David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
Quarterdecks and Spanish Grants. By C. Raymond Clar. Felton, Ca.: Glenwood Publishers, 1971. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Notes. 158 pages. $10.50.
Reviewed by Thomas F. Andrews, Associate Professor of History at Pasadena College. Dr. Andrews has served as editorial assistant for the Southern California Quarterly(1966-70) and as visiting instructor at various California colleges. He has presented numerous papers on Western America at professional conferences, and his published articles have appeared in the Pacific Historical Review, California Historical Society Quarterly, CLA Journal and Journal Of The West.
Although John Clar had the good fortune to participate in several important events in California’s history — Commodore Jones’ premature “capture” of Monterey, the Gold Rush, and the subsequent land claims controversies — he remains a figure of secondary importance. Quarterdecks and Spanish Grants, the story of his eventful career, exemplifies the problems confronting most biographers of secondary figures. The available documentation on such persons is frequently rather thin and there are usually one or more blind spots in that person’s historical visibility. The former, the paucity of sources, invariably commits the author to a “life and times” biography in which the “life” never quite emerges out of the “times.” The latter, the gaps in the record, generally renders the author powerless to reach any firm conclusions about certain aspects of his subject’s career. So it is with the story of John Clar as written by his grandson.
Consider, for example, the first part of the book which recounts the world voyages of the Peacock, Columbia, Cyane, and Savannah. Although Clar served on board these ships as private clerk, schoolmaster, and professor of mathematics, he kept no diary; hence, little is known of either his attitude or his activities. He seldom appears on the “quarterdeck,” so to speak. His name is not even mentioned between page 12 and page 27, the part of the biography treating the Peacock‘s voyage. Similar conclusions may be drawn about the author’s treatment of Clar’s interest and involvement in the land claims struggles over the San Antonio and Tzabaco ranches, a deficiency the author readily acknowledges (p. 76). This is not to suggest that the grandson has failed to provide us with a “reasonable portrait” of John Clar; this he presents with some diligence. Instead, it is to suggest that both John Clar and California history would have been better served by a lengthy article, fully documented, which focuses upon the “life,” than by a book depicting the “times,” a book uneven in scope and inadequate in its scholarly paraphernalia. It is to the author’s credit, however, that his interpretation of some of the events reflects a wider reading of secondary materials than his bibliography denotes.