To see something as solid and real as the Villa Montezuma offers a stark contrast to the strange imaginings that characterized Jesse Shepard’s music and writing. Prior to its restoration in 1972, the Villa Montezuma was a dreary sight, with windows broken, shingles missing, paint badly cracked, and the yard unattended. I could not help but think that the house would soon collapse and in time be nothing more than a faded memory. Restoration of the Villa Montezuma is auspicious. Here indeed is a fine and beautiful house, a solid, tangible reminder of a man whose goings-on seemed always beyond the grasp of those who tried to understand him. When Van Wyck Brooks, who was living in London when he knew Shepard, called him a “strange fish,” Brooks meant that a certain “curious innocence” marked the man. Arnold Bennett, the widely popular English novelist of the time, thought the same — that there was something incongruous and anachronistic about him.2 Just what the enigma was, neither Brooks nor Bennett could definitely say, nor could later acquaintances and critics such as Zona Gale, Bernard DeVoto, and Edmund Wilson. An indefinable aura seemed to follow Shepard wherever he went, his few years in San Diego being no exception. But at least the Villa Montezuma, built in San Diego in 1887, still stands in its massive elegance at 1925 K Street, and hopefully will continue to do so for years to come.
It is a shame that Shepard’s music and writing possessed little of this permanence. Of course his piano improvisations were gone the moment he touched the last key. Such is the fate of improvisation, and Shepard knew it, though he was in no way unsettled by the fact. What was more important to him was the inspiration behind the music and the emotional effect the music was to have upon his audience. Through music Shepard hoped to express deep feelings — call them mystical or religious feelings — that, when woven into musical texture, would awaken similar feelings in others. Describing such an occasion, one interpreter wrote that Shepard “seemed to keep notes suspended in the air for minutes. Now and then he would make a shining vessel out of such a chord, and then he would begin to drip little drops of melody into it, until the Grail seemed to rise before your vision, luminous with blood-red rubies.”3
Shepard thought of the artist’s imagination as a divine power, the musician as a spiritual medium or religious mystic, and music itself as the highest form of art. He believed that metaphysical truth could be reached, not by direct examination and certainly not by science but by a flash of imagination, the unsolicited gift of grace. Shepard’s aesthetic theory echoed that of Coleridge and Emerson and that of Shepard’s contemporaries, the French Symbolists, who wrote ethereal music-like poetry. If any one statement written by Shepard summarizes this whole notion, it is the one that begins Modern Mysticism, a thin book of essays first bearing Shepard’s adopted pseudonym of Francis Grierson. “Mystical inspiration,” he wrote, “is the essential element that assures immortality to any work, whether in poetry, art, music, or philosophy.”4 The essence of music, Shepard thought, is not in the music itself, not in the heard melodies, but, as Keats had said, in “those unheard” melodies, those melodies that carry to the spirit musical notes of no tone. The essence of music is its inspired imagination which, Shepard insisted, partakes of the eternal. Such was Shepard’s idealism, and such too was the fact that his melodies were virtually unheard: they were heard once and then they faded away like the tones of a distant carillon.
As for his writings, they consisted mainly of essays, and they too, like his music, had a certain otherworldly quality. In reading them, one thinks of what Nathaniel Hawthorne said about his own short stories in Twice-Told Tales. The stories, he wrote, “have the pale tint of flowers that blossomed in too retired a shade” and should be read, he added, in the “twilight atmosphere” in which they were written. Shepard’s essays have been described as “slender goblets which sparkle exquisitely when left alone in recessed light.”5 Of course, other fancy images describing his style and the atmosphere in which he wrote could be fashioned, but when his essays are read, they prompt the reader to visualize a setting resembling a darkened music room or salon where the smell of wilted chrysanthemums lingers. What the image suggests is a style of literary art intended to convey a sense of wonder and melancholy. This was always Shepard’s implicit theme — the wonder that surrounds great art, men, and historical events, yet pervading that wonder is a certain shadowy reminder, as from an old museum, that mortality still owns its sovereign shrine.
Shepard’s first volume was entitled Essays and Pen-Pictures, his second (written in French) Pensees et Essais, both published in Paris in 1889. Appearing ten years later was Modern Mysticism, followed by The Celtic Temperament in 1901 and The Valley of Shadows in 1909. In 1910 Parisian Portraits was published, and in the next year La Vie et les Hommes and The Humour of the Underman. In 1913 he brought out The Invincible Alliance, making a total of seven books published in London in fourteen years. Back in America in 1913 after some twenty-three years abroad, he published three more volumes: Illusions and Realities of the War (1918); Abraham Lincoln, The Practical Mystic (1918); and Psycho-Phone Messages (1921).
Of the several themes modulating through these volumes the dominant one concerned idealism. Always a difficult word to define, it meant for Shepard a world governed by spiritual forces rather than by physical and mechanistic ones, a spiritual world to be perceived through imagination and expressed in art. Disposed as he was toward the mystical, Shepard believed that behind the so-called real world was a noumenal world where the artist, as mystic, experienced divine meanings. The theory had belonged to Coleridge, earlier to Kant, and long before to Plato. By the end of the nineteenth century it was hard pressed by scientific determinism represented in the naturalism of Emile Zola whose fiction Shepard despised. In his opposition Shepard expressed his own sympathy for the English Pre-Raphaelites and the French Symbolists, though he did not succumb to the decadence that characterized some of their work. But his was a lost cause. The new age of realism and naturalism was not to be denied, try though he would. The armies of Bismarck in 1870 was Act One of the new drama unfolding; the Second was Queen Victoria’s death, her cortege slowly moving through the London streets on that cheerless January day in 1901, signaling the end of something precious, something Shepard called noblesse oblige; the last Act was those fateful guns of August 1914. Shepard’s days and years in the European salons were over; so too were the lingering tones of romanticism. Knowing that the guns were soon to sound, he left England in 1913, finding his way eventually to Los Angeles in 1920 where he lectured, continued writing, and gave piano recitals until his death in 1927.
Of all his writing one book remains in print today, and it is upon this strange and haunting American classic that his literary reputation rests, if ever so lightly. Written in 1909 while he lived in London, The Valley of Shadows depicts not the haut monde of European culture but instead the great American prairies and the mighty river. In this book Shepard captured the poetry of American pioneers who sensed a power moving over the land and the civil conflict that soon would redden the earth. Most notably, Shepard portrayed the great leader whom the conflict would give birth to, an Abraham Lincoln of truly mythical proportions. Shepard’s idealism demanded a narrative, and The Valley of Shadows was that work. Here was a book, said Bernard DeVoto, editor of its fifth edition, which “does superbly what no other does at all: it had no predecessors and will have no successors.”6
Even though Shepard’s idealism was to be swallowed by the onrush of history, it was this same idealism that gave his book its compelling power. For Shepard’s vision affirmed the grandeur not only of Lincoln but of all men and women including those unlettered prairie folk of Sangamon County like Zack Caverly, Elihu Gest, Azariah James, Socrates and Serena Jordon who themselves envisioned history as the mysterious working-out of forces which no word but divine could describe. Divinition belongs to all men and women whose spirits are properly attuned. The noblest example was Abraham Lincoln, whom Shepard regarded as the greatest “practical mystic” in 1900 years — and one whose wisdom was the kind that today would have little need for public opinion polls and computers.
Perhaps it is because of such modern technology that Shepard’s vision seems so strange, so airy and even meaningless. And yet this may indeed be the irony: that such imaginings may of all things prove the most permanent. It may be that Shepard’s volume, The Valley of Shadows, and the Villa Montezuma, San Diego’s most flamboyant Victorian structure, will turn out to be his final testimonies of this permanence.
1. Van Wyck Brooks, Scenes and Portraits (New York, 1954), pp. 229-230.
2. Arnold Bennett, The Savour of Life — Essays in Gusto (New York, 1928), p 239; Journals (London, 1932), I, 315.
3. Edwin Bjorkman, “The Music of Francis Grierson,” Harper’s Weekly, LVIII (February 14, 1914), 15.
4. Francis Grierson, Modern Mysticism (London, 1899), p. 11.
5. Harold P. Simonson, Francis Grierson (New York, 1966). p. 46.
6. Bernard DeVoto (ed.), Francis Grierson, The Valley of Shadows (Boston, 1948), p. xvi.
Harold P. Simonson is Professor of English, University of Washington, Seattle. He earned his Ph.D. degree from Northwestern University, Evanston and a B.Phil. in Divinity at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. He is the author of several books including Francis Grierson (1966), a biography of Jesse Shepard published under the title of Shepard’s adopted pseudonym, as well as Zona Gale (1966), Wrinting Essays (1966), The Closed Frontier: Studies in American Literary Tragedy (1970), and Stategies in Criticism (1971). His published articles, including four on Grierson (Shepard), have appeared in a variety of journals including The Yale Review and Antioch Review. Dr. Simonson presented this paper at a meeting of members of the San Diego History Center in November, 1972, in conjunction with the formal opening and dedication of the newly restored Villa Montezuma at 1925 K Street, San Diego.