The Journal of San Diego History
Spring 1977, Volume 23, Number 2
Editor James Moss
Asst. Editor Thomas L. Scharf

Book Review

John Peabody Harrington: The Man and his California Indian Fieldnotes. By Jane MacLaren Walsh. Ramona, California: Ballena Press, 1976. Bibliography. Photographs. Appendix. Map. 58 pages. $4.95.
Reviewed by Catherine A. Callaghan, Associate Professor of Linguistics at Ohio State University, author of Lake Miwok Dictionary(1965) and Bodega Miwok Dictionary (1970).

“For those who have not worked directly with this collection it is difficult to convey the immensity and grandeur of it; or its squalor and seeming lack of order-“

These words from the Foreword by Lowell John Bean are superfluous for those who have already read Carobeth Laird’s Encounter with an Angry God, an account of her brief marriage to the ethnologist John Peabody Harrington. For the rest, they serve as an excellent comment on his life style and its end result; over five tons of notes, recordings, and manuscripts in various stages of completion.

Jane Walsh’s biographical essay shows a sensitive appreciation of Harrington the man. He was born at Waltham, Massachusetts in 1884 and graduated from Stanford University in 1905, having specialized in classical languages and anthropology. He met Alfred L. Kroeber in 1903 and became aware of-the linguistic and cultural diversity that characterized aboriginal California. He had a natural gift for phonetics which enabled him to pronounce and transcribe exotic languages with extraordinary accuracy.

Harrington’s field career began in 1906 and occupied all his spare time for more than fifty years, thirty-nine of which were spent with the Bureau of American Ethnology. Over the years, he became a victim of ever increasing anxiety as he watched the last speakers of numerous Indian languages approach old age. He worked as much as eighteen hours a day and was penurious to the point of injuring his health on cheap or spoiled food. He used his extra money to hire assistants, whom he drove as severely as himself. While working with the Bureau, he developed an uncanny ability to dispense with protocol so that he could spend more time with the Indians, and it is to his credit that he always paid top wages to his informants.

Although he concentrated on California, he also worked with Indians from other parts of the country, particularly the Southwest. At various points in his career, he became interested in such diverse topics as an improved typewriter and a retranslation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

He brought only a small number of his projects through to completion. In most cases, data collection was an end in itself, and after exhausting an informant’s knowledge he sometimes forgot where he had stored his notes. His compulsiveness took on a paranoid dimension. He grew increasingly secretive and discouraged his informants from working with anyone else. He finally succumbed to Parkinson’s Disease in 1961.

The biographical essay is followed by a catalog of Harrington’s California Indian material currently on file at the Smithsonian. The collection itself abounds with ethnographic data and recordings of oral literature, making this volume indispensable for the California historian as well as the anthropologist. Other caches of Harringtoniana are housed at the Linguistics Department of the University of California at Berkeley, the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles, and the San Diego Museum of Man.

Walsh concludes the volume with bibliographies of works by and about Harrington. His publication list of 128 items would be impressive if one were not aware of the mountain of unpublished data. But because of his collector’s mania, we now have the material for grammars and dictionaries of more than a dozen extinct California languages, as well as enough data to reconstruct the daily life of the speakers during the aboriginal and transitional period.