Letters From the Southwest.
By Charles Lummis, edited by James W. Byrkit. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1989. Illustrations. Bibliographic essays. Index. 307 pages. $29.95.
Reviewed by Warren A. Beck, Professor of History, California State University, Fullerton, author of A Historical Atlas of New Mexico (1968), and Understanding American History Through Fiction (1975).
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries many of the nation’s intellectuals were convinced that the values of American society were being corrupted by the vast changes which took place in the post Civil War era. The rise of large urban centers with their smokestack industries and vast numbers of new arrivals from Europe persuaded these individuals that life in the pre-industrial village and in rural surroundings would soon be extinct and when it died America would die with it. These eastern and midwestern intellectuals became completely disenchanted with the America they saw around them, or thought they saw around them. Therefore, they sought a society which had best preserved the cherished values of an America they believed was dying. From the earlier romantic movement they came to believe that people who lived close to nature were close to God. Since the natural state was always beyond the civilization line people looked to the frontier where traditional values had been preserved.
Thus, the frontier of the untamed American West became the inspiration for the new society wherein man lived in harmony with God and nature. Writers like Cooper, Thoreau, and Longfellow had already given a mythic view of the West which fueled escapism from the confines of an oppressive civilization. In the Southwest, Americans discovered the “noble savage” instead of the “blood-thirsty savage” just when the real Indian menace was over. They also found and virtually worshipped the cowboy who embodied all of the anti-establishment values of freedom that a man confined to an office could dream about–all cowboys were good and noble and were free to do their own thing. Finally, in the Southwest the American romantics found the Hispanic and promptly endowed that culture and society with all of the loftier aspects of civilization as they saw it.
The author of this book was one of the first to promote the romantic ideas of the day. Charles Fletcher Lummis (1959-1928) was an Ohio journalist hired to edit the Los Angeles Times. Instead of taking a train this peripatetic writer walked the 3500 miles from Cincinnati to Los Angeles between September 1884 and February 1885. He wrote twenty-four letters describing his journey. One set was sent to the Los Angeles Times, another was published in book form, A Tramp Across the Continent, and the third set was mailed to the Chillicothe Ohio Leader. The latter are the subject of this volume and are more spontaneous and more representative of Lummis’ true literary style than the others. He made the most routine activities into high drama, even exaggerating minor incidents or inventing a few. In his careful introduction, the editor has pointed out numerous discrepancies between the three accounts.
It is fitting that an eccentric like the Harvard educated Lummis should be the Moses that would lead the American intellectual children to the promised land of the Southwest. Although he wrote many books, edited the Los Angeles Times and the magazine, Land of Sunshine/Out West, and ran the Los Angeles Public Library, he was always a journalist and a publicist. He was a promoter who worked for the railroads and the Chamber of Commerce to promote the idea that to live long and well you must come to California. He even argued that most of history’s great led by Jesus of Nazareth, Socrates, and Napoleon were products of climates like that of Southern California.
Lummis kept himself so busy beating the drums for life in the Southland he had little time for scholarship. He built his own house and entertained often, feeding his guests only true Southwestern food: meat, chiles, tamales, frijoles, and olives. Frequently ill because of dissipation from drinking and smoking to excess and amatory indulgences which were the envy of many a macho male, Lummis had a number of wives and a long procession of “secretaries.” One example of his willingness to snub the conventions of the day was his dedication of The Land of Poco Tiempo to both his current wife and her immediate predecessor.
Lummis was not a California literary giant but as a character he was certainly an interesting individual. This book is entertaining and the letters tell much about the America of that day including the 1884 election. The editor enhances the value of the volume by an exceptionally well done introduction and full explanation of Lummis’ role as a promoter of the climate and the future of Southern California.