by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This morning, the Homestead’s Non-Fiction Book Club had a virtual meeting to discuss the members’ reading of American Character, a very interesting biography by Mark Thompson of the remarkable and highly influential Charles F. Lummis (1859-1928), founder of The Southwest Museum of the American Indian, journalist, poet, librarian and much else during his nearly seventy years.
I read Thompson’s absorbing book when it came out twenty years ago just as I was beginning my long association with Elderhostel/Road Scholar and sharing the early history of Los Angeles museums for its “Art Collectors program. Initially, I spoke at some length about Lummis’ life leading up to the establishment of The Southwest Museum, though in recent years just the merest of mentions is made about him.
So, taking about 15 or 20 minutes today to share some thoughts about Lummis through objects in the Homestead’s collection relating to him was great, because there are some excellent artifacts connected to the polymath, including the one featured here. It is an extraordinary tenth part of an article called “The Right Hand of the Continent,” a lengthy and wide-ranging essay by Lummis about, well, let’s try to unpack this because it covers a lot of ground!
First, to get a flavor for the author’s idiosyncratic style, taken a gander at the opening lines:
Impertinent as it must seem to us self-satisfied ephemera, who can feel the earth teeter under our masterful tread—who forget that Yesterday was, and Tomorrow shall be; and who realize, even of our maggot moment, little more than how much We outweigh the coach-wheel—it is nevertheless an irreverent fact of History (the sticky paper to which adheres what little is left of a thousand other fly-times, that
Civilization began only when Man began to move, and has progressed only upon condition of his removals. No people ever yet rose to a high culture in its geographical cradle; no country was every yet made eminent by its first inhabitants.
So, a core component here is migration and Lummis’ assertion was that a “tribe” remained “savage” when it stayed in place, so that “it is the immemorial lesson of evolution that Man, to Grow, has had to Get Out.” It was either that, or “stagnate.”
Lummis took his argument back to the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament of the Bible to state that it was the Exodus of the Jews “that they began to be a People ineradicable from history” and inquired, concerning the original home of that people in Palestine “who doesn’t know that it is the country ‘made’ by the Wandered [Wandering] Jew, while he rested there before further self-making by further wandering?”
As for ancient Greece, Lummis offered a free year’s subscription to his magazine “to any one that will offhand name one autocthnous [indigenous] tribe of that matchless archipelago.” It was Cadmus, who purportedly migrated from Phoenicia, who “drifted in” and from that point Greece “began to be a land which has set the world’s standards forever in sculpyure and in literature—to say nothing of the notch of the best educated people in history.”
For Rome, it was the introduction of “the Pious Trojan and his sort” that transformed the Italian peninsula, especially through the development of the Latin language, “the mother tongue to which every great modern language is incomparably beholden.” Naturally, the Romans, in turn, penetrated into Gaul and from that came the long development of what became France. As for England, “its civilization and its language are the sum of its immgrations,” as it was “a howling wilderness . . . of naked, brutal, raw-dieted, tongue-tied troglodytes” before the incursions of Romans, Vikings and Normans.
The Celts were not originally from Ireland and “the Teuton was an immigrant to Germany,” while to “talk Spanish” does not refere to any “aboriginal speech of the one-time queen of nations, but the superb instrument forged by her Roman, and polished by her Moorish, conquerors.” Lummis added that “even the marvelous aboriginal cultures of Mexico and Peru,” and he felt that, if some did not consider these civilizations, he felt they “were in some respects higher,” were “exotic.” The Incas and Aztecs, he observed, “did not originate where they made their astonishing record—they Moved there. And by Motion they Grew.”
When it came to the United States, he averred, “perhaps it were wanton to remind ourselves . . . that [it] was not wholly developed by its aborigines,” while he noted that “its present people have some cause to be glad that they are here rather than bank where they or their great-grandfathers came from.” At this point, he thought it good to restate that “migrations are the milestones of the whole world’s Progres. Civilization is the product of Emergence, of Getting Away both geographic and intellecual—and one is hard without the other, reading either way you will.”
When it comes to the historical element of this migratory evolution of humans, Lummis allowed that
M-a-y-b-e all this Means Something; History occasionally does. And if it ever meant anything, anywhere, it means everything to the West and to the very problems we are now reckoning with. It is the Key to our Riddle—that Impenentable Engima over which the East wags its solemn head altogether, and which we ourselves have not yet reasonably answered. Maybe, also, the big-enough historian will some day look out from his closet long enough to see—and we have still historians who could see, if they emerged and looked far enough—and give us the great book the themes and our bareness merit.
For the “New World,” there was the “inrush from 1520 to 1650 through the Spanish, while “the first first English invasion . . . was slow if sure.” The author felt certain that the last fifty years brought about the migration of “the post-bellum hordes” who really did not matter much “because, while numerically tremendous, the wave has carried more than its share of spume,” that is, the froth or foam atop a wave, implying an inferiority.
Yet, Lummis claimed that “the most heroic, the most precipitate, and the most epochal migration in what we call ‘American history’ (i.e., history of the United States) was beyond comparison the East-to-West shifting of populationin 1849-59.” During those ten years, he went on, “some 300,000 Wide-Awakes had moved farther, and at more cost of hardship and danger, than so many so comfortably civilized persons had ever moved—or ever have moved—in the world’s history.” Not only this, but Lummis claimed that “never before nor since have anything like the same number of human beings so radically and so lastingly remade the business habits of the whole world.
As for the Golden State, he noted that “California has had two epoch-marking and epoch-making landslide immigrations” and each comprised “wilful Emergences from hardshell Conservatism,” while being radically different from one another. The first, during the Gold Rush, “was Sheer Adventure (with its usual historical twin of Fortune-seeking) and one of its most magnificent chapters since man’s genesis.” While this was largely fomented by single men, many of whom sought and most failed to win fortunes and then returned home, the second was fundamentally made by families in a “Reasoned Migration” and “they came precisely to stay.” This latter may have been “the least heroic migration in history, but [it was] the most judicious; the least impulsive but the most reasonable.”
Moreover, this second wave did not come west on mules, horse, the prairie schooner or via “reeking steerage,” but “they came on palatial trains,” and didn’t have to settle in cabins, but, rather, “they put up beautiful homes.” The Argonauts of the Gold Rush were “gophering” for the precious metal, but the later migrants “planted gold” in the form of the orange and other crops that provided a “tenfold harvest.” Lummis opined that these more sedate immigrants “have made a record of development and progress” far superior than that of the heroes of ’49 and shortly afterward. He recorded that more of them came between 1885 and 1890, during the so-called Boom of the Eighties than those in the “Golden Decade.”
To drive home is point, Lummis stated that there were only a dozen states which added more people since 1880 than California and the entirety of New England gained 90,000 fewer. The percentage of increase in the Golden State was greater than any other state, save Florida, though he was careful to state that “I am not arguing that the Pullman Conquest [that is, via the railroad] was in numbers one of the landmarks of history.” Rather, what set this second wave apart was “not in its Mass but in its Class.”
That is, the migrants who settled in the east compared to those on this side of the country where, he argued, that “we have No social Swamps” and “the pauper and the criminal classes find it more comfortable to say where they can lean on or prey upon populations not only larger but also more of the sort that themselves find Easier to Stay Put.” The parasites remained on their eastern hosts and, it was added, “distance and railroad rates are not only a High Protective Tariff for Western manufactures, but a remarkably effective Restriction of Immigration—of the sort we are now nationally trying to restrict.”
Lummis thought, in his idealization of the western-bound immigrant, that a table of the number of telephones per 100 population would adequately prove his point. Sure enough, the Angel City had over 12 phones per 100, with San Francisco at just above 9, while, alas, Detroit had just 4, Boston a bit over 3, New York but 2.5, and Philadelphia below 2. Yet, even within the large state of California, a distinction had to be made about the 620,000 folks who came in the previous two decades, because some 350,000 of them settled in the seven southernmost counties, including Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and so on, while most of the rest were concentrated around the Bay Area.
He then claimed that, with all of its natural advantages, northern Californians had not learned that they “Have To,” while “we of the more arid south found it out early, and it has been the making of us.” Lummis then observed that
when I walked into Los Angeles, a little over 18 years ago [he literally walked solo all the way from Ohio in 1884], it was a dull little place of 12,000 people, with perhaps six buildings of three stories or better; and with a few doleful miles of such bobtail horse-cars as still serve parts of New York city. I used to shoot quail and jack-rabbits where is now the center of such as residence district as no other American city has quite the likes of. For a year there was no change to mention; but then Something Happened, and the Miracle begun . . .
Since 1880, the Angel City grew faster than almost 100 others that were larger at the time and it was the 135th largest in American then. A decade later, it rose to 56th and Los Angeles climbed twenty more places by 1900. During the Nineties, only a baker’s dozen of cities grew by as many persons. Put more colorfully, more people came to Los Angeles in the prior ten years than went to Maine, Vermont, Nebraska and Nevada combined. By the time, Lummis died a quarter century later, Los Angeles was the home of about 1 million people nearly ten times more than when he wrote the article.
While this tenth part concluded here and there was more to it in future issues, which we also have in the collection and can return to at a later time, this sample not only provides abundant examples of Lummis’ frame of mind and distinctive writing style, but it does speak to a general attitude about an exceptionalism concering Los Angeles held by many, if not as colorfully expressed. As Thompson’s title noted, Lummis was truly an “American character,” but it reached its zenith here in Los Angeles, even if that special status was over-generalized, weighted towards middle and upper class whites, and heavily marked by the abundant enthusiasm of the booster.