The Nation's Pulse

Mountains, Sky, Writers

A cultural mecca in America's Southwest.

By 1.14.11

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"The sun had set now, the yellow rocks were turning grey, down in the pueblo the light of the cook fires made red patches of the glassless windows, and the smell of pinon smoke came softly through the still air. The whole western sky was the color of golden ashes…."
-- Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927)

The Santa Fe-Taos region of New Mexico is an upscale enclave and playground for celebrities. It's one of the more scenic parts of the "Land of Enchantment," and is the epicenter of the history of the Southwest. The 400-year-old "Palace of the Governors" is still a tourist attraction. But other than the Hispanic tradition, scenery, and great weather (300 days of sunshine per year), it epitomizes the artistic culture of the Southwest, from its "Santa Fe style" earth-tone adobe architecture to its renowned Native American silver and turquoise jewelry work.

Santa Fe was founded in 1608 (Spain's colony started within a year of both Jamestown and Quebec, interestingly enough), New Mexico being Old Mexico's northernmost province. It was also the land of the pueblos, those ancient Indian communities so interesting in their cultural and archeological aspects. The Mexican War (1846-48) ceded the Southwest to the United States.

In the late 19th century the place began to attract artists, writers and assorted eccentric bohemians. Nineteen-seventeen saw the arrival of Mabel Dodge, a New York socialite and radical-chic arts patron (and linked to such writers as Max Eastman, Walter Lippmann and John Reed), who married an Indian named Tony Luhan. Word spread among her circle in New York about New Mexico's landscape and quality of light, so interesting to painters. Both Santa Fe and nearby Taos soon had thriving arts colonies.

At Mabel Dodge Luhan's behest, D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda arrived in 1922. They stayed for two years, eventually buying a ranch near Taos (now owned by the University of New Mexico and where the English writer's ashes are buried), using it as a base for more extensive travels in Mexico, resulting in the novel The Plumed Serpent (1926) and the travel book Mornings in Mexico (1927). These wanderings also brought on the tuberculosis that killed Lawrence in 1930. Today a memorial attracts scholars and aficionados to the "D.H. Lawrence Ranch".

Another New Mexico habitué was Willa Cather. She had first visited the region in 1912, and spent much of 1925-'26 in residence at Santa Fe's La Fonda Hotel, researching and writing Death Comes for the Archbishop, considered by many critics her finest novel. Her archbishop is Jean Marie Latour, based on the real-life Jean Baptiste Lamy (1814-1888). Lamy was a noteworthy figure in Southwestern history. He built Santa Fe's first hospital and the cathedral that is one of the city's prominent landmarks. The archbishop was a close friend of Kit Carson and his family, who were his parishioners.

California author and Jack London confidante Mary Austin moved to Santa Fe in 1924, living there the last decade of her life. She was famous for The Land of Little Rain (1903) a work California natural history. While in New Mexico she published -- among other things -- The Land of Journey's Ending (1924), a book of Southwest travel sketches focusing on Native American culture. She also helped found Santa Fe's Community Theater. We find her chronicled in Oliver LaFarge's Santa Fe (1959), as a woman with "…that mark of distinction which make her a fine interpreter of the Indian spirit and so great a writer."

Santa Fe is a chronological collection of news items and fragments gleaned from Santa Fe's newspaper, the New Mexican, where LaFarge -- author of a score of books --was a columnist. The entries date back to the paper's founding in 1849 and cover a century of Santa Fe history. LaFarge also wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning Laughing Boy (1929), a novel of Navajo life and the first book to treat American Indians as a serious subject for fiction.

Paul Horgan lived most of his life in Albuquerque, setting his best novel A Distant Trumpet (1951) on an army post in 19th century New Mexico. Author of 37 books, Horgan set a number of his novels in Santa Fe. He's was also a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, being the author of the two volume Great River: The Rio Grande in North American History (1954), a history of the region as drained by the Rio Grande. His second Pulitzer was for the biography Lamy of Santa Fe (1975). Horgan can be compared to another prolific Westerner, Wallace Stegner, in that he excelled in both fiction and nonfiction.

Georgia O'Keefe first visited in 1929, and finding Santa Fe too culturally busy, took up residence on part of the legendary "Ghost Ranch" near Abiquiu in 1940. Here she painted the strange landscapes, portraits and self-portraits that made her famous through a life lasting almost a century. Besides O'Keefe, scores of painters are associated with Santa Fe and Taos, notably Thomas Moran, Edward Borein and Joseph Henry Sharp.

Photographers loomed large, as the New Mexico landscape and its fascinating light beckoned. It was even promising at night, as Ansel Adams proved with his iconic photograph "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico" (1941), with its moonlight illuminating the white crosses in a rural church cemetery. It's all there in one picture: So much history; so much art; so much New Mexico. 

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.