Ajijic’s Grand Dame Neill James

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Author/Philanthropist Neill James

Most who live on Lake Chapala’s north shore – and particularly those who frequent the Lake Chapala Society – have heard the name Neill James, but many are unaware of the accomplishments of this extraordinary woman, or the full scope of her contributions to the community.

James was an author, philanthropist, and entrepreneur.  She was also a fearless adventurer who shrugged off the staid social conventions and gender stereotypes of a dawning twentieth century.

Born on a cotton plantation in Grenada, Mississippi in 1895, James earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1918, and – following a brief and childless marriage – began to travel extensively.

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Author/Philanthropist Neill James

She was employed at the American embassies in Tokyo (1924-1927) and Berlin (1928-1929), and her work and travel allowed her to meet many celebrities of the day, including Amelia Earhart.  Her travels took her to the South Seas (1931-32), and Lapland (1937-38).

Her plans to return to Asia and travel throughout the Orient changed when James encountered the Ainu people of northern Hokkaido in Japan and became enchanted with their culture.  She lived among them for an extended time, all the while taking photographs and keeping a diary of her experience.

James left Japan just before December 7, 1941 and headed for Mexico, where she was badly injured while hiking the slopes of  Michoacán’s Paricutin volcano during an unexpected eruption. She was brought to Ajijic for a year of recuperation, during which she drew upon her travel journals to complete the “Petticoat Vagabond” series of books on which she had begun work in 1937:

Dust On My Heart coverPetticoat Vagabond among the Nomads (1939)
White Reindeer (1940)
Petticoat Vagabond: In Ainu Land (1942)
Petticoat Vagabonds: Up and Down The World in Asia (1942)
Dust On My Heart (1946)

Dust on My Heart records James’ journeys throughout  Mexico, and includes a chapter on Ajijic that provides rare insight into life in Ajijic during the 1940’s that is well worth the read.

In the years which followed, Ms. James became a beloved benefactress of her adopted Ajijic.

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James in her garden of exotic plants

She collected rare plants during her travels, and when her attempt to import Japanese mulberry trees in the hope of breeding silkworms was doomed by blight, she converted the silk looms to weave cotton instead, and Ajiic’s community of weavers was born.

A woman of inherited means, James employed her wealth to launch projects focused on improving the daily lives of local people, and on helping them to help themselves.

She sponsored the digging of the area’s first deep water wells, helped to develop a water purification system, and promoted the installation of electricity and phone service.

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Author/Philanthropist Neill James

She founded libraries in Chapala and Ajijic, and offered classes in a wide range of academic and artistic disciplines, including art classes for children that the Lake Chapala Society perpetuates to this day.

She encouraged the most talented among her students to pursue art as a career by supplying them with materials, engaging an art teacher, and providing a venue for the sale of their work.  She paid university tuition for the most talented, and several of her original students, including Jesus Lopez Vega and his brother Antonio, still live and paint in Ajijic today.

In 1955 she was among a group who decided that Lakeside needed an organization devoted to the needs of the expat community.  In her final years she donated her home and the grounds upon which it sits to the Lake Chapala Society, but continued to live there until her death in 1994 at the age of 99.  Its gardens still contain over 200 varieties of plants gathered during her travels.

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Author/Philanthropist Neill James

James was honored by installation in the American Biographical Society’s Hall of Fame and named to the International Who’s Who of Intellectuals. She is also the recipient of more than 40 citations acknowledging her contributions to the arts.

 

Only one of Ms. James’ books – Dust On My Heart – is available on Amazon.  Find it here.

Read more about Lake Chapala’s literary legacy here.

Check out the complete listing of RiberasAuthors by genre here.

Posted by Antonio Ramblés.

LCS acknowledgement

Chapala’s unsung bard Witter Bynner

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Witter Bynner

Witter Bynner (1881-1968) was an American poet, writer and scholar who, for much of his life, divided his time between homes in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Chapala, Mexico.  While Bynner’s reputation is today eclipsed by contemporaries including T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and W. H. Auden, he was in his day a literary superstar.

His talent was already evident by the time he enrolled at Harvard, where he was not only invited to join the student literary magazine, but was also published in The Harvard Monthly. He graduated with honors in 1902, and released his first book of poems, An Ode to Harvard in 1907.   The university named him its Phi Beta Kappa Poet in 1911.

250px-SpectracoverIn 1916, Bynner and friends including Arthur Davison Ficke, all writing under pseudonyms, published an elaborate literary prank titled Spectra that was aimed at deflating the self-important poetry critics of the time.  The work was enthusiastically reviewed as a serious contribution to poetry before the hoax was finally unmasked two years later.

A conscientous objector, Bynner was  assigned alternative service teaching Oral English to the Students’ Army Training Corps in Berkeley, CA. during World War I.

51HGG8E024L._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_While there, he met a Chinese professor with whom he began an eleven-year collaboration on the translation of T’ang Dynasty poems.  He  traveled to China in 1920 to study its literature and culture.

In that same year, Bynner was elected President of the Poetry Society of America.  In an effort to encourage young poets, he created the Witter Bynner Prize for Undergraduate Excellence in Poetry, whose later recipients included Langston Hughes.  The Spectra hoax, however had tarnished Bynner’s reputation within the poetry establishment, and his works which followed the scandal received far less attention.

In 1922 a lecture tour took him to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Exhausted and suffering from a lingering cold, he cancelled the remainder of his tour to recuperate there.  Enchanted by the

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Bynner (center) with the Lawrences in Santa Fe.

setting and its artistic community, he returned four months later with his companion to take up permanent residence, and soon after met D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda.

514-XmrPHUL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_In 1923, Bynner and his companion accompanied the couple on a journey through Mexico that inspired Lawrence’s novel The Plumed Serpent, which includes an unflattering character based on Bynner.   In contrast, Bynner had high esteem for Lawrence, about whom he wrote three poems and a memoir titled Journey with Genius published in 1951.

Bynner stayed on in Chapala after the Lawrences left Mexico to continue working on his book of verse, Caravan (1925). At the time he noted that several other American writers and painters had already taken up residence there.

bynnerfriends

Between 1923 and 1929, Bynner penned more than a dozen poems that drew upon his Lake Chapala experience.  Many appear in his collection Indian Earth (1929), which he dedicated to D. H. Lawrence.

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Robert Hunt & Witter Bynner

In 1930 poet Robert Hunt visited Bynner in Chapala.  They would become companions for the remainder of their lives.

Arthur Davison Ficke, Bynner’s friend and partner in crime on the Spectra hoax, spent the winter of 1934-35 in Chapala, and drew upon the setting to write his novel Mrs. Morton of Mexico.

In 1940 Bynner purchased a house in Chapala from Mexican architect Luis Barragán that became the second home to which he would often return over the next three decades.  His acquaintances during these years included  resident writers Nigel Millett and Neill James, and a visiting Tennessee Williams.

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Former Witter Bynner home | Calle Madero 411, Chapala (Arq. Luis Barragán)

Bynner had a minor heart attack in 1949 and in the following year began to lose his eyesight, but neither infirmity prevented him from travelling with Hunt to Europe, where they visited acquaintances including Thornton Wilder, James Baldwin, and George Santayana.

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Witter Bynner

He  was almost completely sightless by 1964 when he lost his Robert Hunt to a fatal heart attack.  The following year, Bynner suffered a severe stroke from which he never recovered, and he died in the U.S. in 1968.

The Witter Bynner Foundation for Poetry was founded in 1972, funded by a bequest from his estate. Since 1997, it has sponsored the Witter Bynner Fellowship, for which the recipient is selected by the U.S. Poet Laureate.  The American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters established a Witter Bynner Poetry Prize in 1980.

Witter Bynner’s works can be found here on Amazon.

Read more about the Lake Chapala area’s rich literary legacy here.

Check out the complete listing of RiberasAuthors by genre here.

(Posted by Antonio Ramblés.)