The Penitentes of the Southwest

      Lynn Cline
            Without Alice Corbin Henderson, Santa Fe, New Mexico, might never have become a celebrated sanctuary and inspirational touchstone for artists, writers and other creative souls who have made their homes here for the past two centuries.
            Alice was a wife, mother and also the first associate editor of Poetry, an influential magazine published out of Chicago, when she first sojourned to the Southwest seeking a cure for a serious case of tuberculosis.
            Traveling by train from her home in Chicago with her husband, William Penhallow Henderson, and young daughter, Little Alice, she arrived in 1916, fully expecting to die within a year. She never could have predicted how life in Santa Fe would fully transform her.
            Initially staying at the famous Sunmount Sanatorium and then moving into a house her husband built on Camino Monte Sol, she tapped into a deep and profound well of creativity. As a result, she survived her bout with tuberculosis, living on for years and producing a steady stream of acclaimed poetry, prose, essays and this prized book, the WPA Guide to New Mexico, published in 1940.
            Alice Corbin Henderson became the first and founding member of the Santa Fe writers’ colony. By the time she arrived at Sunmount Sanatorium, she already had established herself as a prominent editor in America's poetry scene. She also had written two books of poetry, by the time tuberculosis threatened to destroy everything she had accomplished. Informing her that she would not live for more than a year, her doctor prescribed a stay at Sunmount.
            Traveling to New Mexico by train in March 1916, Henderson must have been terrified facing certain death. Later, she recorded what was running through her mind as she voyaged into an unknown country: “I had been thrown out into the desert to die, like a piece of old scrap-iron, or a rusty Ford.” Yet, instead of death, she discovered a whole new way of life.
            In a letter sent to poet Carl Sandburg on March 28, she described the vistas from Sunmount cottage that took in the “sand-combed valley to the west,” the “mesas rising out of it” and the “snow-capped mountains of the Sangre de Cristo range.”
            Sandburg’s return letter of April 2nd delivered an eloquent description of how New Mexico had transformed Henderson: she had “slipped into quiet, pearl-walled caves of quiet, and was learning new values of dream,” he wrote to her. Sandburg, the recipient of two Pulitzer prizes, visited Santa Fe in the 1920s and 1930s, serenading guests with folk songs as he played guitar at a reception Henderson held in his honor.
            Henderson's own writing reflected her transformation. The place she had once believed would be a “desolate exile,” instead astounded her as “a new world of beauty.”
            Alice Corbin Henderson left Sunmount after her recovery and, from 1917 to 1923, lived in a small adobe house on what was then called Telegraph Road. (In keeping with her desire to celebrate traditional culture, Henderson convinced city authorities to officially change Telegraph Road’s name back to its original Spanish name, Camino del Monte Sol, or Road of the Sun Mountain, which it bears today.)
            In 1924, Henderson’s husband built the family a larger home nearby, in the same area where other artists who recently settled in Santa Fe built their homes and studios. William Penhallow Henderson, an acclaimed architect of Santa Fe Style, also designed an elegant adobe on Garcia Street which now houses the School of American Research as well as the Wheelwright Museum building on Museum Hill.
            The Henderson home became a meeting place for the growing group of writers, artists, and intellectuals who settled in Santa Fe. Here, Henderson came to know a different rhythm and way of life, living a slower pace than Chicago offered that connected her to the cycles of the seasons. Restored to good health, Henderson experimented with a new style of writing, one that celebrated the simplicity of life in northern New Mexico.
            In 1920, Henderson published her acclaimed Red Earth: Poems of New Mexico, which included work first published in Poetry magazine. In American Modernist scholar Lois Palken Rudnick’s introduction to the 2003 reissue of Red Earth, she wrote that Henderson’s book instantly took an important place in modern American poetry “both because of its aesthetic power and because the poems selected for it made an important contribution to the culture wars that were occurring over the formation of the modern poetry canon in the early twentieth century.”
            The untitled poem below, which Henderson placed at the beginning of Red Earth, signaled to readers that they were embarking on a voyage to an unfamiliar and powerful land full of vast open space and silences—a remote place in the country that greatly contrasted the bustling, noisy and busy pace of life in the city:
      After the roar, after the fierce modern music
      Of rivets and hammers and trams,
      After the shout of the giant,
      Youthful and brawling and strong
      Building the cities of men,
      Here is the desert of silence,
      Blinking and blind in the sun—
      An old, old woman who mumbles her beads
      And crumbles to stone.
            Henderson also promoted New Mexico in numerous other ways, compiling the 1928 groundbreaking book, The Turquoise Trail, An Anthology of New Mexico Poetry, containing work by 37 contributors, all of whom who drew inspiration from New Mexico. In her preface to the anthology, Henderson described similarities between New Mexico's diverse cultures:
            “On the common ground of poetry, indeed, the living Indian poets and the Anglo-American poets of New Mexico now meet in friendly contact; and the influence of this primitive verse and thought on the later poets is obvious.”
            Henderson joined Santa Fe writer Raymond Otis and poets Haniel Long and Peggy Pond Church as a founding member of Writers’ Editions, a cooperative publishing venture of Santa Fe and Taos writers launched in the mid-1930s.
            The highly successful group, known as Rydal Press, had its own printer’s mark—a small saint cradling two printer’s inking balls between his hands—drafted by illustrator and type inventor Warren Chappell. Rydal Press was the moniker chosen by Walter Lippincott Goodwin, Jr., a talented printer and publisher from Pennsylvania invited to Santa Fe by Writers’ Editions in 1933.
            The Writers’ Editions’ credo, which appeared on most of its books, mandated that regional publication must “foster the growth of American literature.” The group’s 17 publications reflected the varied voices of the region. Writers’ Editions published three poetry books, including Alice Corbin Henderson’s The Sun Turns West, containing work from 1915 to 1932.
            Alice Corbin Henderson kept busy with other projects too. Her passion for eclectic songs resulted in Brothers of the Light: The Penitentes of the Southwest, a collection of Spanish religious songs sung by the Penitentes, a secretive group of Hispano Catholic men. Published in 1937 with illustrations by Henderson’s husband, the book also contained information about the group’s history and ritual ceremonies.
            Henderson also contributed to New Mexico: A Guide to the Colorful State, one of a series of travel guides to American states launched by the Works Progress Administration to increase tourism during the Depression years.
            Because of its scope, the book took longer to complete than planned and when it finally was published in 1940, it contained Henderson’s informative essay on New Mexico literature. The essay opens with the acknowledgement that New Mexico’s literary tradition “begins with orally transmitted myths, legends and rituals of the Indians who were native to the soil when the Spaniards came,” and that the first written books were “the old Spanish chronicles of exploration and conquest.”
            Undoubtedly, Alice Corbin Henderson was one of the main movers and shakers of the Santa Fe writers’ colony. She also had strong ties to the Taos literary colony: at age 15 her daughter, known as Little Alice, married Mabel Dodge Luhan's only son, John Evans. The marriage didn't last, but the couple did have daughters before they divorced in 1932.
            It's difficult to know whether Alice Corbin Henderson was pleased by the marriage. After all, she and Mabel Dodge Luhan were not the best of friends. Indeed, Alice may be the main reason why Mabel chose to settle in Taos rather than Santa Fe. Since Alice was already happily ensconced in Santa Fe when Mabel arrived in 1917, Mabel fled to Taos, almost certainly because she did not intend to take on a rival in her search to become the pivotal force in whatever town she inhabited.
            And while Mabel was prolific, penning a series of autobiographies in at least five volumes as well as dozens of articles published in national magazines, newspapers and other periodicals, Alice Corbin Henderson was by far the better writer.
            Alice not only wrote and edited in Santa Fe, she had an impressively busy social life, hosting literary readings, teas, grand balls and launching the annual Writer's Round-Up, a huge gala attended by just about every writer and artist in town.
            Alice's role in the Santa Fe writers’ colony was major. When artists, authors and other creative began to trek to northern New Mexico in the early twentieth century, fleeing a modern world obsessed with war, greed, and excessive materialism, Alice became their guide. She introduced writers and artists to poets that she had discovered and nurtured in the pages of Poetry, including Ezra Pound, Carl Sandburg and Vachel Lindsay. And when Robert Frost came to town, it was because Alice had invited him.
            These writers took solace in the different cultures and rhythms of the Southwest, treasuring their experiences of the ancient traditions of the Pueblo, Navajo and Hopi people and the Hispano people who set roots in New Mexico starting in the 16th century.
            These prolific pilgrims of the 20th century firmly believed that life in a remote and foreign land offered an antidote to urbanization, industrialization, and a sickly preoccupation with military power that overtook America starting with World War I.
            Northern New Mexico’s dry desert air, forested mountains, flat-top mesas, and sun-drenched sky have always wielded a rough sort of magic on its denizens, but this lively group of writers who established literary colonies in Santa Fe and Taos from the early 1900s took the effects to new heights.
            They arrived on the heels of a group of national and international artists, who had founded their colonies in Santa Fe and Taos a few years earlier. The group, which also included architects, anthropologists and history buffs frequently collaborated on projects as well as personal achievements, creating books, magazine articles, and group exhibitions along with marriages, families and friendships.
            These celebrated intellectuals—including British author D.H. Lawrence, American author Willa Cather, American poet and naturalist Mary Austin and American poet Witter Bynner—saw no place for themselves or their work in urban centers and industrialized societies.
            Henderson was a well-liked, gifted writer who had more impact probably than any other writer of her era in Santa Fe. Her husband died of a heart attack in 1943, but she—who had been told she would die within a year in 1916—lived a full life until July 18, 1949. A few months before her death, Henderson’s friends and colleagues paid tribute to her invaluable role as a poet, editor, and activist in Santa Fe with a special edition of New Mexico Quarterly Review, published by the University of New Mexico.
            Edited by Santa Fe poet Witter Bynner and Santa Fe author Oliver La Farge, the commemorative edition contained glowing accounts of her friendship and professional stature in the community and is included in this book from Sunstone Press.
            Bynner may have put it best, in his essay, “Alice and I,” when he wrote that during “that golden period of American poetry, her vivid, sympathetic spirit meant much more to most of the poets who made it golden, as it has meant much to all of us who have encountered her in poetry or in life.”