Monday, January 10, 2011

Mabel Dodge Luhan and Mark Twain – Reflections on Autobiography in the New Year

What a wee part of a person's life are his acts and his words! His real life is led in his head, and is known to none but himself....his acts and his words are merely the visible thin crust of his world...The mass of him is hidden -- it and its volcanic fires toss and boil, and never rest, night or day. These are his life, and they are not written, and cannot be written.... Biographies are but the clothes and buttons of the man -- the biography of the man himself cannot be written." -- from Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1*

Over the holidays I immersed myself in the autobiographical works of “The Three Fates” -- Mabel, Frieda Lawrence and Dorothy Brett. I skimmed their works– including Mabel’s Winter in Taos, Frieda’s Not I But the Wind and Brett’s Lawrence and Brett -- mining them for answers to questions about the three women, and for topics for the blog. I came away wanting to know more -- their autobiographies left me unsatisfied, the writing didn't reveal nearly enough about them.

Cover of Winter in Taos, reprint, fourth printing 1996

I finally fastened onto Mabel’s four-volume autobiography, Intimate Memories, which she started in 1924. Mabel wrote of her early intent “I started out to try and show the inward picture of a person of my own period; what heredity and environment had made of her. I did not believe, and do not believe, that she was inwardly so different from a lot of others. She was a 20th century type.” Background (published in 1933) deals with her early life in her hometown of Buffalo, New York; European Experiences (1935) covers time spent in Italy at Villa Curonia; Movers and Shakers (1936) discusses her years as hostess of an avant garde salon in New York; and Edge of Taos Desert (1937) traces her journey to Taos, and meeting and eventually marrying Antonio Luhan from Taos Pueblo.

In each volume Mabel investigates a certain period of her life, each representing a phase that contributed to her search to make herself “real.” Her therapist A. A. Brill, America’s first practicing psychotherapist and the first to translate major works by Freud into English, had suggested she write about her life as therapy. Brill viewed the practice of psychotherapy as a way of giving meaning and structure to life, and so encouraged Mabel to write as a means of self-discovery.

Lois Palken Rudnick and I have discussed the writing of biography, in light of our own work [on Mabel Dodge Luhan and Ernest L. Blumenschein, respectively]. Our conversations have centered on how no matter how many letters, pictures, diaries, interviews, clippings and archival material we delved into, what emerged in the end was a partial portrait of our subjects. I suppose that’s why Mark Twain’s statement on biographies being “but the clothes and buttons of the man” struck me. The full life Mabel lived took place in her head, and could never be written in full.

That said, my goal for this coming year is to post brief sketches on Mabel, her circle, and generations of women who followed,  and to provide enough of a portrait for each of us to recognize ourselves in these women. For as Mabel herself stated, our stories are much the same -- the universal stories of the human race -- and there are life lessons to learn from everyone. Let this be part of our own self-discovery, part of becoming "real."

Happy New Year!

Adios for now,

* from "Riverboat Rambler" by Garrison Keillor. New York Times Book Review, Sunday, December 19, 2010: 7 -- Review of Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 1.

**Mabel Dodge Luhan to Hutchins Hapgood, 5 November ?, Hapgood Collection, Beinecke Library, Yale University, quoted in Intimate Memories: The Autobiography of Mabel Dodge Luhan, edited by Lois Palken Rudnick. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999: vii).


  1. Wonderful post from beginning to end! Thanks so much, and will look forward to your coming posts.

  2. I'll be arriving this Thursday for my first-ever visit to Taos and staying at Mabel's house. I'm very much looking forward to being surrounded by the creative energy that I'm sure must still infuse every nook and cranny of the place. I too look forward to learning more about Mabel through your upcoming posts. All the best from my creative oasis to yours, Jill Allison Bryan

  3. a great read, and perspective, discovered this summer in TAOS TRUTH GAME!! such an amazing person, that mabel...

  4. Your post about biography intrigues me. I have just completed my upcoming biography, Searching for Beauty—The Life of Millicent Rogers, to be published next fall. It was challenging writing about a legend because the legend often overtakes the facts. I suppose a good example of this would be that there seems little evidence that George Washington ever cut down a cherry tree. One small example of this in Millicent’s life is the assertion that she was an exceptional student. In fact, she was not. She was a terrible speller. Her school records were mediocre, yet she had a real talent for learning languages and was a wonderful self-taught student of history and politics when they were immediate concerns for her. Be it a European country or Taos, she was a quick study. (Of course, her lack of formal education didn’t stop her from being the toast of three continents in her heyday.) I found that letters and diaries really helped see into her thought process, but sometimes it was reporting from people who remembered her that really augmented the portrait of the woman. Each account provided a different dimension of her personality, especially during her years in Taos.

    Taos seemed such a fruitful environment for women in Mabel, Brett, Frieda and Millicent’s time here. And also for women today, but I find myself wondering what it was like for women before Mabel came in 1917. Did these newcomers bring change with their bold manners and ways or was it a special place for women well before them?