Carobeth Laird, First Published at Age 80

Portraits of Carobeth Laird from a Parade Magazine profile
Portraits of Carobeth Laird from a 1975 Parade Magazine profile

“Never before have I heard of an exiting new literary talent bursting forth at the age of 80. But here, I am convinced, we have one,” Tom Wolfe in Harper’s Bookletter in 1975. He was remarking upon the publication of Carobeth Laird’s first book, a memoir of her marriage to anthropologist John Peabody Harrington, Encounter with an Angry God, by the small, volunteer-run Malki Museum Press.

Chances are slim that Wolfe would have learned of the book had not two writers, Harry Lawton and Anne Jennings, associated with the museum, sent copies of it to some of their contacts in New York publishing circles. Lawton and Jennings knew a remarkable piece of writing when they saw it. Encounter is a frank, self-deprecating, and eloquent account, written from a distance of fifty years, of how Laird met, married, worked with, and, ultimately, divorced Harrington, a pioneering linguist and anthropologist who was singularly driven to pursue his researches at the cost of everything else, including his wife’s health. Thanks to their efforts, the book gained reviews in a number of major papers, including The Washington Post, in which Larry McMurtry positively gushed: “… if it were fiction, it would be a great, if not the greatest, American novel.” The small press’s initial edition of 2,000 copies sold out quickly, another run of 5,000 was released, and the book was picked up for release as a mass market paperback by Ballantine Books.

Yet Encounter is a classic case of a book being so entwined with an author that the two cannot be judged separately. Carobeth Tucker was already an exceptional young woman when she enrolled in Harrington’s introductory class on linguistics at the San Diego Normal School in 1915. Born in Texas, she had traveled with her family to Mexico in 1913, met and fell in love with a married man, and became pregnant with his child. She moved with her parents to San Diego and together, they raised Carobeth’s child. Unable to gain admission to a college, given her situation, she undertook self-study instead, demonstrating a real aptitude for learning languages. When the opportunity to study linguistics at the Normal School came up, she jumped at it.

encounterswithanangrygodHer first thought upon seeing Harrington enter the classroom on the first day was that he looked “like an angry god.” Although he hated teaching and his manner was abrupt and awkward, “his magnificent head and face” stirred her imagination, and Harrington soon learned that she, in turn, was extremely alert and grasped both the principles and details of linguistics with ease. She started staying after class to help him grade papers and they discussed poetry, evolution, and his dreams of field research. In a matter of weeks, Harrington was speaking “as if it were completely settled that he and I should spend our lives together,” although she was already noticing that “at other times all his planning left me out completely.” He later tried to explain his fluctuating manner by saying that he was worried she was a Jew.

He was also tactless and intellectually arrogant, wore clothes that were threadbare and needed a wash, shoveled his food in with a spoon, and talked with his mouth full. Her parents weren’t particularly impressed when they met him, but they considered him somewhat prestigious, given his degrees and faculty position, and already thought Carobeth “desparately self-willed.” They merely went along with her wishes when she followed Harrington up to Los Angeles and joined him on a field trip researching Indian languages in the Santa Ynez Valley. Though he virtually ignored her aside from relying on her command of Spanish and typing skills as research tools. They fought. And, after a few months in the field, they got married.

Early in the book, Laird acknowledges that what Harrington needed was “a wise, firm and sympathetic guide, not a youthful slave and disciple.” From what she describes, slave was her primary role in their time together. Harrington was not only utterly focused on research work he saw as a race against time, given that the California Indian populations had been so decimated and many of the surviving native speakers of Indian languages were aging and ill, but he also had a deep streak of paranoia. Despite the fact that they worked together day in and day out, and he could see the sacrifices to personal concerns she was making on his behalf, he would take off at times without a word and tried to keep some of his field notes in code to avoid her reading them. Although a diagnosis from a distance of a century is risky, I strongly suspect that Harrington was suffering from Asperger’s syndrome.

When Carobeth became pregnant, Harrington’s received the new with irritation, concerned mainly about the disruption it would bring to their work. At one point, when Carobeth was eight months pregnant, he left her alone in a rude mountain cabin with barely any food, and she slept each night with an axe beside her bed. He packed her off to San Diego to have the baby, a girl, and counted on her returning as soon as the infant could be left to be raised by her parents. (Which brings up one of the disconcerting aspects of Encounter. Laird would ultimately have seven children by three different men, but the two daughters she had at the time of this book go virtually unmentioned aside from when they are waving goodbye to her from a train window.)

Although Harrington essentially neglected his wife, he did respect her intelligence and skill in field work, and when an opportunity arose to document the language of the Chemehuevi Indians, he sent her alone to Parker, Arizona, to begin work on a study he would ultimately take over. She quickly developed a friendship with her guide there, a soft-spoken blacksmith, “built like a buffalo,” named George Laird: “From the moment of our meeting, there was a rapport between us which went much deeper than a shared interest in words and myth, though at first it could only be expressed in such sharing.”

George Laird was twice her age, living with another woman, and barely educated. But she soon found herself weaving “amorous fantasies about him.” Harrington was so impressed by the quality and detail of the notes his wife was sending on the Chemehuevis that he asked her to bring George to meet with him in Santa Fe, where he was now teaching. At one point in the visit, Harrington tossed a book to his wife for her to read. It struck her in the stomach:

Both men leaped to their feet. Both exclaimed with a single voice.

George said, “Did it hurt you?”

Harrington said, “Did it hurt the book?”

When Harrington was assigned to the Bureau of American Ethnology in Washington, he insisted on bringing both Carobeth and George along Over the course of the following winter, with George sleeping on a cot in the couple’s kitchen, the two men worked on Harrington’s notes on the Chemehuevi and Carobeth and George fell in love. By the spring on 1920, she decided to leave Harrington, and she and George drove back to San Diego in an old Chevrolet.

Her parents didn’t think much of Carobeth’s new lover and insisted he find a room in a hotel to stay in. George took a job as a ditch-digger and slowly began working his way into her mother’s good graces. After a year, her father agreed to pay for a divorce lawyer, and, despite many delays and a last minute attempt by Harrington, the divorce was finalized in 1922. Her parents asked Carobeth and George to wait a year to get married, but helped them look for and buy a small farm in Poway, a town outside San Diego. The couple finally married in August 1923. She was 28. He was 52. They were to be married for 17 years, until George died in 1940.

Much of the power of Encounter with an Angry God as a story comes from the contrast between the edgy, tense relationship between Carobeth and Harrington and the gentle and patient love she shared with George Laird. If she was able to take a more balanced view of Harrington, recognizing her own faults as well as his, it is surely due in part to the influence of George, who appears, in her affectionate portrait, to have been a man of remarkable strength and forbearance.

In 1969, Carobeth was living with Georgia, the oldest of the children she had with George, when she was contacted by researchers looking to pick up the threads of the research on the Chemehuevi they found in the huge archive of field notes (over a million pages, by one account) left by Harrington. What they discovered was that what complete work there was in the archive was probably done by Carobeth. And, more amazingly, they learned that throughout the time she and George had been together, she had been documenting the Chemehuevi language and myths.

The Malki Museum Press contracted with her to publish The Chemehuevis, a summation of her research. When Harry Lawton, on the board of the press, learned of Carobeth’s story, he encouraged her to write her own autobiography. As a memorial to Carobeth put it, “The rush of memories came in flood, so much so that she completed almost a chapter a week,” and the book was finished in a little over three months. Anne Jennings sent a copy of the galley proofs to her acquaintance, Tom Wolfe, and Wolfe offered to contribute a blurb for the back cover. “Carobeth Laird’s story of how she married the Genius Anthropologist and left him for one of the natives he was studying manages to be at once tender and ruthless — ruthlessly funny — and to offer and amazing slice of American life.”

Malki published The Chemehuevis not long after Encounter with an Angry God. The subject and the more scholarly approach of the book meant that it was unlikely to have the same popular success, but in its field it was immediately recognized as a classic work. In a memoriam written after her death in 1983, Lowell John Bean, professor of anthropology at California State University, Hayward, paid tribute to her accomplishments as an anthropologist:

The Chemehuevis is an important book not only because of its enormous amount of ethnographic detail, but because that detail is so well analyzed. Laird implicitly understood what anthropologists today call a systems approach. She saw how each aspect of the culture was systemically related to other aspects of culture. The book is not a laundry list or simple description, it is an analysis of culture. This is particularly clear in her use of mythic materials where she draws out the sociological, economic, psychological, and philosophical implications of the myths for everyday Chemehuevi life.

limboCarobeth had little chance to enjoy the fruits of her recognition. A little while before the publication of Encounter, she suffered a severe inflammation of her gallbladder while living with one of her grandsons in a trailer near Lake Havasu. She was hospitalized and soon operated on, but being dirt poor and with none of her children in a position to help, she was sent to a fairly spartan nursing home. There, she found that most of her fellow residents were suffering from some form of dementia, and that the staff simply assumed that she had to be, too. It took a considerable effort, culminating in a ruse by several of her friends to rescue “Professor Laird” from the home.

She was taken in by two of her old neighbors from Poway, who gave her a safe place to recuperate. So angered and frustrated was she by her experience in the nursing home that she immediately began writing an account. “It was neither the best nor the worst of nursing homes,” she wrote “It wasn’t horrible, just dehumanizing.” Although she finished the book quickly, it took months to find a publisher, as none of the major firms wanted to deal with a book about aging. She finally signed a contract with a tiny firm, Chandler & Sharp, out of Novato, California, and Limbo: A Memoir about Life in a Nursing Home by a Survivor was published in 1979. Once again, a small press was no impediment to her publicity, and stories about Carobeth were run in dozens of newspapers, include a two-page profile spread in the popular Sunday supplement, Parade Magazine.

Her health began to fail soon after this, and she died in 1983. Her last book, which collected the many Chemehuevi myths she had been told by George Laird, Mirror and Pattern: George Laird’s World of Chemehuevi Mythology, was published posthumously by the Malki Museum Press. The University of New Mexico Press reissued Encounter in paperback in 1993, but it’s been out of print since then.

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