Wilder Bentley – The Younger and The Elder

Wilder Mayo Bentley — Wilder Bentley the Younger — passed away in the fall of 2018, and an era ended.

Wilder Bentley the Younger was the scion of a distinguished but largely unknown Bay Area family.  His Great-Grandfather Robert Bentley was a distinguished, progressive Methodist minister who eventually became the Presiding Minister of the largest Methodist District in California, the Sacramento District.  He and his family lived in a simple, elegant Dutch-style cottage in the Berkeley Hills —  one of the few to survive the 1923 Berkeley Fire.  His sons Charles and Robert founded a fruit canning company which became one foundation of the Del Monte brand.

Charles’s son, Harvey Wilder Bentley – Wilder Bentley the Elder – was a poet, a distinguished printer and graphic artist, and a professor of English at San Francisco State.  He was also a painter, well-taught by his old friend and colleague, Chiura Obata.  Always interested in fine printing, Wilder the Elder and his wife founded the Archive Press in Berkeley, now memorialized online by the Berkeley ePlaque Project.  The Bentleys printed the first book of Ansel Adams photographs, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail in the late 1930’s.  (You can buy one from the Bentleys’ limited edition of 500 copies here – if you have $8565.  Even the later reprints go for several hundred dollars.) (Copies of the book were sent to Washington to encourage the protection of the Sierra at the southern end of the Muir Trail.   Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes lent his copy to FDR – who refused to give it back.  Ickes had to get another copy.  The book resulted in the establishment of Kings Canyon National Park.)  Wilder the Elder’s printed works, including his 26 scroll set The Poetry of Learning, are held at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh.  (To see some  works bythe Bentleys Younger and Elder, visit ABE books.  As of this date, The Poetry of Learning is described at the bottom of the list.)

Archive Press cover

Cover of the later reprint, hard-cover version

Like his father, Wilder the Younger was a gifted artist, taught by Chiura Obata.   He was also a writer, art-glass maker, book-maker, poet, historian, and craftsman.  Some of his works are archived in the Bancroft Library of the University of California, Berkeley (which also houses the Mark Twain Papers and the papers of George R. Stewart).  His works are also held at the Rosicrucian Museum, UCLA, and the New York Public Library.  His work is sometimes available for sale, as online listings reveal.

He learned to set type at a very early age, working with his parents.  Later he followed their example, establishing San Francisco’s Bread and Wine Press and publishing several works by local poets including Dick McBride.

Later, Wilder the Younger moved to Sonoma County’s Wheeler Ranch where he and his wife Penny lived for many years.  He continued his creativity, including researching, illustrating, and writing a book about bridges in the Sonoma area.

Bentley bridges full cover

Wilder Bentley the Younger’s Book, “Antique & Unusual Bridges”

Although I never met Wilder the Younger, he played an important role in the creation of the George R. Stewart biography.  I was able to interview him by email and mail.  His emails – and his printed autobiography, a copy of which he kindly sent — filled in important gaps in the chapters on Thornton State Beach (where I met George R. Stewart, and Wilder the Elder and Obata and where Ranger Nick Lee educated me about the importance of the two artists.)

In one of those episodes which seem to validate Carl Jung’s idea that there are no accidents, it was Ranger Nick Lee who sent the news of Wilder the Younger’s passing.   In his letter, Nick included a notice about a retrospective of Wilder the Younger’s work that was being arranged in Sonoma County at the end of March, 2019.  In the years since Thornton Beach and the writing of the GRS biography, I had become friends with Jean and Roger Moss and learned that they knew Wilder the Younger quite well. I called the Mosses to let them know about Wilder’s passing and the retrospective, which Roger attended.

Thornton State Beach, now abandoned by the state parks and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, played a role in the STEAM history (“Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) of Northern California.   The Bentleys, Obata, and George R. Stewart, and others of their ilk enriched our days there.  Nick, who was the catalyst for the trail named for GRS, also helped engineer the trail, created beautiful poetry and works of art, wrote articles, and played his part the creation of the GRS bio.

Thanks to our small community at Thornton Beach, and Nick, I had the honor and pleasure to know Wilder the Younger through our mail communications. Like Nick, Wilder Bentley the Younger enriched the book about GRS.   When he left us last fall, a chapter in California history closed.

How lucky we were, all of us,  to work there together, that place in which literature, art, printing, and all the rest of STEAM, were enfolded in a small wilderness near a large city, a park of ‘small compass and unusual value.’


2 thoughts on “Wilder Bentley – The Younger and The Elder

  1. Wilder the Elder was my uncle. Your article is mostly accurate. My uncle was a Professor Emeritus of English. He also knew several languages including several hundred old style Chinese characters. My mother and I lived with Wilder the Elder and my Aunt Ellen in 1959 for a few months. Wilder exposed me to art, Chinese culture, and many other things. He made me a print of a bass he caught while surf casting with Obata. He also let me help him print some of the scrolls for the Poetry of Learning on his 100 year old hand press in their basement. He even gave me some of the finished scrolls which I still have. They are done on heavy parchment using a special long lasting innk. Uncle Wilder and I had many conversations, most of which I only partially understood, owing to his vast knowledge of so many things. He once translated Dante’s Divine Comedy from the original Middle Italian into English using only an old reel to reel tape recorder and a copy of the work. He translated on the fly. Later in life I majored in English Literature and he was responsible for my interest in classic literature.

    I also knew Wilder the Younger very well. I met him when he was in his 20s and I was 9. Years later, I moved to Sonoma County and spent time with him the last years of his life. I also got to know his wife Penny. Wilder was always artistic and just a bit eccentric. When I was about 6, his parents gave me his vintage electric train set from the early 40s. I still have that. My recollection is that the two Wilders did not get along real well when the Younger was growing up. I think that must have been partly because they were both very artistic and a little temperamental.

    Wilder the Elder passed years ago, but he left a lasting impression on me through all of the artistic and literary things he exposed me to. Wilder the Younger’s passing does end an era. Wilder the Elder’s wife passed a few years after him. And in 2015, his wife’s last sibling, Lucille Smalley, passed at 102 in Santa Rosa, CA. Wilder the Young and Penny used to visit her. I took care of Aunt Lucy the last three years of her life and was there when Wilder and Penny visited.

    Thank you for writing about my uncle and cousin. They were both very special to me.

  2. Many thanks for a fine essay. This, like the previous comment from Deborah Bruce, would have enriched the GRS bio. At least it will now join the files of information, which I hope (with permission) to place with my papers at UNR or with the GRS papers in the Bancroft.

    I knew Wilder the Elder from my ranger days at Thornton State Beach in Daly City. He would come down regularly with his old friend and art teacher, Chiura Obata, to fish. Afterwards, they’d come to office share some coffee and Wilder would regale me with his glorious stories. He eventually sent a copy of Scroll A to me, as a thank you gift for our time at Thornton. There are only 6 other copies of A according to the archive of his work at Carnegie-Mellon, so it has a special meaning.

    Although I never met Wilder the Younger, we corresponded extensively during the writing of the GRS bio.

    Again, many thanks, Don Scott

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