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Luhan, Mabel (Ganson) Dodge

LUHAN, Mabel (Ganson) Dodge

Born 26 February 1879, Buffalo, New York; died 13 August 1962, Taos, New Mexico

Also wrote under: Mabel Dodge

Daughter of Charles and Sarah Ganson; married Karl Evans,1900; Edwin Dodge, circa 1905; Maurice Sterne, 1917; Antonio Luhan, 1923

The only child of upper-class parents, Mabel Dodge Luhan had an economically and socially secure, but emotionally starved, childhood. Tended by nursemaids and kept at a distance by an ineffectual father and a strong-willed, socialite mother, Luhan felt like an orphan who spent her life in search of a community in which she could be "at home."

Luhan devoted her life to overcoming her anomie by directing her energies to the discovery and creation of her identity. She identified herself with an enormous variety of aesthetic and political causes; constructed model communities she hoped would define her role and purpose in modern society; collected famous artists and activists whose careers she tried to shape and who, in turn, she hoped would give shape and meaning to her life; spent 20 years in psychoanalysis while dabbling in a number of mind-cure philosophies; and left 24 volumes of autobiographical materials bearing witness to the multiple ways in which she sought self-definition.

Although financially independent and sexually liberated, Luhan was crippled by her belief in woman's cultural subservience. Believing women capable of only "secondary" forms of creativity, she played the role of muse to men of genius, attempting to achieve an identity by inspiring their creativity. At the same time, she wished to create in her own right, so her relationships with men often turned destructive and self-destructive. She was married four times; only in her last marriage to a full-blooded Pueblo did she achieve any sense of fulfillment. Among the Pueblos, she found a culture in which individual, social, and religious values were integrated by a unifying mythos that was organically related to a land in which she finally felt at home.

Luhan became a leading symbol of modernism, in fact and fiction. As a spokeswoman for the avant-garde, Luhan was a published poet, book reviewer, essayist, biographer, and social critic. Her prose styles and subject matter were a melting pot of Americana, ranging from the banality of the Dorothea Dix-type columns she wrote for the Hearst papers to superbly evocative descriptive prose on life in the Southwest.

Luhan's major contribution to American literature is her book Winter in Taos (1935). While she sought for years to find writers (D. H. Lawrence and Robinson Jeffers were the two most famous) to publicize her Southwestern paradise, she wrote its finest testament herself. Winter in Taos is a first-rank contribution to American regional literature, a work of intense lyrical beauty and metaphoric power that achieves a richly sustained integration of her emotional life with the landscape surrounding her.

Luhan's discovery of the Native Americans as potential saviors for a declining white civilization led to the writing of her best-known work, Intimate Memories (4 vols., 1933-37). Begun in 1924 as part of an ongoing process of psychotherapy, Luhan presented her fragmented personality as a metaphor for a world she wished would die and be reborn, as she felt she had, through the grace offered by a pre-Western tribal culture. Although she was not a feminist, her self-portrait reveals the destructiveness of the feminine mystique of which she was both perpetrator and victim.

Luhan's memoirs are a significant contribution to social, intellectual, and feminist history. In spite of her sometimes unreliable and self-serving observations, she is an insightful eyewitness to childrearing in Victorian America, the fin de siècle world of American expatriates in Europe, the major revolutionary movements of pre-World War I America, and the fascination of postwar intellectuals with "primitives."

Other Works:

Lorenzo in Taos (1932). Taos and Its Artists (1947).

The papers of Mabel Dodge Luhan are housed in the Beinecke Library of Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

Bibliography:

Crunden, R., From Self to Society, 1919-1941 (1972). Hahn, E., Mabel (1978). Heller, A., and L. P. Rudnick, eds., 1915, The Cultural Moment: The New Politics, the New Woman, the New Psychology, the New Art, and the New Theatre in America (1991). Lasch, C., The New Radicalism in America (1889-1963) (1965). Norwood, V. and J. Monk, eds., The Desert is No Lady: Southwestern Landscapes in Women's Writing and Art (1987). Rudnick, L. P., Mabel Dodge Luhan: New Woman, New Worlds (1984).

Reference works:

TCA, TCAS.

—LOIS P. RUDNICK

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