The Chapala-Taos Connection

Witter Bynner
Witter Bynner

American poet Harold Witter Bynner (1881-1968), divided his time between homes in Chapala and Taos, New Mexico for nearly 30 years, and had the distinction of introducing both D.H. Lawrence and Tennessee Williams to the Lake Chapala area.   Williams had visited Mexico before Bynner hosted him in 1947, but Lawrence’s trip in 1923 was his first of three visits, and the Englishman might never have come to Mexico had not he and Bynner met quite by happenstance in Taos.

Lawrence and his wife Frieda had left England in 1919 for a self-imposed exile that the Englishman called his “savage pilgrimage”.  Their intended destination was Taos, New Mexico, but their route was quite circuitous, beginning with almost two years of travel through Italy. Malta, Germany, and Austria.  They left Europe early in 1922 and arrived in Taos late that year by way of Ceylon and Australia.

Frieda & D. H. Lawrence
D. H. Lawrence & wife Frieda

Bynner, having met a Chinese professor with whom he had begun collaborating on the translation of T’ang Dynasty poems, had traveled to China during 1920-21 to study its literature and culture.  Upon his return to the U.S. he embarked on an extensive lecture tour which brought him to Santa Fe, New Mexico in February 1922. Exhausted and ill, he canceled the rest of his tour and remained there.

Taos had first come to the attention of the Eastern artistic establishment in 1898 when Harpers Weekly published an article illustrated with work by artist Ernest Blumenschein, who had arrived in Taos while touring the U.S. and decided to stay.   Within a few years other American and European-born artists joined them.  Lawrence had often discussed the idea of setting up a utopian community with several of his friends, and in a 1915 note wrote:

“I want to gather together about twenty souls and sail away from this world of war and squalor and found a little colony where there shall be no money but a sort of communism as far as necessaries of life go, and some real decency… a place where one can live simply, apart from this civilization with a few other people who are also at peace and happy and live, and understand and be free…”

Mabel Dodge Luhan
Mabel Dodge Luhan

Many artists were drawn to Taos by Mabel Dodge Luhan, a wealthy heiress from Buffalo, New York.  She had hosted art salons in Florence, Italy, and Manhattan before settling in Taos in 1917, where she married her third husband and carried on her salon tradition.  Luhan hosted artists, writers, and other luminaries including Ansel Adams, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Alfred Stieglitz in Taos.  Even D. H. Lawrence painted while in Taos, and his work is on display at La Fonda Hotel on the Taos Plaza, signed with the pseudonym “Lorenzo”.

Dorothy Brett
Dorothy Brett

Artist Dorothy Brett arrived in Taos with D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda in 1924, sowing the seeds of a conflict that fully bloomed upon Lawrence’s death in 1930.  Luhan, Brett, and Lawrence’s wife Frieda each considered themselves in some way Lawrence’s true muse, and argued over the disposition of Lawrence’s ashes. To prevent Mabel from stealing and scattering them, Frieda had them mixed with concrete and formed into a block which remains to this day on the D. H. Lawrence Ranch above Taos.

Luhan’s salons continued, and in the years following Lawrence’s death her guests included Carl Sandburg, Willa Cather, Igor Stravinsky, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, W. H. Auden, Aldous Huxley, and Thornton Wilder.

Following WWI, a new generation of writers and artists arrived in Taos to turn the page on the town’s artistic heritage, but Lawrence’s works The Plumed Serpent and Mornings In Mexico arguably owe their existence to his Taos connection and friendship with Witter Bynner.

Today, as the Lake Chapala area is poised to celebrate the centennial of Lawrence’s first visit, dozens of writers who call it home carry on the literary tradition.

Browse the Authors Gallery and find links to their bios and reviews of their work here.

Read more here about Lake Chapala’s long-standing literary tradition.

(Post by Antonio Ramblés.)

 

 

 

D. H. Lawrence’s Chapala legacy

D H Lawrence mug
D. H. Lawrence

Anyone who lives along the Riberas de Chapala will instantly recognize it as the inspiration for D. H. Lawrence’s book The Plumed SerpentQuetzalcoatl – which is set in Mexico during the decade following the Mexican Revolution.  Critics have given it mixed reviews, in part because it is a not-too-veiled expression of Lawrence’s racism, fascist sympathies, and sexism.  Even so, the passages which describe life along the Ribera – at a time when passenger rail still linked Mexico City to Guadalajara and the fastest way from Chapala to Jocotopec was still by boat –  afford an intoxicating, firsthand glimpse into a life now beyond the memories of even Lakeside’s oldest inhabitants.

D. H. Lawrence aboard-esmeralda chapala-1923
Lawrence and friends, Lake Chapala

The book might never have been written had Lawrence not exiled himself from Britain in 1919 and embarked on an extended world tour which finally brought him to Mexico in 1923.  His disenchantment with his homeland was the unintended result of his 1914 marriage to an Englishwoman who was closely related to Germany’s von Richtofen family.  As a consequence, their passports were revoked for the Great War’s duration and the locals among whom they lived in Cornwall falsely suspected her to be a German spy.  It didn’t help that Lawrence was a pacifist who had been ruled physically unfit for military duty, although he managed to escape the fate of other pacifists including Bertrand Russell who were imprisoned for their beliefs.

Even though Lawrence had never been to Mexico before, The Plumed Serpent illustrates Lawrence’s amazing ability to quickly immerse himself in its culture and folklore.  He began the book in 1923 and published it in 1925.

Today, guests at Chapala QQ Inn can spend the night in the same suite where Lawrence penned his ode to a now bygone Mexico….

DHLawrenceLibrarySuite1-Inset
D. H. Lawrence suite, QQ Inn, Chapala

(Post by Antonio Ramblés.)