Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

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Teaching the American Twenties: Exploring the Decade through Literature and Art

Regionalism: Reacting to the Modern


Introduction New Mexico
Southern Agrarians  

New Mexico

Whereas the members of the Southern Agrarian group were generally native to or had ancestral roots in the region they championed, other regionalists focused on adopted homelands. By the 1920s, significant numbers of artists and writers had moved to the cities of colonized Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico; some were drawn by the landscape and history of the Southwest, while many others were forced to move to the region's dry climate in order to recuperate from the ravages of tuberculosis. These "neonatives" (outsiders who became permanent residents and invested themselves in local affairs) found and nurtured what they believed to be the "authentic" life of the area before industrialization and even before the arrival of European settlers.

Individuals such as Mary Austin and Mabel Dodge Luhan embraced Native American civilization as the antidote to industrialization and the path to the utopian regionalist vision. (See Romanticizing Cowboys and Indians.)

Though the neonatives supported the preservation of local traditional cultures, they picked and chose among traditions based on their own ideas of what was worth saving. They also created an economic environment centered on serving visitors and attempting to hold on to the past, leaving little place for the native peoples other than as representatives of that past and models for paintings and stories. Throughout the 1920s, the artist neonatives discouraged new residents and new cultural development in the area as they fought to keep their transformation of Santa Fe and Taos from acquiring the look and feel of mainstream America.

At the same time as these regional neonatives sought to preserve the unique qualities of the old Southwest, they found in those qualities the inspiration for new artistic modes of expression. Mabel Dodge Luhan had been an important part of the modernist community in cities while living in Greenwich Village and Florence; as the hostess of literary salons she had brought together many important writers and artists, and she did the same in Taos. Visitors to her home included the painter Georgia O'Keefe, the photographer Ansel Adams, the Harlem Renaissance author Jean Toomer, and the novelists Willa Cather and D. H. Lawrence. These artists mined the southwestern landscape and culture, finding in its ancient and exotic setting spurs to modernist innovation.

Photograph of Mabel Dodge Luhan
Photograph of Mabel Dodge Luhan
Manuel Alvarez Bravo

Mabel Dodge, a blue-blood East Coast heiress, married Tony Luhan, the tribal chief of Taos Pueblo, and they worked together to preserve local Native American cultures.

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