- Modernist MythologiesThe Turquoise Trail Anthology and the Poets of Santa Fe
Writing in Poetry magazine in September 1920, Harriet Monroe discussed her recent trip to the Southwest, focusing especially on Santa Fe, New Mexico. Likening the Native American "snake-dance at Walpi, or the corn-dance at Cochiti" to "a Homeric rite in Attica, or a serpent ceremony in old Egypt" (326–27), Monroe asserts,
But what has all this to do with modern poetry? Ah, much, and more, and still more! I was almost oppressed with the wealth of our inheritance—of our "tradition," if you will. Why go to Greece or China, O ye of little faith? This South-west, which is but one chapter of our rich tradition, is our own authentic wonderland—a treasure-trove of romantic myth—profoundly significant and beautiful, guarded by ancient races practicing their ancient rites, in a region of incredible color and startling natural grandeur.(328)
Though sounding perhaps a tiny bit like a tourist brochure, Monroe's essay indexed an important development in American modernism: While expatriates like Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot would continue to look to Old World mythologies for inspiration, poets in the United States had begun to create regional avant-gardes that, particularly in the case of New Mexico, often drew on Native American myth and living ritual. Observing the "widespread turn to myth by modern writers," Michael Bell tells us that "modernist appreciation of myth descends from a European romantic tradition in which literary creation and a national or folk spirit were intimately associated" (46). However, as I argue in this essay, the Santa Fe poets—including Alice Corbin Henderson, [End Page 175] Witter Bynner, Spud Johnson, and Haniel Long, among others—eschewed classical European models and instead sought out their mythic touchstones within a particular region and culture of the geographic United States. At the same time, embracing the Native Americans' "ancient rites" and mythological tropes in furtherance of a new vision of American poetry (and America itself), the Santa Fe poets registered their resistance to the machine age by invoking an image of a primitive other, thus freighting their project with all of the contradictions that entails.
The first of the group of modernist-era poets to move to Santa Fe was Alice Corbin Henderson, an associate editor of the journal Poetry.1 Arriving from Chicago in the spring of 1916, "facing what she thought was certain death" from tuberculosis (Cline 22), Henderson's literary connections brought others along as well, including the poet Witter Bynner, who settled there in 1922 (Cline 33–35). Spud Johnson, editor of the journal Laughing Horse and a former student of Bynner's at Berkeley, arrived in the same year, becoming Bynner's secretary (Udall 6–10). Another friend of Bynner's was the Pittsburgh poet Haniel Long, who, after a series of extended visits throughout the twenties, moved to Santa Fe permanently in 1929 (Cline 134). Long, with Corbin, was instrumental in founding the collective Writers' Editions press, which published books by most of the poets under consideration. Sharyn R. Udall notes that in the aftermath of the First World War, "New Mexico was welcoming refugees from the bohemian enclaves of Greenwich Village and Chicago. They came in search of a new world of experiences, based not on urban values and messianic technology, but on values derived from a rediscovery of America. . . . Fueled by such ideas, the Santa Fe literary scene was lively in the 1920s" (10–11). Together, these (and other) writers, inspired by Native American myth and culture, the desert landscape, and Santa Fe itself, forged a new literary movement that alternately reacted against certain impulses of the early modernist period (e.g., the celebration of the city) while recapitulating others (e.g., a primitivist turn toward myth).
All four of the poets primarily considered in this essay (Henderson, Bynner, Johnson, and Long) appeared in the [End Page 176] Henderson-edited collection The Turquoise Trail: An Anthology of New Mexico Poetry (1928). In part, the anthology grew out of an informal workshop group that called itself the Rabble, which met at Henderson's house: "By 1925, poets Alice...