John Collier (May 4, 1884 – May 8, 1968), Commissioner for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1933-1945. Collier founded AIDI in 1923

When things didn’t work out well for Lawrence in ‘Mabeltown’ he accepted her offer of alternative accommodation higher up in the Del Monte mountains. In her memoir, Lorenzo in Taos, Mabel Dodge Luhan (MDL) claims that Frieda stayed in regular contact by post, primarily requesting that she send cables to her children on her behalf. Frieda would also ask ‘the Danes’ to post letters on her behalf when they joined them for the winter of 1922 (more of them in a future post). Lawrence lacked compassion for Frieda’s maternal instincts, and so MDLs support would have been valued.

MDL invited John Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs during the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, to Taos in the hope that he would do what Lawrence had not – write about the Pueblo Indians. Collier did a better job than Lawrence in terms of direct political engagement, by organising a council meeting on 5 November, 1922, at Santo Domingo Pueblo, to explain how the Bursum Bill would impact on their rights. New Mexico senator Holm Olaf Bursum had proposed a bill in Congress that helped legitimize land claims of ‘non-Indians’ who’d resided for some time on Pueblo lands. An excerpt of testimony in Congress on behalf of the All Indian Pueblos Council stated:

“Now we discover that the Senate has passed a bill, called the Bursum Bill, which will complete our destruction, and that Congress and the American people have been told that we, the Indians, have asked for this legislation. This, we say, is not true. We have never asked for this legislation. We were never given a chance of having anything to say or do about this bill. We have studied the bill over and found that this bill will deprive us of our happy life by taking away our lands and water and will destroy our Pueblo government and our customs which we have enjoyed for hundreds of years, and through which we have been able to be self-supporting and happy down to this day.”

The question of the Indians being usurped from their land led to MDL being visited by the Department of the Interior and her home cited as the ‘centre of disturbance’. When Lawrence heard about this he was characteristically sceptical of the involvement of Collier and his ilk. On 8 Nov, 1923, Lawrence wrote:  ‘He will destroy them. It is his saviour’s will to set the claws of his own White egotistic benevolent volition into them. Somewhere, the Indians know that you and Collier would, with your salvationist but poisonous white consciousness, destroy them….I tell you, leave the Indians to their own dark destiny. And leave yourself to the same.’

Although there are clearly many problems with the ‘white man’s burden’ and representing other cultures instead of allowing them to represent themselves, clearly Collier had good intentions and his intervention would prove to be important. But as MDL acutely observes of Lawrence’s character ‘he was so full of suspicion, it had to be directed somewhere or he couldn’t have contained himself’.

The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which became known as the Indian New Deal, dramatically changed the federal government’s Indian policy. Although John Collier was largely responsible for the new policy and viewed Indians with great sympathy, not all Native Americans shared his optimism. Tony Luhan, a strong advocate of John Collier, dictated a letter of support to his wife who typed it up. He wanted to persuade other Indians that Collier was their friend and that the reorganization act would bring positive change.

The Society of American Indians (1911–1923) was the first national American Indian rights organization run by and for American Indians

While all of these conversations were starting to emerge in 1922, Lawrence had befriended two stray Danish artists who MDL described as ‘simple, unremarkable characters,’ the suggestion being that she was a complex remarkable creature. She was plainly jealous that he would prefer to head off into the mountains and spend time with them rather than her. Thus, they are barely mentioned in her memoir – despite having a profound effect on Lawrence. Lawrence craved a more simple existence and this meant being as far away from MDL and the arty folk of Taos as possible. They began to correspond by letters, though understandably MDL resented being reduced to a runner of errands to enable Lawrence to live the good life. She wanted something more substantial, craving ‘the daily, rhythmical interchange of power and life with them’

MDL was not a woman used to rejection and so vented her frustration through idle gossip. ‘I turned my tongue loose. I told funny stories about him and emphasized all the weak things in him. He was terribly easy to caricature.’ But she soon discovered he had a wagging tongue of his own and had been belittling her, claiming she tried to make him fall in love with her and that she had attempted to seduce him up on her roof.

Despite the distance between them, Lawrence kept tabs on everything MDL was up to and vice versa. It was a truly odd relationship, best captured by a bizarre event in 1923. After a blazing row, Frieda had headed to New York to sail to England without her husband. Lawrence used the temporary freedom to visit Buffalo, where he met up with Bessie Wilkinson who took him to Lewinston on the Niagara River to visit MDL’s mother who he claimed he wanted to know. Was he doing this to gain information on his nemesis or was he simply curious? But in the present, the visit gave MDL the opportunity to write to him, thereby breaking her vow of silence.

Mabel Dodge Luhan

One recurring theme in memoirs of Lawrence during this period is his wild mood swings. One minute he’s putting in the knife, the next he’s fixing the wound. Distance from his subject tended to foster a more positive appreciation of people and places and was the driving force behind his ability to keep moving from place to place. By 23 October, 1923, he writes ‘we rode over the mountains from Tepic and down the barranca and to Mazatlán, and I thought very much of how you and Tony taught F. and me to ride…for that and many things like that, believe me, I am grateful.’ And from Guadalajara on 8 Nov 1923, he reasoned ‘life made you what you are: I understood so much when I was in Buffalo and saw your mother’.

When Lawrence eventually made it to England he immediately wrote to MDL about how awful it was.  On 17 December 1923 he complained of being ‘in bed with a bad cold’ which Luhan surmises was inevitable as ‘like most people, when he did not like what he was doing, he became ill.’ He then starts to dissect England with typical scorn, ‘I simply detest it. I shan’t stay long’ and began planning his return back to America by March the following year. But despite his antipathy to his home he recognised that ‘England is a tomb to me…I don’t belong here anymore. It’s like being among the dead of one’s previous existence.’ He even does MDL a favour, submitting one of her stories to Middleton Murry to see if he’d like to publish it in the Adelphi. But Murry rejected the piece.

MDL was completely aware of the pain Frieda felt in not being close to her children and had supported her through this by sending letters on her behalf. Yet she conveniently forgets this, complaining ‘if she at least carried him to places that were healthier for him to live in, it would not have been so bad.’ The trips to London had a purpose for Lawrence as well. He may have written that it was ‘like a dog returning to his vomit’ but they were necessary as he was able to catch up with editors and agents. MDL’s complete adulation of Lawrence means she obscures these facts in her retelling of their adventure. She correctly observes ‘he was never more close to me than in those times when Frieda drew him far away.’ But this applies to anyone and anything he is far away from. It wasn’t necessarily due to a quality of hers.

The trip to London resulted in the infamous dinner party where Lawrence gathered together his closest friends and invited them all to come back to New Mexico with him and set up a community together. Only one person would take up the offer, Dorothy Brett. If MDL had found it difficult to get past Frieda to Lawrence it would become almost impossible with another obstacle added to the equation. And what an obstacle The Brett would turn out to be…

dhl-trunkIn the DH Lawrence Memory Theatre we want to address various aspects of Lawrence’s life through artefacts. How could we represent his time spent in Taos, his scepticism, his scathing damnation of people and places?  If you have an idea about this or other artefacts you think should be included, you can submit ideas here.


4 thoughts on “Lorenzo in Taos 4: A ‘Centre of Disturbance’ and the Bursum Bill

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