The Man Who Would Have It All: George Sterling and the American Dream
By Peter Kratzke
In what is sometimes called its Pioneer Myth, California has always seemed the ideal venue for the American dream. Even today, loading up a Ryder truck and moving to The Golden State is less about displacement than adventure. At the same time, the subtitle to a 1989 cover story on California for Newsweek voices the state's siren song: "American Dream, American Nightmare."
Appreciating this paradox means beginning, at least, with
the last part of the nineteenth century. An 1880 poster promoted:
The Cornucopia of the World
Room for Millions of Immigrants
43.795.000. Acres of Government Lands Untaken
Railroad & Private Land For a Million Farmers
A Climate for Health & Wealth without Cyclones or Blizzards.
Such was the promise for individuals who were willing to work hard for their fortunes, embrace the bountiful frontier, and actively shape their society. Their state's destiny seemed wide-open: in his insightful study, Americans and the California Dream (1973), Kevin Starr writes of the last half of the nineteenth century, "At its most compelling, California could be a moral premise, a prescription for what America could and should be." Less compelling were the state's Gilded Age monopolistic businesses, corrupt politics, and racist institutions (particularly against Chinese immigrants). The result was the state's "divided fable," as Starr calls it, split "because California's experience had been a rhythm of expectation and disappointment, ideality and harsh fact." California, in other words, was, and is, extraordinary yet unexceptional, a virtual magnet for those seeking to reconstruct themselves and the American dream.
At the turn of the twentieth century, George Sterling (1869-1926) exemplified California's divided fable. Sterling, a Decadent poet who today is largely forgotten, was once seemingly secure in the American literary canon: Mary Austin wrote in a 1927 American Mercury article that, if Sterling's position would be "not the highest, it will surely be not a low one." Austin was too optimistic. By 1929, Alfred Kreymborg, although an admirer of Sterling's sonnets, would write that, in the case of Sterling's "A Wine of Wizardry" (1908), "The wizardry was borrowed, and the amazing rhetoric almost devoid of life and human contact." More recently, critics have generally dismissed Sterling's art altogether, resigning, as Joseph W. Slade says in his 1968 article for The Markham Review, that Sterling "is remembered chiefly for his literary associations." To be remembered lowly, though, is at least not to be forgotten.
Despite his fallen literary status, Sterling's career is worth studying, for his example suggests the categorical limits to what may be construed as the three principles of life: vocation, location, and society — what we do, where we live, and with whom we associate. This seemingly simple formulation is complicated by the ways in which principles overlap or split: we want to "have it all," but we might love our region while disliking our work, or we might love our families but dislike our colleagues. Although compromise becomes necessary, the very opportunity to maximize any or the sum of these principles emerges as a working definition for the American dream. Identifying these three principles, in fact, is the point here, not a thoroughgoing explication of a man's entire life and career.
1. Vocation: From Enthusiasm to Pedantry
Vocation is central to the American dream, and California's forty-niner promise "to get rich quick" continues to exemplify America's seemingly wide-open opportunities. Silicon Valley's "dot-commers" are the Pioneer's descendents. In the category of vocation, at one limit is what may be labeled enthusiasm (literally, "having a god within") and at the other pedantry. Neither limit is logically possible: because we do not live in a vacuum, we organize institutions, but in the very act of organizing are the seeds of pedantry. To moderate between the extremes, we typically strike a balance in the principle of service, a principle most obviously manifest in our everyday jobs. The business of America is business — and nowhere is that more apparent than in California.
In 1890, Sterling moved from Sag Harbor, New York, to Oakland in order to work for his uncle, Frank C. Havens, in Havens' real estate ventures. However, except for meeting his future wife, Caroline ("Carrie") Rand, Sterling had his mind elsewhere. In his 1964 biography of Jack London, Richard O'Connor depicts, "The best George could do, in that line, was show up for work punctually each morning, often with a colossal hangover.... [For Sterling] would never be anything more than a timeserver in business." Timeserving soon gave way to frustration. While scribbling checks for Havens, Sterling was asked whether poetry interfered with his business. His response was worthy of Oscar Wilde: "No, hang it! Business interferes with my poetry." What followed in Sterling's career alerts us to the danger in such all-or-nothing logic.
In Sterling's enthusiastic eyes, the model poet was Joaquin Miller, the bearded, self-styled "Poet of the Sierras" and vestige of San Francisco's literary frontier. Self-styling, though, is not enthusiasm, and Miller was only too conscious of this distinction. Even as early as the 1870s, Miller defended his wearing outrageous western garb while visiting England: "It helps sell the poems, boys!" At first, Sterling missed the point, imitating Miller's illusion by favoring personal appearance over artistic production. Rarely did he take the time to revise his work. Sterling's pedantry surfaced in smaller ways: Albert Parry wryly notes in Garrets and Pretenders (1933) that Sterling loved the very word "Bohemia," rhyming it "with anything but anemia." In the end, though, Sterling gave up on Miller, eventually noting that Miller "wrote with a quill, a very stub affair, which made the interpretation no less difficult. And I grieve to state that this illegibility was but another of his poses."
Spun between the vocational poles of enthusiasm and pedantry, Sterling grew to resent the necessity of having a vocation at all. The result was a double standard, Sterling disparaging the wealthy even as he fed on their surplus. In his play written for the summer retreat of San Francisco's elite Bohemian Club, The Triumph of Bohemia (1907), Sterling has the Spirit of Bohemia destroy Mammon, Bohemia arguing that Mammon cannot buy "A Happy heart!" The Club itself, though, was by then constituted of well-heeled businessmen, and Sterling never stopped brooding about this contradiction. His short poem, "In the Marketplace," concludes:
In Babylon, dark Babylon,
Who take the wage of shame?
The scribe and singer, one by one,
That toil for gold and fame.
They grovel to their masters' mood;
The blood upon the pen
Assigns their souls to servitude —
Yea! and the souls of men!
In writing these lines, Sterling knew, apparently, how far
he was from his original enthusiasm.
Much of Sterling's poetry reflects his increasing pedantry. Propelling his muse was a different vestige of California's literary frontier, the west coast's leading literary arbiter, Ambrose Bierce. Bierce, a craftsman of language, introduced his pupil to the three principal sonnet types that soon became Sterling's favorite forms and to that wellspring of prolixity, Roget's Thesaurus. More directly, Bierce helped edit Sterling's works and, so, could steer his disciple toward an art-for-art's-sake sensibility. As an example of Bierce's inflexibility, Sterling asked in his drafting The Testimony of the Suns (1903) whether Bierce preferred the phrase "bubble-eden" to "heaven of rapture." Bierce sniffed, "I like 'Eden,' but not 'bubble.' It has hardly dignity enough." When "dignity" imposes on enthusiasm, pedantry is not far behind.
Interestingly, Sterling clearly knew that Bierce's was the wrong direction. After the publication of The Testimony of the Suns, Sterling hedged in an interview with the San Francisco Examiner's Ashton Stevens that "it would be rather late in the day for me to question his [Bierce's] judgment as a critic." In truth, Sterling could never completely abide Bierce's aesthetics, experimenting instead with forms ranging from attempting popular poetry in Beyond the Breakers (1914) to imitating his neighbor Robinson Jeffers in Strange Waters (1924). By 1925, Sterling was disappointed in himself: he resigned in an essay about Bierce pointedly titled "The Shadow Maker," "In view of the modern movement in poetry, he [Bierce] was not, perhaps the best master I could have known."
One example of Sterling's poetry will serve to demonstrate the product of his vocation. Only on Bierce's insistence, "A Wine of Wizardry" (1907) appeared in the pages of Hearst's Cosmopolitan. Even the poem's physical publication slogged in its own pedantry: separated from the magazine's other pages on thicker paper and framed by luxuriant decorations by F. I. Bennett, the effect was heightened by the editors' headnote announcing that the poem served to rebut the British author James Bryce's disdain for American poets. In a supplementary essay, Bierce trumpeted, "I hold that not in a lifetime has our literature had any new thing of equal length containing so much poetry and so little else." Contrary to Bierce's nod, Sterling's readers wanted something more than "so little else."
Besides its physical publication, the poetry of "A Wine" reflects Sterling's sense of vocation. The poem, which follows the empress Fancy's journey, finally describes the night, a time of cessation but not of rest:
O'er onyx waters stilled by gorgeous oils That toward the twilight reach emblazoned coils. And I, albeit Merlin-sage hath said, "A Vyper lurketh in ye wine-cuppe redde," Gaze pensively upon the way she went, Drink at her font, and smile as one content.
Fancy's inability to find fulfillment and the poet's inability to communicate with Fancy illustrate Sterling's Decadent view of art. Language, the medium of poetry, is inextricably tied to society, but the beauty in which Sterling tried to believe was completely apart from any human reference. Vexed by this paradox, as George Douglas has noted, Sterling came to identify with rejected poets: "I know how they feel…. They know how far short they fall of what they want to say." The critical response to "A Wine" was predictably far less generous than Bierce's. Porter Garnett wrote in a Pacific Monthly review that Sterling's effort was "bad art," "The sensation derived from reading it…not unlike the sensation that might be caused by listening to the hammering of a tattoo on a sweet-toned bell. The sensorium is set in vibration, but it cannot vibrate truly." It could not "vibrate truly," no doubt, because Sterling himself seemed uncertain what he was trying to accomplish. In a letter to Upton Sinclair of June 7, 1924, Sterling waffled, "If you can make out…where I stand as to 'art for art's sake' you'll be lucky. It seems to me I've no bone-bound convictions on the subject, but prefer to let each man follow his natural bent."
Sterling's vocational crisis was visibly exposed when, in 1914, he was divorced from Carrie and ventured east to test himself apart from his California status. Sterling's efforts were commercially fruitless and personally humiliating, and he found himself lonely for his friends, removed from public tastes, and reduced to accepting charity. In 1915, he retreated to San Francisco, where, despite his shortcomings as a poet, he still had his status. To his (and our) astonishment, Sterling found some lines of his poems carved next to those of Shakespeare, Dante, and Goethe in the Gate of the Four Seasons for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. The moment dramatized how quickly enthusiasm can shift to pedantry. Dwarfed by the Exposition's concrete structures that were themselves imitations, Sterling read an ode celebrating the occasion but then overstepped in proclaiming himself "Poet Laureate of San Francisco." Harriet Monroe followed with a scathing review of Sterling's poetry for the March 1916 issue of Poetry, dismissing it as so much "tinsel and fustian, the frippery of a bygone fashion." Although not amused by Monroe's comments, Sterling also winced at their truth. In a letter to John Myers O'Hare of March 12, 1916, Sterling could only joke, "The funny thing is that the old girl is probably correct! Peace to her undemanded maidenhead!"
Despite his manifest poetic failings, Sterling's lifetime of clear prose letters and commentary hints at what he might have accomplished in poetry had he pursued a more moderate vocational track. In 1929, B. Virginia Lee estimated in Famous Lives, "Perhaps the pithiest of all Sterling legend is forever buried in his personal letters. Here he was free to damn or bless; either of which he could do to the king's taste.… They were rich in wisdom and health." Such letters numbered about one hundred a week, and, on certain occasions, the honesty of his prose even inspired his poetry. Notably, before his suicide in 1926 Sterling scrawled a final poem titled "My Swan Song":
Has man the right
To die and disappear
When he has lost the fight?
To sever without fear
The irksome bonds of life,
When he is tired of strife?
May he not seek, if it seems best,
Relief from Grief? May he not rest
From labors vain, from hopeless task:
— I do not know; I merely ask.
We can only imagine Sterling gazing at himself in the mirror while writing these lines, his classical profile by then so eroded that he appeared, as it was expressed by those like Charmian London, "A Greek coin run over by a Roman chariot." However, the limit of anything is not about moderation, and Sterling dismissed the poem as "crude stuff." Others who followed would provide the corrective: whether the likes of John Steinbeck or, later, Remi A. Nadeau (in such works as The Water Seekers and California: The New Society, most of California's writers know that the state's golden promise is far from free and certainly not easy.
2. Location: From Preservation to Exploitation
Like those for vocation, terms for identifying the logical limits to location vary, but at one end is what may be called preservation, in which location is deemed inviolable. The problem, however, with preservation is that it precludes our actual inhabitation and commerce, a fact that has doomed one utopian venture after another. Utopia, by definition, is no place; like Thoreau, we must return to the village to earn a living. In doing so, we in some measure move to the opposite end of the category, exploitation. Not wishing to destroy location, however, we typically balance preservation and exploitation in the principle of management. Indeed, a great deal of California's cultural history is tied to this very issue.
Between 1905 and 1914, Sterling served as the guiding spirit for a colony of artists at Carmel, a setting of rustic retreat that could not have been much prettier. He was close to San Francisco and yet removed from its pace and pressures. If anywhere, Carmel was a place worthy of careful management; even so, the colony's founding principle was not to manage the region but to chase real estate profit. Formed by James Franklin Devendorf and Frank H. Powers, the Carmel Development Company did not originally have Bohemianism in mind at all: in its 1904 promotional brochure for the area, the company listed the coming railroad, electric wiring, moderate climate, potential for growth, hunting, and fishing. Only in subsequent promotions did the company tap Bohemianism. Thus, when the artists arrived, recounts Michael Orth in his 1969 essay for The California Historical Society Quarterly, "There were over seventy-five people, several stores, a restaurant or two, and a school and hotel — not exactly a town perhaps, but civilized enough." For his part, Sterling was happy to assume residence on the financial wings of his benefactor, and Uncle Havens was happy to rid himself of a dime's worth of trouble.
In retreating from vocational pressures, Sterling and the colonists spent a great deal of time tenderizing the local abalone, singing a song that suggests more about them than they probably realized:
Oh! Some folks boast of quail on toast
Because they think it's tony
But I'm content to owe my rent
And live on Abalone.
While living in this artificial paradise where no landlord comes to collect overdue rent, the colony produced all too little of enduring artistic merit. Meanwhile, Sterling was downright assiduous in hunting for the colony's food, an activity he labeled in a 1913 letter John Myers as his "best recreation." His aim, it turns out, was far from re-creating anything.
As we may expect of a poet — especially in the Greek sense of maker — Sterling envisioned the hunter as integral to nature's processes. Sterling's "Autumn in Carmel" is nothing short of pastoral:
Hunters wait on the hillside, watching the plowman pass
And the red hawk's shadow gliding over the new-born grass.
Purple and white the sea-gulls swarm at the river-mouth.
Pearl of mutable heavens towers upon the south.
Sterling's Carmel diaries bear witness to a different muse. On August 30, 1907, Sterling records, "There was a leopard-seal at the 'landing,' shot this morning (w/ buck-shot). A handsome seal. His blood smells very fishy." Sterling neither mentions why he killed the seal nor what he did with it — the killing was apparently its own reward for him, and years of conscientiously recorded slaughter follow. What he ate, he often ate uncooked: in a 1912 letter to Witter Bynner, Sterling prescribes, "Don't fail to eat one of our mallards, RARE." Part of this record involves his kill ratios: on October 15, 1909, Sterling "Got five squirrels, 6 blackbirds (1 shot), & three small ducks, (one shot)"; on October 19, he "got two small ducks, two snipe, one lark, three squirrels, six killdee[r]s and eight blackbirds (one shot)." Such attention tended to the callous: on November 3, Sterling is unfunny in noting, "went hunting...& got a loon (who's looney now?)." On October 20, 1911, Sterling changes verbs: "Went gunning with Doc Gates and got a quail, killdee[r] and six larks." By February 9, 1912, matters turn downright strange: Sterling writes, "Went to the river-mouth with John Kenneth Turner in the afternoon, to try to shoot salmon. Got no chance, but shot a rabbit and seven larks." On April 5, 1912, Sterling scoffs that the local game-warden asks about his shooting sea gulls — note "Autumn in Carmel" — yet on March 27, 1913, Sterling records that he and his company "went to Mission Point and river mouth. Tried the rifle on golf signs and sea-gulls." In all, Sterling's hunting became almost random. On August 16, 1913, he "shot at a big skunk"; on September 8 of the same year, he hunts, along the way, "a white hawk, an owl and a pirate cat"; on October 22, he frets that his tally does not equal that of his friend Turner.
Not surprisingly, Sterling's poetry provides a kind of commentary on his slaughter of wild animals. Adverse response raises the critical problem of intentionality: Sterling was a Decadent, after all, a sensibility that favored flourish over narrative, emotions over substance. As such, his poetry is not accountable to contemporary tastes. Nonetheless, it is peculiar that Sterling's nature poetry drifts so far from a sense of either preservation or even management. For instance, although the publication of a poem like "Yosemite" (1915) was accompanied by a cover painting and interspersed with photographs of the valley, the poem mainly demonstrates Sterling's range of reference to mythology and history, overlaid with abstractions of colors, sizes, and shapes. Despite its title, one may say, the poem only exploits the name of the actual valley that John Muir promoted; in fact, Sterling wrote the poem in order to pay debts to John D. Phelan, who staked Sterling while the poet tried the New York market. Given the circumstances, the results were predictable:
O falling rivers, beaut[i]ful in doom!
Your lofty raiments sway
As mountain-winds fling wider to the day
The sounding fabric of a stony loom.
These lines are typical, Sterling ending no fewer than fifty-three of the poem's 360 lines with an exclamation point. Moreover, Sterling does not stay in this Decadent key, ultimately changing it to promoting socialism: "O Valley waiting through the wistful years, /The sure though distant tread/Of those young armies of the Comrade State!"
Even Sterling was confused and bored with the effort. In a letter to Upton Sinclair of 1924 regarding his artistic creed, Sterling equated "Yosemite" to so much "preach[ing]." Moderation, for Sterling, was never easy.
3. Society: From Devotion to Egoism
In the myriad possibilities for the American dream, vocation and location are complemented by society, a principle ranging from devotion to egoism. Like any category, though, theory is one thing; reality is another. America proceeds, in the famous phrase of Alex de Tocqueville, on "self-interest rightly understood." In short, because we cannot escape either ourselves or our social spheres, we typically sympathize with each other, needing others as much as others need us. For Sterling, society was the most important principle to his California dream: In 1928, the Spring Valley Water Company even erected a bench commemorating Sterling, inscribed with a musical line by Uda Waldrop titled "Song of Friendship." Despite such masonry, Sterling's friends in life were too often passing shadows with too-easy smiles. In citing Sterling's "In Autumn," Charmian London resigned that Sterling "was no one's man — not even his own man. He was forever searching into himself to be sure, but also 'lonely for some one I shall never know'." In the terms here, Sterling was lonely because he could not strike a balance between giving and taking, devotion and egoism.
At the Carmel colony, eventual inhabitants included Austin, the young poetess Nora May French, and James Marie ("Jimmy") Hopper. A host of visitors filtered in and out, but by far the most important for Sterling was the very image of manly Bohemianism, Jack London. The two met in 1901, and Sterling soon came to call London "Wolf" after the adventurer's Yukon experience while London called Sterling "Greek" after the poet's classical profile. Their relationship is best left to the record. Each failed at his first marriage (Sterling did not remarry); each had various affairs; and each idealized women beyond life, London seeking a "mate" for his superman self-conception and Sterling elaborately worshiping women like Mary Craig Kimbrough — later Upton Sinclair's second wife. (In 1911, Sterling wrote Kimbrough a sonnet a day for one hundred days, published in 1927 as Sonnets to Craig.)
Most striking are Sterling's epistolary salutations to London, for they reveal a growing deference: on May 27, 1906, Sterling wrote to "Dearest Tiger"; on July 31, 1906, it was "My darling Wolf"; on November 18, 1910, it was "O Hater of Henids! O Wolf! O Mussel-trap!"; and on January 29, 1913, it was simply "Heavenly Wolf." In a letter of September 12, 1907, Sterling remarked, "You, Wolf, I love — more than I dare say." In response, London shied from fully committing to Sterling. In a letter of July 11, 1903, London wrote to Sterling,
And so I speculate & speculate, trying to make you out, trying to lay hands on the inner side of you, the self side of you — what you are to yourself in short. Sometimes I conclude that you have a cunning & deep philosophy of life, for yourself alone, worked out on a basis of disappointment & disillusion. Sometimes, I say, I am firmly convinced of this, and then it all goes glimmering, and I think that you don't want to think, or that you have thought no more than partly, if at all, and are living your life out blindly and naturally.
Given the overall tenor of Sterling's letters, London's uneasiness reflects that something had to change.
Of course, one may dismiss the relationship between Sterling and London, to cite James Henry in his 1980 limited edition of Sterling letters, as "Probably of great symbolic significance to the head-shrinking clan." Suffice that the two grew increasingly distant. While London refrained from visiting Carmel in favor of adventure and then farming, Sterling receded to the shadows. In a letter of October 14, 1913, Sterling addressed London in a manner both obsequious and petulant: "Beloved Man-with-no-time-to-visit-Carmel-but-with-two months-to-go-cruising in! (I don't blame you)." Soon enough, Sterling was content to provide London with scattered story ideas, reasoning that London's more popular name would sell better than his. Displaced to the shadows of London's literary light, Sterling allowed in a letter of March 30, 1913, "I know I don't deserve you, Wolf. But in a way I am glad that I'm one of the illusions you still elect to fall for."
His life having tested the limits of devotion and egoism, Sterling took refuge in an anonymously donated room above the Bohemian Club. In 1926, he spent his last, alcohol-soaked days there, disappointed by the delayed visit of an acquaintance, none other than H. L. Mencken. Following the suicides of Nora May French in 1907, Bierce in 1914, and Carrie Sterling in 1918, Sterling died — alone — from cyanide of potassium poisoning, the fatal dose from an envelope that he had carried with him for years and marked with the word "Peace." Upton Sinclair responded in 1927 that the "nebular hypothesis" overwhelmed Sterling — that is, Sterling despaired for mankind's fate in a doomed universe. More simply explained, Sterling was disappointed that he could not achieve lasting social connections.
Despite his eventual suicide, Sterling could occasionally achieve social balance. For instance, Sterling wrote a "'rough-neck' hooch song" to London, which begins and then follows similarly,
O the Wolf, the Wolf, the Wolf!
The fat, voracious Wolf!
He's hair on his toes,
And whiskers in his nose.
And where he gets his thirst
Christ Jesus only knows.
Sterling seemed content with the effort. In a 1921 letter to Estelle P. Crane, he proudly observed that "Some of the men in [the Bohemian Club]...sing it at times when tipsy." Such might be the best of Sterling's legacy: when the club observed the fiftieth anniversary of Sterling's death in 1976, their Library Notes remembered their former resident as a "living legend." No one, it would seem, can deny that Sterling was the life of the party.
Last, in his 1957 article titled "George Sterling: Western Phenomenon," Stanton A. Coblentz commends Sterling's "cosmic perspective" and assesses that Sterling was a last, rare individual in American literary history, namely, "the full-time poet, the man for whom poetry is both vocation and avocation." Rebuttal may be left to a more recent British poet who could not be more different from Sterling — Philip Larkin. In a 1979 interview, Larkin commented, "I've always thought that a regular job was no bad thing for a poet.... [For] you can't write more than two hours a day and after that what do you do? Probably get into trouble." Sterling found trouble in California's golden promise, all right; now, in pondering his approach to vocation, location, and society, we cannot help but reassess our own American dreams.
Originally published in The American Popular Culture Online Magazine, June 2005.