David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
Skeleton’s Closet Revisited: A Light Look at San Diego History. By Herbert W. Lockwood. San Diego: Bailey and Associates, n. d. Introduction by Ray Brandes. Illustrations. 122 pages. $3.50.
Reviewed by Thomas R. Cox, Associate Professor of History, San Diego State University, author of articles on Western history and Mills and Markets: A History of the Pacific Coast Lumber lndustry to 1900 (forthcoming, fall 1974).
The late Stewart Holbrook, a leading popularized of history a decade and more ago, was wont to substitute color for analysis. As one critic put it: “Hols would remember that when a man stood up to make a speech in Cutbank, Montana, his pants fell down, and then he would forget what the fellow had to say.” Yet, whatever his faults, Holbrook wrote carefully researched, coherent accounts firmly set in the context of the times. Herbert W. Lockwood’s Skeleton’s Closet Revisited has none of these redeeming virtues. It is a succession of unconnected anecdotes first published in “The Skeleton’s Closet,” Lockwood’s column in the San Diego Independent. The originals seem to have been hastily gleaned from old newspapers. Neither separately nor together do these stories present the reader with a picture of bygone San Diego or of the broader scene of which the young city was a part.
Moreover, there are simply too many errors and distortions. Lockwood, for example, says that historians have “largely ignored” the Battle of San Pasqual (p. 28), which certainly is not the case. His own version contains contrived dialogue and such blunders as misnaming the Mexican Commander. Lockwood’s accounts of the San Diego free speech fight of the Industrial Workers of the World (he calls them the Internation Workers of the World!) and of the raising of the American flag over San Diego in 1846 are no improvement. They are glib mixtures of innuendo and outmoded stereotypes. On top of everything else there are typographical, spelling, and grammatical errors.
Some of his accounts are better. The description of the events surrounding the explosion that wrecked the USS Bennington in San Diego harbor in 1905 is straightforward, factual, and interesting. Yet even here Lockwood makes no effort to utilize the disaster to shed light on larger concerns, though the topic cries for some consideration of the quality of naval discipline and personnel in the period. Incidentally, the Bennington was a cruiser, not a battleship as Lockwood calls her (p. 85).
History can be entertaining without ceasing to be accurate and insightful. Stewart Holbrook’s work attests to the fact. But Lockwood is no Holbrook. His work does his readers—and local history—a disservice. In playing solely to the nostalgia of older citizens, Lockwood does nothing to broaden their understanding of their own and their country’s past. Younger readers find in such works confirmation of their suspicion that history is largely self-congratulatory fiction foisted onto them by their elders. Thus, neither group is well served. History such as this is best left unpublished; Lockwood’s anecdotes should have remained entombed in the backfills of the San Diego Independent. One is saddened that a professional historian would contribute an introduction to such a volume and appalled that he would state that it is based on “sound historical research.”
Some might argue that these criticisms are too harsh-that, after all, Lockwood is a journalist. not a historian, and he merely set out to recount some humorous tales from San Diego’s past. True, Lockwood does not claim to be a historian, but even the stories of a good raconteur ought to have a point. The book’s only virtue is the interesting old photographs that adorn it.