Raymond Starr, Book Review Editor
San Diego Originals: Profiles of the Movers and Shakers of California’s First Community
By Theodore W. Fuller. Pleasant Hill: California Profiles Publications, 1987. Illustrations. Index. 267 Pages. $19.95 Hardcover. $12.95 Softcover.
Reviewed by Terri Jacques, M.A. in History from the University of San Diego (1980); curator of the Kimball House Museum in National City; and Senior Planner with the Environmental Quality Division, Planning Department of the City of San Diego.
In his book of San Diego Originals, Theodore Fuller presents very readable and frequently whimsical accounts of the lives of fifty seven characters who influenced San Diego history in various ways. Fuller portrays individuals that most San Diegans have heard of, dividing them into fifteen categories ranging from the “bird men” (aviators), the “hustlers,” and the “incredible” to the “Utopians.”
The nature of the book, in the form of brief biographical sketches of three to five pages each, including illustrations, allows the author only enough room for a very concise overview of each character’s life. This writing device is excellent for readers who may be unfamiliar with California or San Diego history and would like an overview of some of its past pioneers or residents. However, the nature of the book does not allow for in-depth history or the use of primary sources which might be useful to a reader already familiar with San Diego or California history.
Some of the more interesting accounts and those which were most applicable to San Diego history specifically, included the chapters on “The Characters” (Lt. Derby; the Scripps family; Hatfield; and Louis Wilde); “The Hustlers” (Ida Bailey-a colorful lady of the evening; Fletcher; and Alfred Isham-miracle cures); “The Incredible” (including Bum, San Diego’s mascot dog); “The Professionals” and “The Utopians” (Tingley and Smythe). The author’s use of photographs were appropriate in helping the reader visualize each character. An extensive index was also included which highlighted characters presented in the book.
One drawback of Fuller’s book is that some of the characters portrayed spent minimal time in San Diego and the reader is left wondering what actual contribution or mark that individual may have left on San Diego’s history. Several of the characters presented did not hail from San Diego or spend much time in the community. The first story in the book leaves the reader puzzled over how much Richard Henry Dana really influenced or contributed to San Diego while the extent of his association with the town was a four-month stint with a hide-curing crew! In another case, the focus of the story on Helen Hunt Jackson was mostly on her dealings with the government in the plight of the American Indian. San Diego is only mentioned in passing, when Fuller refers to her visits “to ranches and some of the missions.” Further on, the majority of a story on Ernestine Schumann-Heink dealt with her life in Europe and the United States rather than San Diego. John Charles Fremont is credited with only a nine-day stay in San Diego’s port, hardly enough to designate him a mover and shaker in California’s first community! Jedediah Smith’s relationship to San Diego was the most questionable when he was characterized as showing up twice in San Diego, but being booted out both times! These and several other accounts indicated that the author dwelt on the character’s life story rather than relating the character to his or her effect on San Diego history. Although the stories are well-chronicled, perhaps a more appropriate title would have been “California Originals.”
Mr. Fuller’s book could also have benefited from some careful editing, with attention to this reviewer’s pet peeve: typographical errors. Some grammatical errors made for choppy reading, in particular in the Louis Wilde story. Some stories seem to come to an abrupt halt, perhaps as the result of a desire to be brief.
Overall, Fuller should be commended for pulling together a wealth of information on so many characters in a brief and easily readable collection. A newcomer to San Diego or California would benefit from the variety of information presented.