11, 1922, on his 37th birthday. He enjoyed the hospitality of Mabel; he and his wife, Frieda, lived in a cabin gifted to them by their hostess and they became part of the larger Taos community. He wrote to Frieda’s sister, Else: “Well, here we are in the land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. But both freedom and bravery need defining.”21

He lived frugally, baked bread, did carpentry, raised a cow called Susan, met occasional visitors, and remained close to nature and the animal world. Soon he got down to writing essays, poems, letters and novels on New Mexico or those that had a setting in New Mexico, such as “Indians and an Englishman”, “The Wilful Woman”, “New Mexico”, “Taos”, “Autumn at Taos”, “Indians and Entertainment”, “Dance of the Sprouting Corn”, “The Hopi Snake Dance”, “Eagle In New Mexico”, “The Red Wolf”, “The Blue Jay”, “Mountain Lion”, “The American Eagle”, “O! Americans”, “Pan in America”, St Mawr, The Princess, “Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine”, “The Woman who Rode Away”, and the letter he wrote to The New York Times entitled “Certain Americans and an Englishman” regarding the baneful effect of Bursum Bill upon the life and property of the Native Americans. He wrote with biting sarcasm about the policy of the U.S. government towards the Native Americans: “The Indian is not an American citizen. He is apparently in the position of a defenceless nation protected by a benevolent Congress. He is an American subject, but a member of a dominated, defenceless nation which Congress undertakes to protect and cherish. The Indian bureau is supposed to do cherishing…. The end of the pueblos. But let them die a natural death. To me the Bursum Bill is amusing in its bare-facedness—a cruel joke. It startles any English mind a little to realise that it may soon become law.”22

As would be noticed, the writings Lawrence produced during his New Mexico phase were considerable and had a character of their own, influenced as they were by his faith in a new world view. Some were polemical, others were written in a journalistic style since they were meant for newspapers and periodicals. His style in many of his fictional writings of this period, as Keith Sagar notes, “is quite different from anything he had written before, sardonic in tone, and with something of the timelessness and hard-edged, spiky character of the landscape”. In many, such as in his fiction and short stories of the period, as well as in his novel like The Plumed Serpent and the novella “The Woman Who Rode Away”, Lawrence seems to show a propensity for a domineering male ideal and female masochism. His affinity for an organic life order full of fecundity and vitality based on his understanding of the Indians often carries fascistic undertones, even as he extols the life of the Native American.23

Soon it was time for him to return to England. In his letter dated August 28, 1923, Lawrence wrote to Mrs Conway: “I am quite well. It grieves me to leave my horses and my cow Susan, and the cat Timsy Wemyss and the white cock Moses—and the place”.

He always desired to return to his favoured place. On March 22, 1924, he returned to Taos and carried out work on texts such as “The Woman Who Rode Away”, St. Mawr, “The Hopi Snake Dance”, “Resurrection”, Quetzalcoatl (later renamed The Plumed Serpent), and the play “David”. He left Kiowa Ranch for England on September 9, 1925. Taos would, however, remain with him for the rest of his life: As he wrote nostalgically in “Little Moonshine with Lemon”, imaging the landscape he had left behind: “Perhaps the snow is in tufts on the greasewood bushes. Perhaps the blue jay falls in a blue metallic cloud out of the pine trees in front of the house, at dawn in the terrific cold, when the dangerous light comes watchful over the mountains, and touches the desert far-off, far-off beyond the Rio Grande.”

Lawrence died at Vence, France, on March 1, 1930; “his body was disinterred and cremated”24. In 1935, his ashes were carried back from Europe and buried in a shrine Frieda built above the Kiowa Ranch in Taos. There could not have been a more fitting site for the chapel, “looking far over the desert to the blue mountain away in Arizona, blue as chalcedony, with the sage brush desert sweeping grey-blue in between... and coming up flush at the pine-dotted foot-hills of the Rockies”.

Sachidananda Mohanty is former Professor and Head of the Department of English and the former Vice Chancellor of the Central University of Odisha. He has two books on D.H. Lawrence to his credit.


1. “New Mexico” by D.H. Lawrence, first published in Survey Graphic, May 1, 1931, rpt. Phoenix: The Posthumous Papers of D.H. Lawrence, Ed. Edward McDonald, Viking, 1936.

2. Sincere thanks to the USEFI [now USIEF], India Fulbright Commission, for the Fulbright Post-doctoral Award for 1990-1991 at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center [HRHRC] University of Texas at Austin, and Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscript Library at Yale University, New Haven, where much of the initial research for this essay was carried out. I thank Cathy Henderson, Research Librarian at the HRC, Austin, and my Faculty Associate, Charles Rossman of the English Department; I thank R.K. Gupta, and the late B.K. Tripathy and R.S. Sharma. I’m equally grateful to the American Studies Research Centre, Hyderabad; I thank my students of the D.H. Lawrence Courses at the University of Hyderabad over the years.

3. Fulbright Visiting Professorship at Rhode Island College, 2005, RI. Sincere thanks to USIEF and Professor Amrijit Singh, former Professor at RIC, Providence, later, Langston Hughes Professor at Ohio University. The second visit to Taos was made possible by the CIES, the Harwood Foundation of the UNM at Taos, and Roberta Myers.

4. New Mexico has always been in the news: from the Manhattan Project of J. Robert Oppenheimer at Los Alamos that produced the atom bomb, to Richard Branson’s recent Virgin Galactic space flights, the place has acquired a legendary reputation.

5. See an excellent biography by Lois P. Rudnick, “D.H. Lawrence’s New World Heroine: Mabel Dodge Luhan”, D.H. Lawrence Review, Volume 14, 1981, No.1, pages.85-120. See Sharyn Udall, Spud Johnson & Laughing Horse, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994; Mabel Dodge Luhan, Edge of the Taos Desert: An Escape to Reality, New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1937; rpt Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987; Mabel Dodge Luhan, Winter in Taos, New York; Harcourt Brace and Company, 1935; rpt. Santa Fe: La Palomas, 2002.

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7. As a matter of fact, Taos and Santa Fe experienced the countercultures of the 1960s and 1970s, the latter through Dennis Hopper and friends.

8. See, D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature, Thomas Seltzer, 1923; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1977, page 8.

9. The Symbolic Meaning: The Uncollected Versions of Studies in Classic American Literature, Ed. Armin Arnold with a Foreword by Harry T. Moore, London: Centaur Press,1962, page 1.

10. Theories of American Literature, Ed. Kartiganer and Griffith, New York: The Macmillan Company, 1972. Also see Michael Colacursio’s review essay, “The Symbolic and the Symptomatic: D.H. Lawrence in Recent American Criticism”, American Quarterly, Volume xxvii, October 1975, No.4, pages 486-501.

11. The Frontier Experience: A Reader’s Guide to the Life and Literature of the American West, Ed. John Tuska, London: McFarland, 1984.

12. Russell Reising, The Unusable Past: Theory and Study of American Literature, New York: Methuen, 1986. Also see, Paul Lauter, “Race and Gender in the Shaping of the American Literary Canon: A Case Study from the Twenties”, Feminist Studies, Volume 9, No. 3, 1983, page 435.

13. The eight authors in D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature are: Benjamin Franklin, St John de Crevecour, James Fenimore Cooper, Edgar Allan Poe, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Dana, Herman Melville and Walt Whitman.

14. See T.S. Eliot, “American Literature and the American Language”, address delivered at Washington University, St Louis, Missouri, June 9, 1953.

15. See Leslie Fiedler, The Return of the Vanishing American, New York: Stein and Xay, 1968; Richard Slotkin, Regeneration through Violence: The Myth of the American Frontier, 1600-1860, Middleton, Wesleyan University Press,1973; Frederick C. Crews, Sins of the Fathers: Hawthorne’s Psychological Themes, New York: Oxford University Press, 1966; David Cavitch, D.H. Lawrence and the New World, New York: Oxford University Press,1969; Keith Sagar, D.H. Lawrence and New Mexico, Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books, 1982.

16. The Symbolic Meaning: The Uncollected Versions of Studies in Classic American Literature, op. cit.

17. Ibid., page xi.

18. Gerald M. Lacy, Ed. Letters to Thomas & Adele Seltzer by D.H. Lawrence, Black Sparrow Press, 1976, page 27.

19. Harry T. Moore, Ed. The Collected Letters of D.H. Lawrence, Viking, 1962, pages 671-672.

20. Ibid., pages 720-722.

21. D.H. Lawrence, “Certain Indians and an Englishman,” first published in The New York Times, December 24, 1922.

23. See Sachidananda Mohanty, Lawrence’s Leadership Politics and the Defeat of Fascism, Delhi: Academic Foundation, 1993 for a treatment of the subject.

24. See Peter Preston, A D.H. Lawrence Chronology, London: St Martin’s Press, 1994. page 169. Thanks to the late Professor Preston for a copy of the book received at Nottingham in 1999.

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