BEHIND THE MOUNTAINS
Facsimile of 1956 Edition with a New Foreword by Marc Simmons
FOREWORD TO THIS EDITION
When he died in the summer of 1963, Santa Fe author Oliver Hazard Perry La Farge was already ranked among the literary lions of Southwestern letters. Since that time his reputation has continued to grow and new honors have been added to his name. One of the most fitting tributes came when Santa Fe decided to name a new branch library after him.
The matter was attended by some controversy, partly because almost nothing that transpires in New Mexico’s capital escapes heated debate, but partly too because Oliver La Farge was the kind of man who generated argument. His friend, the poet Winfield Townley Scott, once characterized him as “an aristocratic Yankee, a man of fierce pride who held his opinions strongly.”
La Farge was much enamored of Santa Fe’s Old World charm, as many other people of sensitivity and imagination have been. But his was not the usual quiet admiration for the place. He campaigned openly and with energy to keep crass commercialism and tasteless modernity at bay.
With support of like-minded citizens, he helped organize the Old Santa Fe Association and was a leader in getting a Historic Zoning Ordinance enacted. And in his weekly column, “The Santa Fe Bird Watcher,” published for many years in The Santa Fe New Mexican, he repeatedly flailed away at the up-to-date boomers who were ready, at the drop of a dollar, to do away with what he called “the town’s native style, unpretentious, priceless and vitally important.”
In this respect, Oliver La Farge was more than a little out of step with contemporary America. He took a firm stand against the mindless doctrine of “change for change’s sake” upon which so many of our social and economic premises continue to be based. Particularly in the fields of art and architecture, he noted, “nothing is more deadly than the innovations of the incompetent seeking to be striking.” In condemning phoniness, fads and “daring new departures cooked up much as women’s clothes designers and hairdressers cook up new styles for the fair sex,” he stepped on toes.
When time came to choose a name for Santa Fe’s branch library, more than fifteen years after La Farge’s death, there were those who remembered and who objected to bestowing this honor upon him. Their complaints appeared in the press: Oliver La Farge lacked vision, he opposed progress, he was archaic, preoccupied with the past.
Unfortunately, the subject of attack was not around to defend himself, but others were ready to take up the cudgel in his behalf. Ultimately the Library Board decided to go ahead with its original intention, gracing the new branch with La Farge’s name—on the basis of literary merit.
The man around whom this brief tempest in a teapot had swirled wore a number of hats in his tenure of 61 years: those of field anthropologist, linguist, professor, journalist, Indian advocate, lieutenant colonel in the Army Air Command during World War II, and editor. But it was in the area of literature that Oliver La Farge made his largest mark and won enduring fame. He was a writer to his fingertips and a lover of books to his shoe soles.
His first published volume put his name in lights before he was 30. The book was Laughing Boy, a novel of Navajo life, and it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1930. The background for the work La Farge had collected when, as an anthropology student at Harvard in the mid-1920s, he participated in summer archeological expeditions to the Navajo Reservation. From this experience he drew more than literary material. He gained a love for the Southwest and a sympathy for the Indian and his problems that were to prove a focus for his life thereafter.
Born of old New England stock and numbering the 19th century naval heroes Commodores Oliver Hazard Perry and Matthew Perry among his ancestors, La Farge also had a dash of Indian blood in his veins. Upon him, this slight aboriginal strain left a strong imprint. Owing to his dark complexion and craggy features, his mother affectionately nicknamed him “Indian Man.”
After the success of Laughing Boy and the appearance of several scholarly works on the Mayan people of southern Mexico and Guatemala, Oliver La Farge was firmly established in the public mind as “an authority on Indians.” A string of books on Native Americans that followed served to reinforce the image. His reputation, as well as his temperament and reforming tendencies, led him, perhaps inevitably, to become a champion of Indian rights and an exposer of abuses against them.
By the 1930s he was actively involved in the thankless and, as of then, unpopular work of Indian defense organizations. For many years he served as president and guiding spirit of the New York-based American Association on Indian Affairs. It was a cause that engaged him most of his adult life.
Just a short time before his death, already having trouble breathing, he drove the 80 miles from Santa Fe to Taos to confer with Indian leaders regarding the ongoing struggle to recover their sacred Blue Lake from the National Forest Service. Here was a moral issue to which he had long devoted his energies, and one whose successful conclusion he would not live to see.
Before the new spirit of the 1970s ushered in respect for Indian ways and culture, people who spoke out on their behalf were often subject to rough handling. La Farge tells in his autobiographical Raw Material, published in 1942, how he fared when subpoenaed to testify before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in Washington.
Beforehand, his stomach churned and he could not even drink a cup of coffee. He knew all too well what pressure the senators could place on witnesses. During his testimony he relates, “I was taken beautifully to pieces.” The same fate befell other pro-Indian witnesses who “went down in agony.”
The Committee chairman, La Farge contends, was ruthless and sometimes unbelievably rude. “The more I heard, the sicker and angrier I felt. I think any American will get angry, regardless of which side he is on, when a senator starts working over a perfectly sincere witness.”
The comments were typical of Oliver La Farge. The strong sense of justice that weighed upon him kept him fighting. His courage sustained him. The Indians whom he had befriended and whose battles he had waged knew that he was one white man who could be trusted. At his open gravesite a delegation of Pueblos unashamedly wept.
While it was in the area of Indian history and literature that La Farge won his reputation, it bears mentioning that he produced one fine book on New Mexico’s Hispanic population. At the Santa Fe Fiesta in 1936, he had met Consuelo Baca, destined to become his wife. She was a member of one of the old aristocratic families, the Bacas having been prime movers in the politics and economy of New Mexico for generations.
Hearing from his wife of the traditional life she had known as a child on the Baca ranch high in the Sangre de Cristos, La Farge set down in his Behind the Mountains a lyrical account of a way of life that had vanished. While it received no Pulitzer Prize like Laughing Boy, it nevertheless earned the affection of New Mexicans, who continue to regard the book as a regional classic.
Santa Fe has changed a great deal—more than most people are prepared to acknowledge—since Oliver La Farge died in August 1963. The small-town atmosphere with “its warmth and rewards” he often spoke of and admired is swiftly becoming a thing of the past. But with his name appropriately enshrined over the doorway of a library, perhaps the Modern Age will not be inclined to forget his love for the city and for the people of the Southwest.