THE MAN WHO INVENTED THE SOUTHWEST

 

Charles Fletcher Lummis (1859-1928) grew up in Massachusetts and was educated at Harvard. He was part of a generation of easterners, like Owen Wister and Theodore Roosevelt, who found the late nineteenth century East to be constrictive in its traditions and overly urbanized, and who hoped to find liberation and renewal by going West. From a young age, Lummis showed an interest in journalism. He turned his talent into a job as a newspaperman in Ohio. Then in 1884, after persuading the Los Angeles Times to pay him for his account of the trip, he hiked from Ohio to Southern California, as if on a pilgrimage, completing the trek in 112 days. Impressed by his initiative, the Times gave Lummis a permanent position, and he soon became the city editor of the paper.

Charles_Fletcher_Lummis
Charles Fletcher Lummis

 

One of his early assignments at the Times was to travel to Arizona to cover the Apache revolt led by Geronimo. Lummis found that he was deeply affected by the color and spare beauty of the area. Lummis stayed briefly in New Mexico, at the hacienda of Don Manuel Antonio Chaves, where he was profoundly impressed by the dignity and chivalric manner of the family and their way of life, which seemed a highly civilized blend of Old Spanish and Indian cultures.

After returning to Los Angeles, Lummis suffered a paralytic stroke probably as a result of overwork and too much drink and a generally decadent life. Thinking that a change of scene would improve his health, Lummis returned to New Mexico in 1888 and lived with the Chaves family until 1892. While there Lummis met the son of Don Manuel, who had earned his law degree in Washington DC. He was an enlightening example for Lummis of the possibilities of combining values from the eastern United States with those of the Southwest.

Although Lummis suffered two more strokes while in New Mexico, he eventually regained his health and, in 1892, ever more fascinated by the exotic, he joined an archaeological expedition to Bolivia and Peru and then returned to California. When he returned to California, he was invited to serve as editor of a new magazine, Land of Sunshine, where he worked from 1895 to 1903 (the title changed to Out West in 1902). The magazine was owned and subsidized by the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce as an advertising vehicle to attract settlers and businesses to Southern California and to build local pride. Lummis seemed to the Chamber to possess just the combination of assets they were looking for: entrepreneurial spirit, local knowledge, eagerness to enhance the reputation of the area, journalistic skill, and sufficient interest in culture to persuade people that the region was not only beautiful as a landscape but also civilized.

Land_of_Sunshine_June_1899_cover
Cover for Land of Sunshine, with Borglum design

In addition to his work in journalism, Lummis served as librarian of the City of Los Angeles from 1905 to 1910, making it a center of free public education and literary gatherings. He also founded the Landmarks Club (1897) to preserve California’s missions and other historic sites. As an amateur ethnologist and a leader in efforts to defend the rights of Indians and to preserve Indian cultures, he helped found the Southwest Museum (1914), which collected, preserved, and publicized Indian relics and artifacts.

The staff of Land of Sunshine/Out West
The staff of Land of Sunshine/Out West

But the key source of his influence was journalism. In thousands of pages of articles for newspapers and magazines, and in several books, Lummis crystallized the American conception of “the Southwest.” In the 1880s, American cultural perceptions of Southern California and the even less settled areas directly east of it were superficial and un-synthesized. New Mexico and Arizona were thought of as water-starved, large, generally empty spaces still riven by frontier violence involving warlike Indians and outlaws, where the land was dotted with small settlements flavored by an exhausted Spanish and Mexican culture, and mining was the major economic attraction. Southern California was regarded as a mostly un-urbanized region with a growing population of retirees and health seekers, made quaintly picturesque by its orange trees, missions, and bungalows.

Lummis used his base of operations in journalism to give audiences a deeper appreciation of the Spanish heritage of the area, to see the complexity of the Spanish culture, with ideals that could be appreciated even if one was not Catholic, and its interplay between internal complexity and external sparseness. He asked audiences to see the value of the slow, measured pace that was part of Spanish culture and seemed to emerge from the landscape. He also invited readers to appreciate the spiritual achievements of Indian cultures and the wisdom of the Indians in forging a creative relationship with the land. Lummis hoped to achieve a synthesis of these values and the capitalistic habits Americans from the east brought with them to the west.

In his personal life Lummis did not completely achieve the synthesis he advocated. He always drank too much and he was a notorious womanizer. He had something of the frontier duelist in his character and nearly lost his life once as a result. And he was very theatrical. He asked friends to call him Don Carlos, dressed in a green corduroy suit, wore a Spanish sash and sombrero, sometimes added Navajo jewelry to his outfits, rolled his own cigarettes, flamboyantly told the folk tales and sang the songs of Old California and the Spanish borderlands, and built a large stone-and-adobe hacienda in northeast Los Angeles which he called El Alisal (The Sycamore), named after the grove of trees on the property.

Exterior view of El Alisal
Exterior view of El Alisal
Interior view of El Alisal
Interior view of El Alisal

Lummis made his estate a gathering place for those who were locally prominent, along with the occasional visitor from the east. One of the writers he sponsored was Mary Austin, author of the widely influential book The Land of Little Rain (1903) about her life on the desert near the San Joaquin Valley. Lummis saw Austin’s writings as a corrective to the phenomenal best-seller Ramona (1884), by Helen Hunt Jackson, the story of a tragic romance between a California Indian shepherd and his half-breed wife Ramona who live out their lives against the background of California mission culture and whose love affair is destroyed by greedy whites. Lummis viewed that novel as an example of a shallow approach to culture that he aimed to correct.

Mary Austin
Mary Austin

Another figure attracted to the Lummis circle was the painter and sculptor John Gutzon Borglum, who would later become famous as the creator of Mount Rushmore. In 1884, tired of the harsh life on the Great Plains in Nebraska, Borglum’s doctor father moved the family to Los Angeles. Lummis first met Borglum there when Borglum was a teenager apprenticed to a local lithographer. Recognizing artistic talent, Lummis persuaded a group of L. A. businessmen to support Borglum. Even after he went to Paris in 1890 to study, Borglum felt the strong influence of the West. When he returned to Southern California two years later, he helped Lummis build the audience for Land of Sunshine. Borglum wrote an article for the magazine, entitled “An Artist’s Paradise,” in which he called attention to the beauty of the setting and extolled its potential as an artistic center. Borglum also greatly improved the visual appeal of Land of Sunshine itself by giving it a new cover and logo, a mountain lion and a setting Southwestern sun.

Gutzon Borglum at The White House
Gutzon Borglum at The White House

Another example of the ways Lummis extended his influence through networks was his friendship with the illustrator Lafayette Maynard Dixon. Born in Fresno in 1885, into a southern family that had moved to San Francisco in 1846, Dixon grew up in comfortable circumstances and was already producing drawings of impressive quality at age 7. After art school Dixon pursued a variety of jobs in San Francisco as an illustrator for the Morning Call, William Randolph Hearst’s Examiner, and the Overland Monthly, working with a succession of writers that included Frank Norris, Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, Edwin Markham, and Kathleen Norris. By 1900 Dixon was able to support himself full-time as a freelance. In December 1898, thanks to an article by Lummis in Land of Sunshine, Dixon received his first public recognition from an influential critic. Thereafter the two were close friends. Dixon visited Lummis often and aided with the construction of El Alisal. Dixon and Lummis helped each other see the Southwest as a coherent whole. In 1900 Dixon took Lummis on a tour of the Southwest, using funds he had saved while working at the Examiner. Lummis, in turn, increased Dixon’s understanding of the Indians of the area, for example introducing Dixon to the headman of the Isleta pueblo and arranging for the two to remain there for several weeks. Dixon gave Lummis an added appreciation of the visual drama of the area, its color and intensity, and the potential of art to capture the nobility of the Indian and Spanish cultures. For Dixon the trip was an important step toward his life’s work as a celebrated and influential painter of the Southwest.

The most concentrated and disciplined writing that Lummis published appeared in his books, especially The Spanish Pioneers (1893). (He might have been able to enlarge his scholarly reputation if he had been able to complete and publish the Dictionary, Concordance, and Encyclopedia of Spain in America, 1492-1900, which would have run to ten or more volumes but was never finished.)

The accumulation of writings for Land of Sunshine/Out West, often produced in spurts, was the source of his greatest influence. To readers of the magazine, both in the Southwest and beyond, Lummis transmitted a variety of important ideas. In what Kevin Starr has called an anticipation of the “Sunbelt” theory of more recent times, Lummis argued that the center of cultural, social and economic influence in the United States would gradually move from the East to the Southwest, with Los Angeles as the capital of a region extending from the Pacific Coast to Texas. The unifying symbols of this region, Lummis argued, were the sun and the Spanish heritage. Acknowledging that too much sun and too few challenges from the environment could debilitate, Lummis nevertheless argued that the climate and topography of the region were ultimately generative. The motto of the magazine was “the lands of the sun expand the soul.” Lummis reminded readers that sunny regions had produced Homer, Socrates and Jesus. As for the Spanish influence, Lummis argued, it was as valid a part of U.S. colonial inheritance as the English way of life in the original thirteen colonies.

Photo from Land of Sunshine, showing a home  in Riverside to illustrate the Southwestern ideal
Photo from Land of Sunshine, showing a home in Riverside to illustrate the Southwestern ideal

Land of Sunshine was also influential as an exercise in economic boosterism. The magazine received enthusiastic support from Los Angeles business leaders like the development-oriented founder of the L.A. Times Harrison Gray Otis and the L. A. streetcar magnate Henry Edwards Huntington, as well as the anti-union members of the Los Angeles Merchants and Manufacturers Association. They provide a reminder that the journalism produced by Lummis, with its crystallization of the important cultural concept of “the Southwest,” was always a form of commercial advertising even though Lummis did so much to expand beyond that base.

(Biographical detail on Lummis is available in Mark Thompson, American Character: The Curious Life of Charles Fletcher Lummis and the Rediscovery of the Southwest (2001). Informative observations on the influence of Lummis over the years can be found in three classics by Kevin Starr: Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915 (1973); Inventing the Dream: California through the Progressive Era (1985); and Material Dreams: Southern California through the 1920s (1990).

 

 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s