MABEL DODGE LUHAN: New Woman, New Worlds. By Lois Palken Rudnick. University of New Mexico Press. 384 pp. $19.95.
ALTHOUGH half a century ago Mabel Dodge Luhan was one of the most famous and widely discussed women in America, the years have not been kind to her memory. Today, most people who recognize her name at all think of Luhan as a kind of wealthy socialite proto-groupie who had served as the model for one of Gertrude Stein's verbal-cubist portraits and later used her money to attract celebrities, most notably D.H. Lawrence, to the artists' colony in Taos, New Mexico, over which she presided. The resurrection process which has attended the feminist movement has been slow to take up Luhan's cause, possibly because of her powerful and freely admitted dependence on men she perceived as creative. All the more reason to applaud the appearance of Lois Palken Rudnick's witty and clear-sighted new biography of Luhan, which brings her vividly back to life.
Rudnick makes it easy to understand why so many of the intellectual luminaries of the early part of the century were drawn to Luhan. She had a restless and apparently brilliant mind, and was among the first to appreciate many difficult ideas (she was championing Gertrude Stein's more extreme style before World War II, and Freud's ideas got some of their earliest exposure in the United States when A.A. Brill lectured on them at her Greenwich Village salon).
Luhan's life, as chronicled by Rudnick, fell into strongly contrasting phases, each of which was a conscious reaction against its predecessor. From a financially privileged but emotionally starved childhood and early adulthood in Buffalo, she moved on to hold court at a villa in Florence where the esthetic of the fin de sied, and where the guests included Gertrude and Leo Stein, Artur Rubinstein, Andr,e Gide and Eleanor Duse. Her subsequent Greenwich Village salon was even more brilliant, perhaps the most influential ever to exist in New York City, with radical political commitment replacing the decadent estheticism which had come to bore its hostess in Florence, and John Reed, Max Eastman and Carl Van Vechten among the "movers and shakers" who frequented it.
With her discovery of Taos in 1917 and her subsequent association with and marriage to the Pueblo Indian Tony Luhan, Luhan's life came as close as it ever would to stability. She immediately saw the adoption of Pueblo culture as the only way to redemption for what she felt to be the collapsing culture of the West, and set about recruiting creative figures to come to Taos and help spread the gospel. This near fanaticism generated many stormy relationships, including legendary ones with D.H. and Frieda Lawrence and with the Robinson Jeffers family. Lawence came to see her as a kind of demon who pirated the force of men, and indeed many of the portraits of her done by male writers who came into her circle seem to project her aggressive personality as a destructive force.
Luhan was one of the first to recognize the necessity of legislation to protect the rights of Native Americans, and fought hard for it throughout the remainder of her life. Her marriage to Luhan, which was her fourth marriage and, although difficult, only durable love relationship, lasted until her death in 1962.
Rudnick traces Luhan's amazing life with genuine, if qualified, sympathy. Her sharp, at times sardonic style so suits her subject that the reader willingly accepts her few oversights. Rudnick includes many excerpts from Luhan's own writing in the biography, and they fully reveal the dazzling and magnetic quality of Luhan's personality. An anthology would be welcome. LADY GREGORY; The Woman Behind the Irish Renaissance. By Mary Lou Kohfeldt Atheneum. 366 pp. $19.95.
READING Lady Gregory's furiously kinetic and funny short comic plays, it is difficult to imagine her as the emotionally rather reserved matron who inhabits the pages of Mary Lou Kohfeldt's new biography, but Kohfeldt draws her portrait convincingly. One of 16 children, Isabella Augusta Persse was kept at a distance by her mother, who saw her as plain and uninteresting. Kohfeldt holds that the view of herself she acquired as "this little-welcomed girl" stayed with her and colored her life.
At the age of 28, she made what was seen as a brilliant marriage to the 63-year-old Sir William Gregory, who adored her and whom she appears to have respected and admired throughout their 12 years together. An affair she had with Sir Wilfrid Blunt during the course of that marriage seems to have been the only intrusion of passionate love into her life. For the rest of it she surrounded herself with various shields, most notably the mourning she wore from the time of Sir William Gregory's death in 1892 until her own death in 1932.
The book is at its most interesting in chronicling Gregory's long, rather maternal relationship with Yeats, whose career she nurtured by feeding and sheltering him for years at her Coole estate. He, in turn, fired her own interest in Irish folklore, and encouraged her folk tale collecting and playwriting efforts. Together they founded the Abbey Theatre, on whose stage the Irish Renaissance was born. Readers familiar with Lady Gregory's plays will also be intrigued with Kohfeldt's discussions of how they reflect episodes in the author's emotional development.
Kohfeldt recounts all of this in an anecdotal, at times almost novelistic style: "Augusta rarely looked at herself. When she did, she saw a woman in black. When she looked at Coole in April of 1897, she saw that it was beautiful. . . ." This method can be difficult to control in nonfiction writing, and there are passages when this biography comes dangerously close to a sentimentality Lady Gregory would not have admired. At its best, however, as in Kohfeldt's re-creation of the Abbey Theatre's first American tour, when it presented Synge's riot-provoking Playboy of the Western World and Gregory discovered her gift for lecturing, it is evocative and moving. ORWELL: The Road to Airstrip One. By Ian Slater. Norton. 302 pp. $18.95.
IAN SLATER's new study of George Orwell uses a biographical framework to trace the development of political and social thought in Orwell's works. The result bears out Lionel Trilling's observation, quoted by Slater, that Orwell was one of those "figures . . . who are what they write." Humiliated at St. Cyprian's school because of his status as the son of unwealthy parents, Orwell, born Eric Blair, conceived a hatred of the injustices associated with the English class system which he would refine and extend in his written works for the rest of his life.
After finishing his formal education, Blair volunteered fo police work in colonial Burma, where his perceptions of the evils of imperialism eventually found expression in his novel, Burmese Days, which was published under the pseudonym George Orwell. John Flory, the hero of that novel and the spokesman for Orwell's viewpoint, commits suicide out of despair at the hypocrisy and injustice of the "white man's burden" mentality in which he has become enmeshed. Orwell lived on and returned to England, however, where he discovered the same type of distance that he had observed between the Burmese and their colonizers now separating the members of the British working class from the middle class which disdained them. After making his famous descent into the working-class life style, Orwell crystallized his reactions in The Road to Wigan Pier, with its combination of disgust at class injustice and critique of the views of well-fed middle- class socialists.
Slater views Orwell's involvement in the Spanish Civil War, where he allied himself initially with the semi-Trotskyite party, P.O.U.M., and was near-fatally wounded, as the crucial event in his life, and the one which led to the grim totalitarian visions of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was there that he saw firsthand that writers of every political stripe were ignoring, distorting or changing outright in their reports the facts of the events they observed, to bring them into conformity with their preferred ideologies. This tendency, in its monstrous form, motivates the vast propaganda machines of Nineteen Eighty-Four, where history is continually being revised to justify the policy of the moment. Orwell saw the Soviet Union as a partial realization of this nightmare, and his attacks on the Soviet system alienated him from the British socialists who had previously welcomed his works.
Slater's book is so well argued and documented that at least one reader paid it the compliment of returning to Orwell's ealier novels to test its insights. It is doubtful that any book provides a better foundation for a full understanding of Orwell's unique and troubling vision. VIRGINIA WOOLF: A Writer's Life. By Lyndall Gordon. Norton. 320 pp. $17.95.
LYNDALL GORDON takes Virginia Woolf at her word when the writer wonders, "whether I . . . deal . . . in autobiography & call it fiction?" As Gordon notes, Woolf confessed early in her career that she suffered "blushing & shivering & wishing to take cover" when she saw her work in print, and she would have been astounded at the enormous popularity it has achieved in recent years. With the publication of Quentin Bell's biography in 1972, and especially of Virginia Woolf's diaries and letters, the details of her life -- her equivocal attidutes toward her father, tortured marriage to Leonard Woolf, her mental breakdowns and eventual suicide -- are widely known. What Gordon's new biography achieves is to demonstrate how the writer transformed her often agonized life into some of the most psychologically acute fiction ever written. By approaching Woolf's life though her work, and especially her fiction, the book contributes fresh insights into what some may feel is an overexposed subject.
Gordon's method is especially successful in her discussions of what she obviously feels to be Woolf's two greatest novels, To the Lighthouse and The Waves. She reconstructs much of the emotional terrain of Woolf's childhood through the stylized but (according to her sister Vanessa) uncannily faithful portraits of family members in To the Lighthouse. Julia and Leslie Stephen, Virginia's parents, are so vividly re-created in the characters of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay that, after reading the novel, Vanessa wrote to Viginia, "So you see as far as portrait painting goes you seem to me to be a supreme artist and it is so shattering to find oneself face to face with those two again that I can hardly consider anything else . .."
Gordon views The Waves, written when Woolf was depressed and advancing into middle age, as its author's statement of resistance to death and extinction, in which she switches perspective from the "historical" time of the autobiographical To the Lighthouse to "eternal" time. Through the monologue of the character Bernard, Woolf projects the grandeur of six common people in various stances of resistance. The final effect is, according to Gordon, a "demonstrat(ion) of the gifts of our species: its powers of sympathy and imagination, its capacity to communicate by the finest shades of implication and to reflect with inexorable honesty."
Virginia Woolf: A Writer's Life realizes its title by successfully bringing its subject's difficult life into sharp focus through the lens of her work. It should be welcomed even by those who may feel that this writer's personal tribulations have already been sufficiently explored.