“After the war [World War I], artists, writers, poets, Indian-rights activists, seekers of the exotic, intellectuals seeking an unstructured society, remittance men, and all others who did not fit in elsewhere arrived in increasing numbers.”
~John Pen La Farge
Although I didn’t have a name for it, oral history was what I wanted as a child, as opposed to the dry history textbooks that we were given. I wanted to hear what happened to ordinary people and not to have to read about a lot of boring battles and facts that I had to memorize without context. I’ve always learned best when reading fiction about a particular period because it made the past seem more alive, and recorded oral histories are even better than fiction.
In his book, Turn Left at the Sleeping Dog; Scripting the Santa Fe Legend, 1920-1955, John Pen La Farge recorded the oral histories of 24 of Santa Fe’s colorful characters, getting the details while they were still alive, so to speak. He takes care to tell us that this is not a history and that individuals may blur certain details. Of course they do, and part of the fun of this book is reading about incidents from several different viewpoints. He tells about family life, local politics, parties, artists’ lives, Indians, ranchers, La Fonda, merchants, the coming of the opera, and any number of quirky individuals. It is the best kind of social history.
"...word got back to the East that one might find a rather exotic freedom in New Mexico, in an atmosphere like no other." p.2
La Farge, born in 1951 to Oliver La Farge and Consuelo Pendaries y Baca, is a Santa Fe native. His father was an anthropologist and author of scientific papers, fiction (notably Laughing Boy, Pulitzer Prize winner in 1929), non-fiction about Indian culture, and a column for the Santa Fe New Mexican. His maternal grandmother, Marguerite, was onetime Secretary of State for New Mexico.
"Toward the end of the [19th] century, anthropologists and archaeologists adopted New Mexico as the prime American location for study. So many anthropologists came that the Zuni Indians joked that their typical family included a mother, a father, three children, and an anthropologist." p.3
Over a number of years in the late 1980s, historian La Farge talked with people representing “a cross-section of Santa Fe during the best of times: native Santa Feans, both Spanish-American and Anglo, artists, immigrants, those who came by accident, those who came intending to stay, those who fought to preserve the older cultures’ traditions and values.” (Quoted from the book cover). The people La Farge talked with were friends of his family, people he had known all of his life, many now gone.
"Those who did not or could not fit in elsewhere found a good fit in New Mexico, where people's natural tolerance and the territory's vast spaces allowed them to live as they pleased."
"The people of the land were nonjudgmental as well as exotic, welcoming as well as foreign, and reasonably willing to let a man do as he pleased as long as he did not do it in the street and frighten the horses." p.3
Their world was Santa Fe at its most charming when it was a town where people could walk to find all their necessities, when the plaza was the true town center that had the stores that they needed to buy groceries, clothing, hardware, and medicine. It was a time when the population was small enough for the neighbors to all know each other. And it was a much quieter time, when one could give directions to a visitor by telling him to go up the hill and turn left at the sleeping dog.
Turn Left at the Sleeping Dog; Scripting the Santa Fe Legend, 1920-1955, by John Pen La Farge. Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 2001. 396 p.
More about Oliver La Farge:
Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin
More about Santa Fe (Scroll down and you will see a link to an article about Santa Fe by John Pen La Farge):
Santa Fe Basics; The Story of Many Peoples http://www.santafeinformation.com/history.html