WINTER IN TAOS
FOREWORD TO THIS EDITION
Mabel Dodge Luhan has yet to achieve the kind of iconic status bestowed on Georgia O’Keeffe and Willa Cather, despite her nearly legendary presence in Taos, New Mexico from late 1917 until her death there in 1962. Instead, her lesser-known legacy includes a rambling adobe that has been turned into a historic inn; an extensive collection of papers archived at Yale’s Beinecke Library; a four-volume autobiography, Intimate Memoirs; and this lyrical book, Winter in Taos, which offers a simple description of life in 1930s northern New Mexico patterned on the cycles of the seasons.
Luhan’s success as a writer pales in comparison to the stature of the literary guests she invited to Taos, including author D.H. Lawrence, poet Robinson Jeffers, and playwright and novelist Thornton Wilder. She never intended, however, to become a famous scribe. Having settled in Taos after living in Florence, Italy and Greenwich Village, New York, where her influential salons earned her an international reputation, she sought to put Taos, and herself as an arbiter of culture, on the world map.
Entranced by northern New Mexico’s rugged landscape and ancient cultures, Luhan hoped to reveal Pueblo cultural traditions to the Western world, believing that the Pueblo people’s life rhythms, bound tightly to the natural world, could restore a modern civilization beleaguered by war and bereft of faith. She worked hard to ensure that Cather, O’Keeffe, Lawrence, Jeffers and dozens of other significant creative guests who trekked to her adobe compound experienced the power of Taos first-hand.
Luhan fervently hoped that Lawrence would write a book about Taos Pueblo that would convince Americans to see Taos the way she did. Lawrence, who didn’t share her enthusiasm for Pueblo culture, never produced such a book, though he did fall in love with the region’s beauty. Other guests found life in Taos fascinating, but too remote and isolated for their tastes. Luhan, however, remained determined to live out her dream. She married Tony Luhan, a Taos Pueblo man, and immersed herself as much as possible in “a new world that replaced all the ways I had known with others, more strange and terrible and sweet than any I had ever been able to imagine,” she wrote in Edge of Taos Desert.
Published in 1935, Winter in Taos starkly contrasts Luhan’s memoirs, Background (1933), European Experiences (1935), Movers and Shakers (1936) and Edge of Taos Desert (1937). The four volumes, inspired by Marcel Proust’s Remembrances of Things Past, begin with her birth in 1879 in Buffalo, N.Y to a wealthy Victorian family and follow her life through three failed marriages, numerous affairs, and ultimately a feeling of “being nobody in myself,” despite years of psychoanalysis and a luxurious lifestyle on two continents among the leading literary, art and intellectual personalities of the day.
Winter in Taos unfolds in an entirely different pattern, uncluttered with noteworthy names and ornate details. With no chapters dividing the narrative, it takes place on a single wintry day, yet moves well beyond the moment as Luhan describes her simple life in this “new world” from season to season, following a thread that spools out from her consciousness as if she’s recording her thoughts in a journal. “My pleasure is in being very still and sensing things,” she writes, sharing that pleasure with the reader by describing the joys of adobe rooms warmed in winter by aromatic cedar fires; fragrant in spring with flowers; and scented with homegrown fruits and vegetables being preserved and pickled in summer. She also delights in describing the traits of her cat, dogs, horses and the flock of pigeons residing at the 17-room adobe she and Tony designed that “holds me, works me to death, bores me and will not let me go!”
Luhan struggled constantly with self-doubt, a deep fear of failure, and the sense that she belonged nowhere, even after arriving in Taos. Her problems played out in her relations with others, too, and her domineering, often manipulative personality created rifts in many friendships. She admits to these issues in Winter in Taos, describing bouts of depression, and melancholy and linking them to certain seasons and events. In a poignant passage, she writes that by “giving up and relaxing into submission, acknowledging the perpetual and essential loneliness of life…there emerges a peace and contentment in one’s own small domain, and an almost tangible atmosphere of well-being that pervades it, which emanates, really, from one’s own heart, coming at last home to rest.”
Having wandered the world, Luhan found her home at last in Taos. Winter in Taos celebrates the spiritual connection she established with the “deep living earth” as well as the bonds she forged with Tony, her “mountain.” This moving tribute to a land and the people who eked a life from it reminds readers that in northern New Mexico, where the seasons can be harshly beautiful, one can bathe in the sunshine until “‘untied are the knots in the heart,’ for there is nothing like the sun for smoothing out all difficulties.”