William deBuys’s first book about New Mexico dealt with the Sangre de Cristo mountain range and its fate at the hands of trappers, miners, loggers, land-grabbers, naturists, and “sportsmen” who descended on it in successive waves. Each group had its own interests to impose on the hills, the southernmost range of the Rockies; and those with the highest quality palaver were not always least destructive of the living inhabitants.
DeBuys’s tribute to the mountains drew on a wide experience, deep feelings, and a polished prose style that showed, to the most casual eye, the results of careful training and hard work. The author represented himself, how accurately I do not know, as one of the hippie generation which spattered across the landscape for a while, squatting in shacks, smoking pot, and pretending to live “close to nature.” Perhaps he meant no more than that for a while he wore his hair long. One thing he did not share with some others of the counterculture was a taste for sloppy and amateurish craftsmanship. His book on the Sangre de Cristos was thoroughly researched and meticulously written—the sort of book that adds luster to an entire countryside.
His second book, titled River of Traps, narrows its focus perceptibly, to a less than impressive stream, the Rio Trampas, which descends from the high mountains through the hamlet of El Valle to the village of Las Trampas on its way to the Rio Grande. Why “river of traps?” Nobody seems to know exactly, except that beaver trappers swarmed through the mountain country generally in the middle of the last century, busily exterminating the beaver population. (It is still, and no doubt permanently, extinct. But if this was the reason, every stream in the countryside ought to have the same name.) In any event, the new book is less about the river than about a single resident of El Valle, Jacobo Romero. Already in his seventies, he was a farmer who happened to be living next to the property that deBuys and his friend Alex Harris bought when they came to town. Jacobo was not only a neighbor but an extraordinarily kind and good friend. Gringos, especially young gringos who wear their hair long and have no fixed place of employment, are not always welcomed by the Spanish residents of our mountain communities. The history of the region provides many reasons for jealous resentment, above and beyond the present privileges of Anglos. DeBuys and Harris (neither of whom spoke a word of Spanish) were warned by men of experience that if they moved into a community like El Valle, they would get their “asses peeled.” Though imprecise, this was no idle threat; but Jacobo Romero, by befriending them, saved them from this painful fate, and softened their reception into the close and often suspicious circle of village life.
He helped in more immediate ways too. City dwellers, as deBuys and Harris were, are likely to suppose that irrigating a field from a ditch is a simple matter. You open the watergate and let the precious stuff pour out. When your field is soaked, you close the spigot. In the real world, it’s not like that. The water knows the contours of the soil far better than you do; it sees them from closer up. Your field may (probably will) have hollows and hillocks; the water must be coaxed away from the former and onto the latter. It may want to run down gopher holes and disappear. Other water users up and down the ditch will surely be awaiting their turn; if you don’t use all the water to which you are entitled, the mayordomo in charge of the water gates may well cut your supply. You must keep out intrusive animals from other farms while not offending their owners; and when in the spring the accumulated snow mass on the mountains melts in a day or two and comes roaring down, your little rio and all the arrangements you have made regarding it will be crushed under tons of ice water, displaced boulders, and uprooted trees from the up-country.
In handling these everyday problems of homesteading, Jacobo lent his experience to the newcomers and the girlfriends/wives who eventually arrived to accompany them. For their part the young people contributed their physical strength, and an almost filial sense of reverence for the old man. Articulating this bond, compounded of affection, incomprehension, and admiration, taxes to the utmost deBuys’s powers of tactful suggestion. Nothing would have been easier than to sentimentalize with a false word or inflection the relation between the young people and their old friend. These are traps in the story deBuys has to tell, more insidous than any to be found in the Rio Trampas. For all the narrative’s apparent simplicity, the narrator has to invoke literary skills of a high order to bring the book off triumphantly, as he has done.
The picture of Jacobo and his old red horse is simple, severe, yet droll:
The round man on the gaunt horse was a fixture of the village. Eyes straight ahead, toothless mouth puckered, Jacobo sat deep in the saddle, whip in hand, while the red horse stepped carefully, sleepily down the road, as long-legged and deliberate as a praying mantis. Jacobo used an old-style mountain saddle with a high brass horn and a cantle that reached to the small of his back. Such a deep cradling seat was dangerous if the horse fell and rolled on the rider but the support it gave was useful for steep mountain trails and long journeys. It was a saddle to live in, day after day, the way Jacobo had spent his younger days when he “followed the sheeps.” For good or ill such saddles are scarce today, the standard of the western market being the safer flatland roping saddle, with a low cantle and pommel, that the rider can get in and out of quickly.
Jacobo and the horse were a partnership. They had been together since the horse was foaled on Jacobo’s farm during or just after World War II, Jacobo couldn’t exactly remember. Now, in their mutual old age, there was perhaps not another horse in New Mexico as slow and dependable, nor another rider for whom slowness and dependability were more important. Still, there was nothing of the pet or owner in either of them. The horse glared at Jacobo with the same hostile mistrust it glared at all the rest of the world. If the horse did not buck or bite, its restraint was due to hard lessons from the lash and, possibly, to a lack of surplus energy. For his part, Jacobo gave the horse no special consideration. He frequently left it hitched to a fence post, saddled and bridled, for half a day in the hot sun. Jacobo and the horse had a strictly business relation. They did not socialize.
Not the least of deBuys’s problems was the tangible inevitability of his story’s ending. Jacobo had not long to live when they first encountered him; just as powerful was the pull of deBuys the writer and Harris the photographer to move beyond the narrow boundaries of a single mountain village. They were exotic and temporary settlers there, as were most of those young people who, out of disgust with Johnson, Nixon, and Vietnam, tried to drop out of the American mainstream. In the end they got very close to it, but the way they got there could not be sustained for long. They revered Jacobo’s lifelong attachment to his work, his unflawed Stoicism. The book they have created is a beautiful tribute to a man and his work, and it is not flawed by the fact that their path was ultimately very different from his. In this connection Harris’s pictures deserve particular attention. They bring us with unparalleled clarity and simplicity into the presence of the old man, combining with the text to produce a memorial of grave and impressive dignity.
Being raw new country, New Mexico has attracted settlers over the years, and is still doing so; being hard and dry, the land has not welcomed many of them, but even the rejected have carried away with them stories and visions of a possible private enclave, a charmed circle.
Tom Ireland’s Birds of Sorrow records another valiant and apparently doomed effort to combat the harsh and hostile New Mexico countryside. Like many romantics of his generation, he was an easterner, the product of “good schools,” literary in his interests, and a more than capable writer. On the practical side, Ireland worked from time to time as a laborer, in the same way that deBuys took occasional jobs as a carpenter. But mostly he tried, with the help of his wife Molly, to farm their bit of land at La Junta near Ojo Caliente. He didn’t have a friend like Alex Harris; he did not have a kindly helper like Jacobo; and he did not have, so far as he tells us, much of a project beyond momentary survival. One gets the impression that his farming consisted mostly of sheep and poultry, plus a garden patch; but whether they sheared the sheep or slaughtered them, sold the lambs or hoped to enlarge their flock, we don’t hear.
The river flowing by his property used to have trout in it, but is too murky now and too warm; the only fish seem to be suckers, white and unpalatable. Far from being helpful, the neighbors are harsh and demanding; they either cannot or do not want to learn his name, so that to the end of his stay he remains Tom Arnold. Roughnecks from Ojo Caliente come periodically to a little cutoff opposite his house where they drink and fight noisily; sometimes he has to stand guard by his door with a rifle. It was not restful. On the other hand, the birds of La Junta are a source of pleasure; magpies, ravens, and a great blue heron among them. Magdalena, a magpie whom he kidnaps out of the nest, turns out to be practically the most responsive of his acquaintances at La Junta; unfortunately, he crushes her by accident in a car door.
Some small human flotsam and jetsam drifts by looking for a lift or a handout, but not real human relations develop. The book consists of brief sketches and disconnected essays; several of them are beautifully done; but behind the apparently casual sequence of events one feels the steady, painful disintegration of the marriage on which everything rested. No explanations or recriminations, just a quiet drawing apart. The story may be too quiet to make for dramatic writing; but it is inexorable and perfectly proportioned, a minor but moving exercise in melancholy. Seven color woodblock prints by Angie Coleman underline the jagged landscape of the text, and its frequent flashes of dramatic color.
Stanley Crawford’s A Garlic Testament bears witness to the value of a cash crop for anyone who wants to plant a pleasure dome in New Mexico’s often ungrateful soil. Crawford, whose roots were in California, but who met his Australian wife while he was writing novels in the Greek islands, describes some twenty years of experiences growing garlic in northern New Mexico. As eked out with other forms of truck gardening and a continued commitment to writing, it turns out to have been a fairly successful enterprise. Nothing get-rich-quick, but a life with many quiet rewards, which Crawford calculates on a spiritual cash register of his own, very much in the spirit of Henry David Thoreau. Perhaps he provides more information about the idiosyncratic vegetable garlic than anyone but a fanatic on the subject will want to know. (My encyclopedia says what it has to say about garlic in just fourteen lines of type.) But it is indeed a fascinating little vegetable, and Crawford is as much concerned with describing his slow-paced, laborious, sparing way of life as with explaining in deatil the management of a couple of acres of garlic plantation. That doesn’t sound like much of a spread, but growing garlic is evidently back-breaking work and subject to multiple difficulties. Crawford’s sentences sometimes overflow with excess wordage, but overgenerosity is, he says, a professional failing of farmers; when one adjusts to his rhythms, his cornucopian manner seems to have its own fluent satisfaction. As with garlic itself, one can easily have too much of Crawford’s writing; but taken in small doses with careful intervals, it provides food for much reflection.
Thomas Keneally’s The Place Where Souls Are Born is an account of the American Southwest much less intimate than those of the would-be settlers; indeed, it’s not clear that Keneally ever made such close contact with a cholla or a chalupa that he could tell one from the other. He is an Australian writer, the author of Schindler’s List, a much praised account of how Jews were saved from a concentration camp by a German industrialist. His experience of the American West dates to a movie house in a suburb of Sydney where he grew up. Since then he has been back several times, most recently to prepare for the present book. It’s not clear that he wouldn’t have done better to stay in Sydney and read a better collection of books than the potboilers and flash-in-the-pans that make up his present reading list.
He claims to be interested in the Anasazi, or old people, i.e., prehistoric Indians, but as modern researchers know very little about them and Keneally knows much less, they do not make a very satisfactory topic. He has nothing to say about the Arizona ruins at Casa Grande or the even more imposing ruins at Casas Grandes near Chihuahua, Mexico; I cannot discover from his book if he ever looked into the cave dwellings at Pu-ye, only a few miles off the road to Los Alamos. He devotes a great deal of space to the Mormons, especially their leader, to whom he alludes familiarly as “Brigham.” Out of the writings of that well-known scholar Irving Stone he recites at length the story of Horace Taber, the Maecenas of Leadville, Colorado, and his mistress, “Baby Doe.”
With disarming frankness, Keneally describes how he picked up his information on the fly, as he drove his rented car around—from tour maps, conversations with park rangers, guide books bought in tourist gift shops. Not surprisingly, there’s a good deal of the Southwest that he doesn’t know about, or even suspect of existing. So far as he lets on, he never entered the dark Carlsbad Caverns, or saw the bat flights that are such a feature there; never looked at the great ruins at Salinas and Gran Quivira, Chaco Canyon, Zozobra, or the Santa Fe Indian Market, the Cumbres and Toltec Narrow Gauge railway, the extraordinary pots of the Mimbres community (“old people” if there ever were any, but a little off Keneally’s narrow track). We hear nothing about the Lincoln County land wars, nothing about Fred Harvey, his chain of restaurants and hotels, and its mythology; there are no herds of elk, big-horn sheep, or antelope in the book, no piñon, chamisa, or chili. One need go no further. Keneally’s book is a shallow and careless work of journalism.
Two remarkably well-informed—if not always well-written—books, dealing with a special aspect of southwestern history, manage to do so in such a way as to cast light on the entire history of the region. Henry J. Tobias, A History of the Jews in New Mexico, provides a well-documented and extraordinarily interesting history of what for a long time wasn’t even an organized community of immigrants. The first period of Jewish settlement in the Southwest, though by far the most interesting, is unhappily the least well-documented. Coming up from Mexico among the first settlers and their military defenders, there seem to have been a number of concealed or crypto-Jews. They were refugees from Inquisitional persecution in Spain, and were not supposed to be allowed in the New World at all. But they came nonetheless, concealing their identity as much as possible. Especially in the region called Nuevo Leon, where the family of Carvajal held authority, they were said to be numerous if not organized or erudite. In fact they had lost most of their Jewish traditions in the course of the persecution and exodus.
But Spanish Jews were supplemented during the sixteenth century by others of Portuguese provenance; many families without ceasing to be Catholic retained practices, which they knew to be different, of the “old” religion. In the nineteenth century there were still stories of Christmas-time holidays being celebrated with dreidels, of Moses being worshiped as a saint, and of some old lady wearing, as she had promised her long-deceased grandparents, the star of David around her neck.
The evidence concerning these surviving marrano families is scanty at best, and as time passes cannot be expected to increase. But if the invidium still attached to Jewish ancestry were removed, it’s not impossible that further evidence may yet turn up. Nevertheless it was a long time before other Jews came to New Mexico, and they came from a very different direction. Solomon Jacob Spiegelberg arrived in 1844 via the Santa Fe Trail, and settled in Santa Fe itself. Obviously he was not responding to the failed German insurrections of 1848, far less to the lure of California gold in 1849. In a general way he came to flee the oppressions of the Old World and seek opportunities in the New. For the same adventurous and prudential motives, his two brothers soon followed; and when their joint mercantile enterprise flourished, it was not long before they were able to return to the Old Country to find themselves wives. Santa Fe was the first commercial center of what was to become New Mexico, but when the railroad reached Las Vegas (1879) and then Albuquerque (about a decade later), Santa Fe fell behind in commercial development. Perhaps this history accounts for what is still considered Santa Fe’s sniffily genteel attitude, its air of being a little too good for the neighborhood in which it has, by ill fortune, been placed.
For the most part the new German-Jewish merchants dealt in dry goods. They progressed (not strictly in this order) from basket peddler to trunk carrier to pack carrier to wagon baron to jewelry count to store prince—one who has a shop with his name on it. Like the Spiegelberg brothers, of whom there were eventually five, they formed a tight family group, and when a branch was to be opened in another town, there was always a reliable young relative to take charge of it. In the relatively primitive communities of the West, where capital had to be fluid, they tended to become bankers rather than landowners. Such urbanity and cosmopolitanism as the new territory could boast centered on the family life of well-to-do Jewish merchants. Flora Spiegelberg could carry on a dinnertime conversation in French with Archbishop Lamy; Abraham Staab, when he learned that construction on the archbishop’s new cathedral was faltering, interrupted his weekly poker game with the boys to write a check for “ten or fifteen” thousand dollars. The bishop in his gratitude had the Tetragrammaton engraved on a stone triangle above the main entrance, where it still remains. Jews, in short, experienced a warm reception in the territory-soon-to-be-a-state of New Mexico.
Louis Ilfeld, of the leading Las Vegas emporium, put the matter succinctly. If his father Charles had stayed in the East, he said, no doubt some people would have referred to him as a “kike,” but he came to New Mexico and was known universally as “Mr. Ilfeld.” During the 1880s Solomon Bibo repeatedly served as governor of Acoma Pueblo; he had taken pains to learn the language (Keres) and enjoyed the enthusiastic support of the native inhabitants. In 1880 President Rutherford B. Hayes was an honored guest at the houses of Zadok Staab, Lehman Spiegelberg, and Bernard Seligman. (To give the flavor of the frontier it is worth recalling some of the most influential outlaws operating at that time in and around the city of Las Vegas. They were, among others: Hoodoo Brown, Dirty-face Mike, Scar-face Charlie, Kickapoo George, Jack-knife Jack, Durango Kid, Rattlesnake Sam, Splitnose Mike, Web-fingered Billy, Wink the Barber, Jimmie the Duck, Hog Jones, Stuttering Tom, and his namesake Tommy the Poet.)
During the first part of the present century, New Mexico became less colorful. Though the few big towns remain, with the possible exception of Albuquerque they are no longer great centers of enterprise. (One of the Zeckendorf family, feeling the lack of action, went back to New York where he has since been heard of.) Most of the big stores went out of business, to be replaced by smaller specialty shops, or, in the latest phase, by malls harboring links of the big chains like Sears, Wards, Walmart, K-mart, et cetera. So far as these changes were reflected in the varying fortunes of the Jewish community, Professor Tobias reflects them faithfully. His researches have taken him through the pages of Dun and Bradstreet, city registers and the rosters of Masonic lodges, and a wilderness of brotherhoods and charitable organizations. The book is a remarkably substantial and painstaking piece of research, and Professor Tobias, though he gives himself no airs, writes a thoroughly competent prose. At first glance the subject may not seem particularly inviting. The early Jews in New Mexico were pedestrian and literal-minded shopkeepers, most of whom probably wouldn’t have had much to say for themselves apart from the daily course of their Geschäft. But some of them evidently had a sense of adventurous enterprise as well; they ventured unprotected into the back country, and the story of their progress from meager poverty to modest riches has some of the romance of a tale told by a frontier Defoe.
A second book, Jews of the American West, takes a wider purview than Tobias, and is for that reason able to add points of special interest and emphasis. Edited by Moses Rischin and John Livingston, the book is a collection of eight essays growing out of a conference held in May of 1986 at Denver. I fear the reader must be warned not to be put off by the first of the essays, that of Moses Rischin, for which the most forbearing adjective must be “turgid,” but the rest of the essays, though occasionally spooked by social-science jargon, are thoroughly presentable. Some of the strong points are very strong indeed. One is absolutely fascinated to learn of the community of New Odessa in Oregon, part of whose program was to establish a Pacific steamboat line for transporting prisoners from the labor camps of Siberia to freedom in Western America.
The New Odessans were an unusually exuberant and idealistic group of young people—that was part of their problem. After the first breaking of ground in 1882, the enterprise dissolved only a decade later because the members had so many different and equally brilliant ideas of the path to be taken. Yet they impressed almost everyone who knew them, not only with their intelligence, but with their readiness to work. Like many later settlers in Israel, they were eager to shed the ghetto image; they saw merit in working the soil. After leaving Oregon, they scattered, like members of an unusually high-powered seminar, to make brilliant records in many different parts of the country. From membership in the Odessa Society of Ploughmen, Peter Fireman went on to become a distinguished scientist and manufacturing chemist, as well as a lifelong member of the celebrated Cosmos Club of Washington, DC. Just as devoted to the life of the soil, if less incandescent, were the Jewish pioneers who moved in 1911 to Clarion, Utah, about three miles from Gunnison. They were not experienced farmers and they did not know the ways of a semi-arid countryside; while their acres might have flourished under irrigation, the canal under construction did not reach their district until two years after the colony, exhausted by its struggles with drought and bitter winter weather, had collapsed. It was a brave and hopeless venture.
On a less strenuous plane, Jeanne Abrams describes the flourishing of Denver as a center for the treatment of consumption. The patients were not exclusively Jewish but largely so because of their slum and ghetto backgrounds. One of the two sanitariums was for relatively rich patients, the other made no charge, and took in patients in every stage of the disease. Dr. Charles Spivak and his kindly, authoritarian regime are described in terms reminiscent of The Magic Mountain. Patients were stuffed with food from the minute they enrolled. Fortified with plenty of blankets, they slept outdoors, even when the temperature was ten below zero. They downed gallons of milk; whether, because of the dietary laws, they might also eat meat was a major question. (One unfortunate lady, not a patient of Doctor Spivak’s, was constrained to eat twenty-eight raw eggs before she was allowed to leave the table. Heroic measures indeed!)
These are a few of the oddities to be gleaned from the stories told in these books. We learn of the magnificent Temple Emanu-E1 raised on Sutter Street in San Francisco (1866), and of the prolonged dispute between Zionists and anti-Zionists which racked that community. Intermarriage, assimilation, and anti-Semitism are the subjects of extensive and careful discussion. Like the man in the story who, when asked to discuss the elephant, could think of no theme so apt as “the elephant and the Jewish question,” taking too special a view of Western history can skew our vision. But it need not do so.
The West was relatively quick to accept Jews because there were few of them, because they had been partly assimilated by their journey across the continent, because everyone except the Indians is an outsider here. In addition, informal Western manners quickly became a kind of charade. Californians are particularly fond of fancy-dress, Buffalo Bill parades; so are Westerners in general, whether they call their fiestas “rodeos” or “Old Time” days or just plain “parades.” As I write, Temple Beth Shalom in Santa Fe is advertising a Wild West Saloon night with costumes, gambling, and dancing for the congregation. Half the members, no doubt, are lawyers and medicine men, but for the occasion they will be cowboys and rough riders—whether they know how to mount a horse or not. It’s a harmless fantasy, a momentary escape toward the past from the prevailing drabness of the present. We’d be poorer without it.
May 28, 1992