Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor
California Utopia: Point Loma: 1897-1942. By Emmett A. Greenwalt. Revised Edition. Point Loma Publications. P.O. Box 9966. San Diego, 1978. Index. Photos. 243 pages. Cloth $9.95, soft cover $5.95.
Reviewed by Robert S. Fogarty, Editor, Antioch Review, and Associate Professor of History, Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio. Editor of a nineteen volume series, The American Utopian Adventure and author of the forthcoming Biographical Dictionary of Communal History (Greenwood Press).
For close to twenty-five years Emmett Greenwalt’s study of the theosophical community at Point Loma has been the best and standard account. The reissue and modest revision comes at a welcome time. Newspapers, California ones in particular, have deposited bizarre and ghoulish accounts on our doorsteps of the People’s Temple and Synanon. The public now shudders when terms like sect, cult or charismatic leader are mentioned. And rightly so since the excesses associated with some contemporary sects should give us pause. However, murder has been committed in the name of almost everything and we should pause before allowing code words and phrases to lead us to false conclusions.
For there is a benign side to the colony experience and this reissue reminds us of that fact. Point Loma, under Katherine Tingley’s autocratic leadership, was formed to do good, to encourage men and women along a higher path and to provide a haven for the like-minded in a hostile world. From 1900 to 1929 when Tingley died the colony at Point Loma was a benign and restful community. At present there is little left of the colony to remind San Diegans of the history and Greenwalt’s account stresses their accomplishments rather than their ultimate failure.
Even though Tingley said there was a “top rung to every ladder,” and she perched herself there at Point Loma, she was surrounded by able and dedicated associates. Their contributions to the horticultural history of San Diego, their artistic and cultural achievements and their dedication to the theosophical ideal all find a place in Greenwalt’s narrative. In this reissue additional details about Philip Malpas and Hugh Leonard are provided, but the book is essentially the same as the original 1955 version. Some important works, such as Laurence Veysey’s The Communal Experience (1973), might have helped in this reissue, but Greenwalt has chosen to overlook them. Some of the bibliographic notes have been updated, but most are the same.
Point Loma was more than Katherine Tingley and Greenwalt takes great pains to emphasize that. It was a community of believers, a colony of idealists and a settlement in San Diego. The community tried to make theosophy (Tingley style) a vital and creative religion through a strict regimen and symbolic pageantry; the colony tried to carry out some reforms (particularly in education) and took on the Los Angeles Times in a famous court battle; the settlement tried and did dig deep roots in the sandy peninsula at Point Loma. Tingley and her followers were interested in scientific agriculture, in the arts, in reform movements from vivisection to peace, and in man’s capacity to achieve a higher spiritual existence. Their neighbors in San Diego did not always understand them, but the theosophical presence is one that the area can be proud of. They found a home in San Diego and for almost thirty years played a major part in the international theosophical movement. After Tingley’s death the colony tried to regroup under Gottíried de Purucker, but the ravages of the depression and Tingley’s poor management were too much. Buildings could not be maintained and land had to be sold off. By 1942 Point Loma had ended even though the theosophical movement continued.
Greenwalt’s account remains the best account of the Point Loma venture. He understands their philosophy, conveys that understanding in clear and direct language, and tells a good story. Local historians will find this reissue a valuable source.