Ina Coolbrith, Jack London, George R. Stewart — and Star Trek Synchronicities

It’s been an interesting week, here in the Mojave Desert.  Last Saturday, I drove to Las Vegas, which is about 60 miles north, to see old acquaintances and friends.   Mike Okuda, Denise Okuda, Doug Drexler, and Rick Sternbach are legends of the Star Trek shows, the people who created much of the art of the series, and they were to present  at the annual Star Trek Convention. But serendipity and synchronicity seem to reign of late.  So after I had the chance to see my friends,  I met Jack London.

Jack — actually actor Michael Aron, who played Jack London on the twin Trek episodes entitled Time’s Arrow — was a surprise.  We talked for a while about Jack London and Star Trek.  Jack’s role  was one of those wonderful Star Trek: The Next Generation parts which can help teach history and literature to the uninspired.  This particular brace of episodes was largely set in nineteenth century San Francisco, and included Mark Twain as well as a young Jack London.  The history was not entirely accurate. But the programs interest students in those writers, and that time.

Back at the ranch, the idea came — Why not invite Jack London to speak to the Ina Coolbrith Circle?

The Circle, one of the oldest literary groups in the west, is a renaissance of Ina Coolbrith’s original literary circle in nineteenth century San Francisco and Oakland.  Denise Lapachet Barney, poet and long-time member of the Circle, is chief program planner.  Denise, an old friend and colleague who helped with the editing of the George R. Stewart book, kindly invited me to talk to the Circle about the book.  (She is also a former history and photography student of mine, and our families have spent many a happy hour sauntering through the Yosemite high country or singing around Yosemite campfires together.)  So I called Dee, and I called Jack London,  and it seems likely that Jack and Ina will meet again.

Ina Coolbrith and Jack London — and especially Ina Coolbrith — were founders of the first golden age of California Literature.

Ina Coolbrith, who eventually became California’s first Poet Laureate, was born to the brother of Mormon church founder Joseph Smith.  After Smith was murdered, Coolbrith’s mother left the Mormons, moved to St. Louis, and married a printer.   The family emigrated to California by covered wagon in 1851.  In one of the legendary scenes of the Westward Movement, ten-year old Ina entered California over what is now called Beckwourth Pass, seated with Mountain Man Jim Beckwourth on his horse; as they crossed the pass, Beckwourth stopped, gestured at the land ahead, and said, “There, little girl, is your kingdom.”  And it would be so.

The family moved to the Los Angeles area, where Ina married an abusive man.  After losing a child to an early death, she divorced her husband and fled with her mother and siblings to San Francisco.  Depressed, she began to re-invent herself.   she changed her name to Ina Coolbrith — Ina for Josephina and Coolbrith for her mother’s maiden family name — in part to disguise the family connection with Joseph Smith and the Mormons, in part to begin a new life.

What a life she would lead!  To read about it, which you can do here, at Wikipedia, is to read the entire history of the young California’s  literature and art, with its passion for wilderness, and to immerse yourself in San Francisco’s Golden Age.  Coolbrith became friends with Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Ambrose Bierce (for a time), William Keith, Charles Fletcher Lummis (who created the architectural style known as “Southwestern Arts and Crafts”), John Muir, Maynard Dixon, and Gertrude Atherton.  She held literary gatherings at her house — a tradition which Denise Lapachet Barney and the other members of  the current Ina Coolbrith Circle continue.   Most important, Ina Coolbrith mentored others, especially when she worked as the Librarian for the city of Oakland.

Women were widely discriminated against in those times, even in the libraries.  In San Francisco, for example, it was illegal for a woman to become the Librarian.  But for a time, at least, Ina was the Oakland Librarian.  She ran the library as a small, intimate reading room. (Not too many books, no complicated system of indexing.)  That allowed her to get to know the users of the Library, and  guide their reading.

For some readers, it became a university.   One of those “students”  (Ina had also worked as a teacher, and knew how to encourage learning) was  Isadore Duncan, who became a famous, if tragic, dancer.  Another, a ten year old boy who discovered that he liked to read would consider Ina Coolbrith his “literary mother.”    Years later, he wrote her a letter:
“…I named you ‘Noble’. That is what you were to me—noble. That was the feeling I got from you. Oh, yes, I got, also, the feeling of sorrow and suffering, but dominating them, always riding above all, was noble. No woman has so affected me to the extent you did. I was only a little lad. I knew absolutely nothing about you. Yet in all the years that have passed I have met no woman so noble as you.”   “Jack London.”
There is much more to the story of Ina Coolbrith — she would be photographed in her late years by Ansel Adams, become one of the first women allowed at the old Bohemian Club (where she would become the Librarian), be helped financially by the legendary Gold Rush entertainer Lotta Crabtree, and be honored by luminaries like Longfellow, Edwin Markham, John Greenleaf Whittier, Mary Austin, and Joaquin Miller — whose “persona” she invented.  And, of course, there is much more to the story of Jack London, who went on to become one of the best-paid, most widely-read writers of the time, and one of the few who we still read to get a flavor of California and the West of those golden days.
George R. Stewart was also influenced by Coolbrith, and London.  He never met Jack London, but it is seems that London’s The Scarlet Plague influenced Earth Abides at some level.  There are many similarities between the two books. I once asked Stewart if he knew London’s book.  He did not say that he had used it as one of the inspirations for Earth Abides, but he did admit that he’d read a lot of London and had probably been influenced by The Scarlet Plague.  (By the way, the plague in London’s book happens in 2013!)  Stewart DID meet Ina Coolbrith, interviewing her for his book on the Donner Party.  He describes the meeting, as I recall, in the much later book,  The California Trail.  A letter in his Papers makes for an interesting follow-up to his description of the meeting   — One of Coolbrith’s descendants corrects some of his observations about Coolbrith; noting, for example, that while there were pipes in the room where he interviewed her, she herself did not smoke a pipe.  (Stewart had assumed the pipes were hers.)And so, the connections, in this continuing series of essays about George R. Stewart and his work.  Jack London to Ina Coolbrith.  London and Coolbrith to Stewart.   And, a completion of the circle at, of all places, a Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas.  And with some planning and luck, Jack London and Ina Coolbrith’s  literary heirs in the Ina Coolbrith Circle will meet.  What a chemistry might result!

Stewart’s Second Novel

After the success of his first novel, East of the Giants, Stewart decided to write another.  It was the goal of every serious writer of the time to become an author – that is, a creator of novels – and Stewart wanted to join that small club.

This was also a way to develop his fiction-writing abilities.  He had a few ideas about novels of grander vision and greater success, but he knew he needed to hone his skills before tackling such projects.   He once said that the first book is hard, the second harder, and the third the hardest of all.  This would be his second novel.

Wisely, he kept the book small in scale and carefully focused.  In doing so, Stewart may have invented what might be called the “micro-novel.”   That is, as in Pickett’s Charge, the micro-history he would write 20 years later (see earlier post), the entire action of this novel takes place in a very confined setting and in a very brief period of time.

The book is set on a mythical university campus in the late 1930s.   It is the story of one day (as I recall) in the life of Joe Grantland, a mediocre graduate student in English who must pass his oral exams before he receives his PhD.  He’s poor and he’s not a scholar on Stewart’s level, but he must face seven professors, successfully, if he is to graduate.  If he fails, he will not find a job.   Since he’s taking the oral during the Great Depression, finding a job is critical.  To make matters worse he has a major personal problem hanging over his head — a problem of such magnitude that he can hardly sleep, let along concentrate on the exam.  Yet concentrate he must, or he will be stuck in poverty.  (Of course we now know that, had he failed, Joe would also certainly have gone to war, and possibly died.  So passing the oral, in hindsight, was even more important than Stewart or his protagonist realized in 1939.)

This is the only Stewart novel which might be described as humorous.  The author is clearly working in places to make events somewhat light in tone, even though it is about  serious business.  To me, that seems not to work well; and Stewart rarely put humor into his later novels.  But, again, he was trying things out, as he worked to develop his novel-writing ability.

The microcosmic setting, which is largely urban, seems to lack passion — another experiment in style from Stewart.  But he cannot stay in the drawing room. In one scene, Joe walks to the edge of the campus and town, looks at the wilderness across the river, and wishes himself there.  That’s probably Stewart, in Joe clothing.   After this book, Stewart would stay in the wilderness for most of his future writing.

The locations and the professors are well-disguised, but those who know Stewart’s connections with UC Berkeley can identify at least a few of the places where the action takes place — like Le Chat Gris, the local student/professor cafe. (It’s the Black Sheep, on old Telegraph.)   He does a fine job of describing a typical University campus of the day, and the professorial types of the time, without resorting to caricature or satire.

Does Joe pass?  Does he solve his problem?  You can buy a first edition for about $125 dollars, and probably find a used copy for less, and then you’ll know the answers.

The book received mixed reviews.  The Saturday Review found the professors’ portraits well-done, but felt the book was not well-written.  The New Masses, in a very astute review, noted that it was the first novel to present college students of the Depression Era, and thus an important historical leap ahead from the Fitzgerald novels which focused on wealthy students.  (Interestingly, Stewart and Fitzgerald went to Princeton together, and graduated in the same class, in 1917.)

The most important “review,” though, came from Jaques Barzun, the distinguished thinker and writer, who famously once said, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball.”  When he became Dean of the Graduate School at Columbia University, Barzun made Doctor’s Oral required reading for all PhD students — high praise for Stewart’s work, indeed.

Doctor’s Oral is not without its flaws — Stewart was learning how to write fiction and so it is not as polished as his later work — but it is worth reading.  That’s especially true if you are faced with any great challenge or test, and at the same time dealing with major personal issues.  Read the book, and you won’t feel so alone.

His “practice” in writing his first novels paid off.  George R. Stewart was about to write an Earth-shaking work of fiction that would affect all human society, and change the way we look at ourselves and our place in the universe.