Poetry from a scoundrel's pen


They trickle into town as fall reddens the forests along the California-Oregon border, their luggage stuffed full of obscure Western texts, their brains bristling with theories. At the center of these words and ideas stands the most important California writer you've never heard of: Miner, outlaw, judge, Indian intimate, gun-toting Quaker and serial husband, Joaquin Miller lived as large as a man could live from 1837 to 1913, got famous, then got lost.

"Why ... is he forgotten?" blurts Walt Curtis, a wild-haired Portland poet, leaping to his feet with something like a war cry. "I think he writes as well as Mark Twain or anyone! Wallace Stegner and all these people get so much attention, and I think they're boring as

Three dozen believers huddle in a room at Southern Oregon University, with chairs to spare. This is the first Joaquin Miller conference anyone can think of, with not a single tenured literature professor on the roster. Instead, we have a posse as irregular as any that ever approached Judge Roy Bean.

Here is Margaret Guildford-Kandell, the 83-year-old agricultural economist from Blaine, Wash., who's been publishing a Miller newsletter (circulation: "dozens") since 2000. Here's Chris DeHart, the Humboldt State University career counselor who pulled this event together. Here's Malcolm Margolin, the Berkeley publisher with the rabbinical beard, whose Heyday Books distributes Miller's 1873 memoir, "Life Amongst the Modocs."

Over coffee at the college and dinners downtown, during intermissions at a staged reading of a screenplay based on the Modocs books, they probe the Miller corpus like biologists squinting into the entrails of an endangered owl. It's tricky. When their man first passed through this country as a teenager on the way to the California Gold Rush he was still Cincinnatus Hiner Miller, an Oregon farmer's son. But in the 1860s, eager to crank up his career as a poet, playwright, author and voice of the West, Miller borrowed a new name from the Mexican outlaw and populist hero Joaquin Murrieta.

That sort of grandstanding set more than a few of his contemporaries on edge. Most of his poetry, they said, was just doggerel with a novel setting. Ambrose Bierce called him "the greatest liar this country has ever produced," and even as his sales soared, his dubious credibility became the standard literary rap on Miller: He bragged and fudged too much to be taken seriously. In fact, "Life Amongst the Modocs" was really about life amongst the Wintu. But the Modoc name was more marketable at the time, so Miller went with it.

Miller's irregulars know all about this. Maybe he bent his facts, they say, but look at his revolutionary thinking.

It's easy to forget that in the 1870s, much of California was a bloody mess of fugitives, liars, land-grabbers and mercenaries. Yet here was Miller, pausing between pillages to rhapsodize about the mountains and decry the effects of mining on the stream water. He lamented the fate of Western wilderness when John Muir was just getting started and he spoke for embattled native peoples long before Helen Hunt Jackson dreamed up "Ramona." Then there's the lilt of his language, like these opening lines from "Life Amongst the Modocs":

Lonely as God, and white as a winter moon, Mount Shasta starts up sudden and solitary from the heart of the great black forests of Northern California.

"That is a strong opening paragraph," says Alan Rosenus, the independent scholar who stumbled on the book in 1971 and republished it a year later. Even if it was only half-true, Rosenus says, "I couldn't figure out, how did this book get swept under the carpet?"

Even if you come away seeing Miller as a greedy opportunist in the middle of a sagebrush melodrama, you have to admit this story is a good one: He ditched his Indian bride and daughter, got jailed as a horse thief, busted out, shot a sheriff in Northern California. Then he turned up, just a couple of years later, as a judge in southern Oregon. Still largely unknown as a writer, he sailed across the Atlantic and sold himself to London's literati, with the aid of spurs and a sombrero, as the preeminent poet of the American West.

But time has been vicious. When M.M. Marberry published Miller's biography in 1953, the title was "Splendid Poseur." As of last week, Miller's "Selected Writings" ranked 1,255,755th in Amazon sales, nearly invisible.

Two days among allies in this crisp air can't change that. But they're days of validation all the same. One night, Rosenus swaggers into the Standing Stone bar with a trick arrow stuck through his neck, mimicking Miller's most famous battle injury. One afternoon, Oakland naturalist Stephanie Benavidez leads the gang outside to recite Miller's last poem beneath the swaying pines and elms. And one morning Margolin and Rosenus share the speaker's table with Darryl Babe Wilson, a 65-year-old Native American and scholar who was raised in the shadow of Mt. Shasta.

Wilson, recalls the hardest days of his dissertation work at the University of Arizona in 1991. There he was, swamped by research materials in his Tucson kitchen, up to his eyeballs in white men's histories, most of them justifications for killing and stealing from people like him. And then this Modoc book turned up, sent by his friend Margolin.

"I immediately felt a presence," says Wilson. "This guy Miller, whoever he was, was speaking a truth. I wept." On stage to collect his PhD, he thanked Joaquin.

I don't propose that we stand old Joaquin up on a pedestal alongside Mark Twain and John Muir. But his raw California is a wonder to read about, and his case is a fine reminder of an awkward truth: Our best ideas come from some of the same people who bring us our worst.

To e-mail Christopher Reynolds or to read his previous Wild West columns, go to latimes.com/chrisreynolds.

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