“The Eternal City and the Electric City”: Rome and Los Angeles in Grace Ellery Channing’s “The Meeting of Extremes,” Out West Magazine, September 1903

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In 1891, Charles Dudley Warner, a contributing editor to the popular national publication Harper’s Monthly, penned the book Our Italy, published by Harper Brothers and based on an extended sojourn in southern California the prior year. Coming just after the great Boom of the 1880s went bust, Warner discussed that collapse, but also forecasted the future of greater Los Angeles in terms of its potential for industry, agriculture (most notable, citrus) and its healthfulness for residents.

A dozen years later, a different take on the comparison between this region and the southern European nation was offered in Out West, the Los Angeles-based successor to The Land of Sunshine and edited by Charles F. Lummis. The feature article of the September 1903 issue of the journal was “The Meeting of Extremes” by Grace Ellery Channing (1862-1937), one of the many notable women writers connected to greater Los Angeles in the 19th century.

Los Angeles Times, 7 December 1884.

Channing was the grand-daughter of the major transcendentalist figure William Ellery Channing, the “Apostle of Unitarianism,” who was a noted temperance advocate, abolitionist and moralist, while her father William Francis was a physician and inventor who worked on elements of the telegraph and telephone. One of three children born in Providence, Rhode Island, Grace graduated from the state normal school for teacher education and worked in kindergartens when this was a new aspect of schooling.

After she contracted tuberculosis, however, the Channings came, as so many health-seekers did at the time, to Los Angeles, arriving here at the end of 1884. After a sojourn at the Sierra Madre Villa, at the base of the mountain range of that name (soon to be the San Gabriels), her father purchased five acres in Pasadena, where the Fenyes Mansion, Gamble House and other well-known houses are now.

Times, 6 March 1894.

Almost immediately, Grace Channing became well-known in Los Angeles and Pasadena social circles for her abilities as a writer and edited her grandfather’s memoirs, wrote two novels and a volume of poetry and was published in many magazines, including Harper’s, Scribner’s, Atlantic Monthly, and newspapers like the New York Post and the Boston Transcript. Her health restored, she spent the years 1890 to 1894 in Europe, including Italy, and when she returned married artist Charles Stetson, the recently divorced husband of Channing’s close friend, Charlotte Perkins (later Gilman), another writer of distinction.

The fact news of this triangular tangle was, in late Victorian Pasadena, something of a minor scandal, but Charlotte had long been separated from Stetson and then sent their daughter to live with her ex-husband and close friend after their marriage, while the ties between the two women remained close. When Lummis assumed editorial control of The Land of Sunshine in early 1895, he recruited Channing as a stockholder and contributor to what became Los Angeles’ first literary magazine.

Los Angeles Express, 5 January 1918.

In the 1900 census, Grace resided with her father, brother Harold, step-daughter Catherine and her sister’s daughter, but the house built by the family was destroyed that year by a fire and, after William Francis died in 1901, the property was sold and the Fenyes Mansion built there a few years later. In 1902, Channing and Stetson decamped for Rome as the well-regarded painter tried to boost his career amid financial problems and health issues. After just under a decade, he died and Channing returned to the United States and mounted exhibitions of his work, though his classical style was no longer favored.

Channing was also in economic dire straits, but, in 1916, became a war correspondent, with full accreditation, and reported from the front lines in France and Italy during the First World War. She spent most of the last couple of decades of her life in a Manhattan apartment on the Upper East Side and died there in April 1937.

Times, 19 September 1903.

An obituary in the Pasadena Post observed that, after returning to the United States from Europe after the war, she “suffered from a breakdown from which she never completely recovered” and her brother told the paper “that her death was directly attributable to the ailment developing from her war experience.” What the paper did not mention was a 1905 article, “Miss Ellen,” in the Atlantic Monthly in which she wrote disparagingly of the Crown City’s elite, purportedly because she felt snubbed by Pasadena’s upper crust of society. Predictably, the circumstances of her marriage to Stetson were brought up by the offended as “what’s the matter with Mrs. Stetson.”

In any case, “The Meeting of Extremes” came out two years prior when she was presumably still well-regarded in her adopted hometown and which was written just after she settled in Rome. Channing began her article and exhibited some of her style by commenting,

Rome and Los Angeles—the infinitely Old and the exuberantly New—the Eternal City and the Electric City!—if one asked the casual observer to name offhand the two cities unlikest [sic] on earth, he might well name these two; if one asked the careful student to name the two cities likest [sic] on earth, it might equally well be these two; implied between these judgments would be a whole history of the human race.

Citing Warner for his 1891 work, the author continued that “between the stories Peninsula and our long, narrow State there exists a real analogy. The Bay Area, Sacramento and the upper San Joaquin Valley were California’s analog to Italy’s Piedmont and Lombardy regions, “while the temperate counties of the middle South stand for the garden of our Italy—Tuscany,” San Diego was deemed to be akin to Naples, Catalina compared to Capri, and Baja California accounted to be somewhat like Calabria and Sicily.

For Channing, if these eluded the “inapprehensive eye,” it was simply because only a few knew Italy beyond the usual tourist visits and actually lived there and who could appreciate her assertion that there was a “deep resemblance between her who was the Mistress of the Old World and her who is destined to be no the least among several mistresses of the New.” The tourist would, she allowed, naturally prefer Rome with its churches, art galleries, “picturesque peasantry,” and more, while “in California he must fall on perfect days and sunny circumstance, to feel its charm.”

The writer went on to note that “historically and archaeologically, Rome is our elder sister—I seem to have heard that we are geologically so,” but she was compelled to claim that “nor is there anything Rome ever was or had or did so good that it may not be bettered on the hills by the Pacific yet one day.” She favorably compared the Sierra Nevada range to the Apeninnes and the Pacific to the Mediterranean, but turned to the climate for continuing confirmation, observing that “Rome is both colder and hotter than Los Angeles,” with the notorious humidity in the Imperial City such that summer there was “a languid and enervating one.” The Angel City, she proffered, did not have this condition in its relative aridity.

What was inherently comparable to Channing was the landscape and she added,

Go into a garden; eucalyptus, pepper, draconia, dracena, fan-palm and date-palm, calla lily and bamboo, India-rubber tree and magnolia—would you not say, a Californian garden? Only if there chance to be a stone-pine, that tree-y glory of all Italy, can you be sure that this is rather the garden of Sallust [ancient Roman historian and writer] or Lorenzo [?], than some mute, inglorious American’s on Adams street or Figueroa [the elite district of the Angel City at the time].

The author went on that “here, too, in our Italian garden are the orange and lemon, the fig and the vine, the rose and the geranium” and other plants, while she, after praising the Pacific over the Mediterranean, claimed that, at higher elevations in greater Los Angeles “you may trace the pale silver of the Mediterranean.”

When it came to fruit, there were more similarities, with figs, grapes, melons, nectarines, peaches, pears, and plums alike in both areas and, while Italian skies were duly praised, “ours are deeper, and the Italian nights seem thin beside our own” and the former’s pink and fair dawns were to be measured against the latter’s purple and gold. Moreover, Channing claimed that, with Italy, “sad she is, mournful in her beauty always . . . but everything abut her is less solemn than our joyous West,” adding that “perhaps it is because youth is really a more serious spectacle than age—but so it is.”

From the highest hills of Rome to the Campagna, there were certainly impressive views, but with the greater Los Angeles regions of “San Fernando, the Tejunga [sic], or the Mesa, stretching beyond San Gabriel to the foothills and westward in a long reach to the majesty of ocean—you have changed the name but scarce the view.” Channing again boasted of this area,

Ours are the higher hills, the vaster plain, the greater sea, the kindlier air and sun, the deeper and more sumptuous color. But the difference is lost in the alikeness, and one goes about exclaiming: “But for that wall—that palace—that column—that single monument—I should believe I was in Los Angeles.” And when one adds that modern Rome is extending everywhere her trolley lines, and has even had a building boom of tragic dimensions, one feels the fatality of similarity.

A question arose: “is it possible for two cities to be born so much alike by nature, and the destiny of the one bear no natural proportion or relation to the other?” While it was obvious that one metropolis was thousands of years younger, Channing felt that “if she reproduces minutely the features of that remotely great grandmother we shall anticipate that she will ‘take after her’ more or less.

There may not be Caesars to govern or Colosseums (well, actually, there would be a Coliseum in twenty years) or “an Hierarchical Church” (though the Roman Catholic Church was still a fairly large one), but she posited “a civilization which shall be to the world in its day what the Roman civilization at its purest was to its—a city which shall be to that new civilization what Rome was to the old” and wondered, “is that unreasonable.”

The writer asserted that “modern Rome has little to teach us” and was drawing lessons from Los Angeles in the early part of the 20th century “for bad and good,” though it was also the case that Rome’s long existence meant that there were ideas “worth preserving” and the development of the civilization of the ancient city through climate and topography specifically “remains singularly applicable to our own.”

Yet, Channing found it strange that those who migrated to Los Angeles from the east where they had models from England, Germany and Holland brought “his snow-shedding [steeply-pitched] roofs” and “builds him his Dutch or English lidless house upon a shadeless sidewalk and then immures himself.” This seemed to suggest that only architecture that was climate specific should be utilized.” She ended with the observation that

the oldest mother of all [European civilizations] is Rome; and perhaps from her lips he would more readily hear reason, from whose lips he received his law. In such a hope these studies have been made.

Notably, some two decades later, Channing would express enthusiasm for the rise of the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, though it is not clear whether this was retained through her death, including his conquest of Ethiopia and closer relationship with Hitler including the 1936 pact that led to the later “Pact of Steel.” In any case, her essay comparing Rome and Los Angeles is certainly an interesting one.

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