Charles F. Lummis: Crusader in Corduroy. By Dudley Gordon. Los Angeles: Cultural Assets Press, 1972. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 344 pages. $12.50.
Reviewed by Walton Bean, Professor of History, University of California, Berkeley, author of California, an Interpretive History (1968, 1973), and Boss Ruef’s San Francisco (1952, 1968).
San Diego, this book asserts, “owes its Mother Mission, the Serra Cross, the Cabrillo Memorial, the Pala Indian Reservation, the Pala Mission, and El Camino Real” to Charles F. Lummis, who organized the California Landmarks Club in Los Angeles in 1895. This was “the first American society to be chartered to devote itself to the conservation of historic buildings.” These statements occur at the beginning of a chapter called “San Diego’s Benefactor” (page 223). The degrees of exaggeration in them are characteristic of the volume as a whole, for this is a work of unadulterated hero worship. Dudley Gordon has not only adopted virtually every opinion Lummis ever held, but he has sought to stand in his shoes, or rather, more literally, to give lectures on Lummis at women’s clubs, historical societies, and service organizations while wearing one of Lummis’s own corduroy suits (“and it fits perfectly”).
Lummis was a colorful, dynamic, and often eccentric crusader for what Carey McWilliams would later denounce as “our fantasy heritage” of a great Spanish tradition in California. A Massachusetts Yankee, educated at Harvard, Lummis was city editor of the Los Angeles Times at the height of the boom of the ’80s. After suffering a paralytic stroke he recovered his health in New Mexico, and there acquired an intense love for the Spanish and Indian lore of the Southwest. Returning to Los Angeles, he became editor of the Land of Sunshine, made it his personal vehicle, and later changed its name to Out West because the original name sounded too much like an organ of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, as indeed it had been at its beginning. For several years Lummis was city librarian of Los Angeles, and he was a moving spirit in the founding and building of the Southwest Museum. His Landmarks Club did important work in the protection and the early stages of restoration of the missions of San Fernando, San Juan Capistrano, San Luis Rey, San Diego, and Pala. The publisher’s blurb puts it that “Without Lummis the swallows would have no Capistrano to come back to.”
Edwin R. Bingham’s Charles F. Lummis, Editor of the Southwest, begun as a Ph.D. thesis under John W. Caughey at UCLA, was published by the Huntington Library in 1955. It is a quieter but more reliable book on Lummis than the present one.
Dudley Gordon, who taught English at Los Angeles City College from 1930 until he retired in 1963, began his work on Lummis in Herbert E. Bolton’s seminar at Berkeley in 1939. His book is still not ready for publication but at last it has been published anyway, and this is preferable to its not having been published at all because there is a great deal of life and color in it. It has, however, many faults.
Professor Gordon seems unable to perceive any defect whatever in Lummis’s beliefs or in his personality. At the beginning of the chapter on “The Lummis Family,” for example, he maintains that “few men were as well oriented to the institution of the family as was Lummis; to him the family hearth was the keystone of civilization.” Yet a few pages later we read that Lummis was thrice married and thrice divorced. To establish that the first divorce must have been the fault of Lummis’s first wife, Gordon tells us that a professional graphologist examined samples of her handwriting and pronounced it “masculine” and “domineering.” Although it is inescapably obvious that Lummis’s own temperament played a major part in his frequent quarrels not only with his wives but with many others, Gordon stoutly defends Lummis against all those who disagreed with him or failed to show the proper appreciation of him, whether they were contemporaries such as Mary Austin or Jack London, or later critics such as Franklin Walker. Gordon maintains that because of a quarrel between Lummis and the editors of Harper’s, which prevented the publication in book form of a series of Lummis articles on the history of California’s first half-century of statehood, “The story of California’s phenomenal achievements during [that period] is largely unknown.” (Page 189).
Another major defect of the work, along with its adulation, is its lack of organization. The first chapter deals with Lummis’s journey to the national capital in December 1901 when his old Harvard chum Theodore Roosevelt invited him to come and give the new President “the benefit of his extensive experience in irrigation, conservation, and, especially, Indian affairs.” This seems to come at the beginning of the book not because it logically belongs there but because it was a high point of Lummis’s career and thus serves to establish his importance. Many of the chapters seem to have been prepared originally as topical articles or lectures, and to have been reproduced here with little effort to work them into a biography. This makes for a great deal of repetition. For example, we are told four times that Lummis rated four inches in Who’s Who in America; and essentially the same list of Lummis’s principal achievements is repeated in several chapters. At many points there is little semblance of organization and the volume becomes more a scrapbook than a book. On page 253, for example, “Other items of Lummis interest:” introduces several pages of long quotations either entirely disconnected or very loosely strung together.
Yet when all this has been said, this book will have value to future students of Lummis, as a testimonial of his remarkable influence on his disciples, as well as for the previously unpublished letters and other materials that it includes. As for its hero worship, as Lawrence Clark Powell remarks in a charming foreword, “There are worse things than loving idolatrously.”