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Weaving Tall Tales of the West : LETTERS FROM THE SOUTHWEST by Charles F. Lummis (University of Arizona Press: $29.95; 309 pp.; 0-8165-1039-3) : SOME STRANGE CORNERS OF OUR COUNTRY by Charles F. Lummis (University of Arizona Press: $12.95, paper; 270 pp.; 0-8165-0852-6)

August 06, 1989|Frank Levering | Levering, a Virginia writer and orchardist, has traveled extensively in the Southwest. and

"The land was ours," wrote Robert Frost in "The Gift Outright," "before we were the land's." Encountering what they experienced as the virginal wonders of the continent, it was frequently the task of 19th-Century American writers to become "possessed" by the American landscape, to rise to the grandeur of nature with an elevation of consciousness. Climbing Mt. Katahdin in Maine, Thoreau wrote of the scenery: "It was vast, Titanic, and such as man never inhabits. Some part of the beholder, even some vital part, seems to escape through the loose grating of his ribs as he ascends."

Confronting Gargantuan swamps, mountains, canyons and deserts, writer-adventurers of the era could go to remarkable extremes to "inhabit" their inheritance. John Muir walked a thousand miles from Louisville to the Gulf of Mexico, later left few rocks unexplored in the vast Sierra Nevada. John James Audubon, a vivid writer as well as painter, roamed the continent, often on foot, from Maine to the Keys to the upper reaches of the Missouri River, compiling a small mountain of observations in his journals, as well as the more celebrated paintings.

A popular author in his day, Charles F. Lummis, who lived from 1859 to 1928 and waged his own romance with landscape, has made the transition to posterity only among scholars and certain aficionados of the Southwest. Though his literary reputation will not greatly improve with the publication of these two books, his name and contributions certainly will be better known.

Born the son of a Methodist minister in Lynn, Mass., and educated at Harvard, Lummis in 1884 was a young newspaper reporter in Chillicothe, Ohio, when he struck a deal with Col. Harrison Gray Otis, publisher of the Los Angeles Times. Otis agreed to pay Lummis for dispatches to be mailed regularly as Lummis trekked across the continent--on foot--from Cincinnati to Los Angeles.

As James Byrkit, who teaches at Northern Arizona University, explains in his introduction, "Letters From the Southwest" is not the collection of those dispatches, which, he argues, were sanitized and contrived in an attempt to create the right impression for Los Angeles readers. (Indeed, Lummis was greeted as a celebrity upon his arrival in Los Angeles and was immediately made city editor at The Times.) Rather, these were the more spontaneous and revealing reports that Lummis was sending simultaneously to his old newspaper, the Leader, in Chillicothe.

Published in book form for the first time, the letters trace an arduous physical journey--a "tramp," Lummis called it--in which, from September, 1884, to February, 1885, he averaged more than 25 miles a day. Of more interest, however, is the odyssey of consciousness--from a confirmed Easterner with Establishment credentials to a zealous champion of the Southwest; from a man with pungent prejudices against Hispanic and Indian blood, to a romantic idealizer of indigenous cultures.

The prose is generally gorgeous, in the 19th-Century fashion. In the California desert, Lummis writes: "As I trudged along over the white, bare sand, or the areas of black, volcanic pebbles, the moonlight gleam on some peculiar object drew me over a hundred feet to the right of my pathless course. As I came nearer and nearer, a thrill of awe ran through me, for the strange object slowly took shape to my eyes, a shape hideously suggestive in this desolate spot. As I knelt on the barren sands and lifted the bleached and flinty skull, or looked around at the bones which had once belonged to the same frame, now wide scattered by the snarling coyote, there came before my eye the tragedy of that Golgotha, vivid as day. . . ."

Whether in fact Lummis saw this human skull is open to question. At times his veracity resembles that of Mark Twain, whose "Letters From Hawaii," first published in the Sacramento Union, can strain credulity. (Of a volcano not in violent eruption at the time, Twain reported that Vesuvius was "a mere toy, a child's volcano, a soup kettle" by comparison.)

Byrkit tells us that "A Tramp Across the Continent," the book Lummis wrote based on the Los Angeles letters, invents side trips he never took to such places as Walnut Canyon in Arizona--apparently to try to uphold his credibility as an authority on the Southwest.

In his "Episodes"--supposedly true narratives of his adventures in outback America--Audubon helped sell his paintings to gullible subscribers with entertaining fictions, once embellishing an account with a fictitious hurricane. As a writer, Lummis, too, was a salesman, a promoter--not only of himself but of the region of the country he appears genuinely to have loved.

In "Some Strange Corners of Our Country," a book of essays on the Southwest first published in 1891, the salesmanship is so passionate it's endearing.

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