Home Page
Fiction and Poetry
Essays and Reviews
Art and Style
World and Politics
Montreal
Archive
 

***

HERMAN JAMES WHITAKER: STORYTELLER OF NORTH AND SOUTH

***

By David Richard Beasley

***

The Montréal Review, June 2021

***

***

DOWNLOAD THIS TEXT IN EPUB OR MOBI AND READ IT ON YOUR E-READER

***

I was led to Whitaker when writing the biography of the artist Clay Spohn, who spoke highly of an artist under whom he had studied—Xavier Martinez.1 I found an article about Martinez which included a reproduction of a portrait he painted of a beautiful young girl, Elsie, the daughter of the “Canadian novelist” Herman Whitaker, a ”literary giant” of the California golden age of artists.2 Curious, I read his works. They captured the lives of lumbermen, ranchers, remittance men and Cree Indians of western Canada, workers in northern Quebec, plantation overseers and their Indian slaves, horse thieves and Gringos in Mexico. That he is unknown to Canadians is no surprise. How did he, born in Huddleston, Yorkshire in 1867, reach literary fame in San Francisco in the first quarter of the twentieth century?

Herman James Whitaker, known as “Jim” to his artist friends, had California in mind since his mother’s uncle, the English playwright Sidney Grundy, brought the California novelist Bret Harte on a visit and fired his imagination with the rough and ready adventures found in the far west. Whitaker quit school at 16 to flee a domineering stepfather and enlist in the British Army where he became proficient in fencing and gymnastics. When denied transfer to Afghanistan, he asked his mother to buy him out of the service. He shipped out for Canada in 1886. From farm work in Ontario, he moved west to break wild horses on the North Dakota border. In Winnipeg he married a pretty blonde Margaret Vandecar whose Baptist family had escaped from a “morally declining USA”. Whitaker was 21, dark, 5 ft 10 in, slight with hazel eyes. He farmed wheat 250 miles north of Winnipeg in the summer and worked for the Hudson Bay company in the far north in winter. Whenever Margaret gave birth, he came down from the north to deliver their babies. After eight years of hardscrabble farming, he was burdened with debt and fear of revenge from Crees for bringing one of their young men to trial for murdering a white man. In 1895 he sold his machinery stealthily because no one could leave who had debts. Sending his family ahead to his dreamland California, he drove to escape creditors with his brother-in-law by carriage through the badlands of North Dakota, on which, like a would-be novelist, he took notes for later use. He caught the Great Northern train to Seattle to meet up in Oakland, California with his wife and six children with another on the way. He had just five dollars. It was the beginning of the Long Depression.

Before we continue, I should report that the late Russ Kingman, owner of the Jack London Bookstore in San Francisco, claimed that Whitaker was American.3 He had known the Whitaker children and collected memorabilia about Whitaker. The Whitaker children retained their Canadian citizenship. Kingman knew Whitaker’s eldest son who boxed professionally in the Bay area as a Canadian. He sent  me a  copy of  Whitaker’s  Certificate of  Naturalization  dated December 10, 1913. Then why was Whitaker referred to as Canadian? I found an explanation in the San Francisco Examiner for December 11, 1913: “Herman Whitaker, the novelist who was a British subject until yesterday, gave in to allow his wife to vote. An  American  woman  who is  married to  a  foreigner  cannot vote. No wonder his stories end happily.”

He married this American woman, Alysa Hunt, in 1907 so that it took six years to persuade him to take U.S citizenship and, at that, only for the sake of his marriage. I claim him as Canadian because he did most of his fiction writing, which was set in both Canada and Mexico between 1901 and 1914 when he identified himself as Canadian and much of his inspiration came from his Canadian experience. Intimately involved in the artistic community of San Francisco, in which his closest friends were the poet George Stirling and the novelist Mary Austin, he came to regard himself as a California writer rather than an American, as did the other California artists, who felt their culture was distinct from the rest of the country in the early 1900s.

At first Whitaker did odd jobs—washing windows, cleaning floors, gardening—until when working in a laundry he met Habor Hauch, the owner of the Socialist Co-operative Grocery in Alameda, who hired him as a clerk. To learn more about this progressive movement he attended socialist public speeches, where he met the budding author Jack London, who at 20 was nine years his junior. Learning that Whitaker was proficient in the marshal arts and wanted to write, London offered to help him if Whitaker taught him to box. Whitaker brought his first story to London—eighteen pages of description about nothing in particular. Convinced that Whitaker was hopeless, London, nevertheless, critiqued his work for one afternoon a week. They both learnt socialist dialectics, logic, public speaking and Marxian philosophy from their socialist friend. Strawn-Hamilton. When Oakland police arrested Strawn-Hamilton for preaching socialism to a large crowd on a soapbox, Whitaker replaced him on the soapbox until he was arrested when London followed him and joined the others in jail.

Whitaker was an autodidact. He read Herbert Spencer’s ten volumes dealing with the scientific doctrines of evolution and his central principle of the persistence of force as the agent of change, form and organization. He studied the works of Julian Huxley, Charles Darwin and Friedrich Nietzsche, whose philosophies inspired his writing. London helped him bring story quality into his work. Eventually Whitaker could return Jack London’s favor by showing London how to control his emotions and put his narrative style in what he termed the “inevitable rhythm,” which he had learned from reading Charles Dickens. Against London’s advice he gave up his job to devote sixteen hours a day to writing for two years with financial support from his former socialist employer. London, nevertheless, encouraged him once he made his decision as we learn from a letter of January 5, 1901 when London wrote: “A friend has taken up writing with seven children and an undeveloped ability, which said friend I have been helping to finance.”4 On March 15, 1901, he wrote: “Mr. Whitaker is selling some of his work now—Ainslie’s, SS McClure, Munsey’s, etc. He’s picking up.”5 On October 3, 1901, he wrote: “And, O, before I close, Whitaker has sold a story to Harper’s Monthly for one hundred dollars, a story which had been refused divers times by lesser publications.”6 Harper’s wanted his stories on pioneer life in Canada and Hudson Bay forts. His wife Margaret, who typed his work, suggested subjects by telling him stories of the hardships suffered by her people and kept him from exaggerating or straying from reality. 

Whitaker was selected by the socialist Ruskin Club, which he helped found, to debate Dr David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University, known as a formidable debater. At the close of the debate, Jordan announced in front of the audience to Whitaker, “You are the most effective opponent I have ever met and I want to congratulate you.” 7

Whitaker’s Probationer and Other Stories published by Harper’s in 1905 comprises tales  set in the prairies of a young minister standing up to tough settlers, of the wedding day of the daughter of a settler who can’t pay a mortgage but is saved from eviction when the evil landlord is killed in a snowstorm, of a factor and his wife who loves another, of Indian girls and traders, misunderstandings and murders. I admired most “A Saga of 54º.” It begins with a man in a pit. Gene Lascurettes lies to Lois that her lover Jehan is dead. Lois marries Gene, but, when Lehan turns up alive, she plans to elope with him. Gene, suspicious, frightens Lois to death and puts Jehan in the pit to starve. Jehan tries to lasso a stump to climb out. When Gene cuts down the stump, Jehan lassoes him and pulls him into the pit to die with him.

London and Whitaker disagreed over socialism—Whitaker favoring Fabianism and London promoting revolutionary Marxism—which came to a head over a socialist pamphlet by Whitaker. London wrote his socialist friend Anna Strumsky on March 13, 1903: “Oh, by the way, I have lost a friend. Jim Whitaker has cancelled my name from his list and even cut me in public. For what reason I cannot imagine, for he has said nothing to me at all, though I have heard he was incensed because I told Leonard D. Abbot when I was in New York that Whitaker was a backslider from the Cause.”8 Some suggested that Whitaker was jealous of London’s literary success. Others said that London’s infectious enthusiasm clashed with Whitaker’s phlegmatic manner. Whitaker believed in conserving the good in democracy, curbing the predatory, sharing the wealth and observing the law, which London, as the author of the Iron Heel, would find naive.

In 1904, Harper’s sent Whitaker to Mexico to investigate the bursting of the bubble of the rubber industry. Whitaker learned to speak Spanish fluently and in Tehuantepec he took charge of a rubber plantation for six months deep in the tropics. He discovered that the Mexican government paid planters five dollars a head to take “recalcitrant” Yaqui Indians as slaves on their plantation where they were treated with great cruelty. American newspapers declined to print his articles exposing the practice but the experience gave him material for a novel.

Unable to communicate with his family, who, fortunately, was supported by wealthy neighbors, he reunited with it for just a brief time when his wife Margaret died of appendicitis.9 She was 37. Beneath her work-worn exterior were remnants of beauty reborn in her eldest daughter Elsie, who was regarded as the most glamorous girl in Alameda County.

Portrait of Elsie Whitaker, taken around 1907 by Laura Adams Armer

During the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 many artists, burnt out of their homes and believing the end of the world had come, took refuge in Whitaker’s Silk Culture House, which he had reclaimed from a ruin in Piedmont to house his large family. Among them was the Mexican-Indian painter Xavier “Marty” Martinez, called “The Mad Aztec”. These artists built a huge bonfire and ringed it with boulders on which they wrote their names. They sang and danced, ate the groceries and drank the wines they brought.10

Whitaker accompanied a scientific expedition investigating the damage. Taking his daughter Elsie, he followed the course of the fault to Mussel Rock and photographed the large cracks spread out like a giant spider web. Jack London wrote to their mutual friend the poet George Sterling to lend him his copy of Harper’s Weekly containing Whitaker’s “Earthquake story.”11

Elsie, who was particularly close to her father, was devastated when he remarried in August 1907. Alyse Hunt was 26, her father 40 and Elsie 16. His children, alienated by Alyse, felt abandoned by him. Out of spite Elsie married “Marty” Martinez in October.

As she well knew, Whitaker resented her marrying his bohemian friend, who not only was his age but, according to his biological philosophy, this wild-spirited Mexican-Indian should not marry the “pure” beauty of a white Anglo-Saxon. The excitement at seeing his first novel, The Settler, in print in 1907, must have been consoling. After reading it, I noted —”Stubbornness of Canadian pioneer Carter in Manitoba and his wife, Helen, who is higher socially. They love one another but their pride gets in the way for most of the book—intense—excellent depiction of frontier life on the prairies—remittance men versus Carter and the Canadian settlers. Picture of lumber camp and rough lumbermen. The climax is a raging prairie fire set off accidentally by resentful workers. Carter survives, becomes great entrepreneur and regains his wife. Depiction of Scotch-Irish Canadian puritan society.”  A passage from the novel captures its essence: “Man, in the aggregate, is always cruel. Let a few hundred blameless citizens, fathers of families, husbands, brothers, be gathered together and flicked with passion’s whip, and you have a mob equal to the barbarities of Caligula.”12

Elsie’s marriage was rocky owing to Martinez’s excessive possessiveness, and, after the birth of a daughter, they separated.

Whitaker was asked to collect stories from California writers to be published in 1907 as The Spinner’s Book of Fiction, the proceeds of which were to go to the support of his friend the librarian Ina Coolbrith. Whitaker complained to the poet Charles Stoddard in 1909: “The Spinner’s Book has not carried out the plan for a house and endowment in perpetuity for her, so I shall hand over the book’s earnings in cash. Our intention is that she should have the profit of our work at once. Write me a line authorizing George Stirling and myself to present your opinion to the Spinner’s [Club] with those of other collaborators.”13

Whitaker devoted long hours to writing. He rose early, did a couple of hours of typing, went for a five or ten mile walk in the hills while he worked out his plot and characterizations. He spent his evenings giving literary lessons or talks to small groups or with friends.

Determined to expose the Mexican government’s treatment of the Yaqui Indians, Whitaker wrote The Planter, featuring a fanatic Jewish overseer Hertzer whose reign of terror is undone by a fire which destroys his camp and frees the Yaquis. Appearing in 1909, it became a world-wide bestseller. The Mexican government, upset by Whitaker’s description of slavery, sent an assassin to Piedmont but, as the story goes, so taken was the killer by Whitaker’s family that he stayed for dinner.

A reporter commented: “He did not begin ‘The Planter’ until eighteen months after he had left Mexico, yet he reproduced the scenes, the facts, the color, and even some of the actual conversations without ever having to take a note. In fact he never takes notes at all. When a book has grown in his mind he sits down and writes it through .  . . It is his aim to write 500 words a day. In accomplishing this he will actually write about a thousand words, but in the revision and “boiling down” it loses half its length and gains in strength, beauty and vigor.”14

Literary writing brought in little money. Whitaker envied Jack London, who by this time, after the publication of “The Call of the Wild”, was rich. George Stirling helped restore friendship between the two writers. They often bicycled about the Piedmont hills together. In May 1909, London wrote Whitaker: “Your stuff is all readable, every line of it.”15 Whitaker helped establish the California Writers’ Club that year.

In 1912, Whitaker told a reporter that he was just beginning to do his real work. His novel,The Mystery of the Barranca, (1913) gives a sense of Mexican landscape and customs by depicting two Americans mining in the barranca, a deep gorge with steep sides, and the love of one of them for the daughter of a Mexican landowner. The Mexican expresses the conflict with emotion in responding to his daughter’s American fiancé:

“Well spoken, señor.” The shadow of a smile illumined the old man’s dark reserve. “. . .. We are an old people, señor, we Mexicans. The old blood of Spain added no effervescence to the Aztec strains that were grown stagnant long before Cortez landed, and when a people ages nature removes it to make way for younger stock. Si, though I refused to acknowledge it, I have known many years that just as the Moors overran Spain, and the Spanish overran the Aztecs, so will your people overrun Mexico from the Northern Sierras to the Gulf. . . . Against your Yankee our softer people can never stand. In the time to come only those of us that mix blood with shrewder strains will be able to withstand the flood, and thus it is I, who would have killed once the man that said I should ever take a gringo for kinsman, accept you with resignation.”. . . While Seyd gazed at the title deeds to Santa Gertrudis, made out to himself and Billy, the old man slowly tore up the forfeiture. Applying a match to the pieces, he threw them on the hearth, and, blazing up, they added warmth to the grim smile that accompanied his words.16

Asked by the Oakland Tribune to cover the Mexican Revolution. Whitaker wrote on December 11, 1912: “Won’t leave till August 7. Alyse has been having trouble with her heart. Have letters of introduction to Diaz who will probably fall on my neck.”17 He penetrated 900 miles into Mexico to meet with the army of Pancho Villa, who was a General but also a quondam bandit and cattle thief. They “hit it off immediately.” Whitaker remained aboard Villa’s special military train for six months. He considered Villa a patriot and superb strategist. He rode into the cactus-studded desert daily to be with the troops in the Saltillo campaign and returned to get his story on “the wire” under primitive conditions. Villa was defeated by General Obregon, who fought under another revolutionary group led by General Carranza. After the assassinations, coups and large scale battles, Mexico settled into a calm period. Whitaker returned to Piedmont to write his stories and take long walks in the East Hills. When Villa turned his spent forces into raiders over the border, prompting the United States government to send an army under General Pershing to pursue Villa, Whitaker accompanied the army as a reporter. He became friends with Pershing whose months long pursuit of Villa was fruitless but good copy for the American press.

Later General Pershing arranged for Whitaker to be invited to dinner in President Wilson’s White House, which, in turn, brought him important contacts. He had to refuse the post of secretaryship of the Congress in 1912 because he hated making correspondence and felt it would distract him from the books he was about to begin. Moreover, he was building an eleven room home for his family on Scenic Avenue in Oakland. “My building operations too have left me actually ‘broke’ and nothing but a regime of hard labor will enable me to catch up again.”18

His novel Cross Trails, which appeared in 1914, is set in the Quebec woods and concerns a woman torn between her husband and a clerk in the lumber camp, a strike because of food rationing, her rescue from gang rape by her husband and his men and the driving away of the bad element without pay from the camp. I enjoyed his descriptions of the north and snow storms. “There is the dark woods,” Whitaker wrote, “hundreds of miles beyond civilization’s pale, Time rolled back her scrolls to the old order when all life obeyed one law, the law that governs alike the man and the beast in their loves and war.”19 Shades of Darwin and Spencer!

Although he wanted to write novels only from then on, he had to break away to write short stories to make a living. He contributed a story “The Bandit’s Better Half” to West Winds. California’s Book of Fiction—Written by California Authors and Illustrated by California Artists (1914) which he edited with a preface extolling the golden age of California art. His story begins: “Since the jungles of the Mexican isthmus are unequaled for tropical beauty, and as the Tehuanas who walk therein like so many golden Eves surpass all other women in physical charms, it follows that Maria Conception Lopez made the prettiest of pictures walking down the street of her native town between rows of graceful palm-thatched jacadas.”20 A bandit kidnaps her, keeps her as his slave, but her positive personality overwhelms his, which leads to her freedom and his remorse.

One of Whitaker’s friends, Joaquin Miller, the flamboyant poet, whom I describe in McKee Rankin and the Heyday of the American Theater as a self-promoting opportunist, celebrated “Whitaker Day” annually at his ranch on “the Hights”, where the “Bohemians” gathered for a good time. Whitaker was at the old man’s deathbed in February 1913. “Still as he is,” wrote Whitaker, “unable to speak, it is the same old Joaquin. He was hot today against the doctors and though he cannot speak he nodded when I offered to go downstairs and spell a couple of them. I stood by his bed a full hour holding his hand. Once he whispered, ‘Sit down, Whitaker,’ and when I came away, ‘Goodbye, Whitaker’ and that was all that passed between us. It is pitiful to see him so weak and helpless.”21

When the poet laureate of California, Henry Bland, asked him for his memories of Miller which he could use in a prospective biography, Whitaker’s reply states his philosophy. “I don’t believe in ‘Lives.’ A great man puts the best that is in him into his work and very often there is nothing in himself worth writing about. Of course, another great man may use him as a vehicle for expression but in the latter case it’s a mistake to call it a ‘life’.

“Now I don’t wish to throw cold water on your scheme or discourage you in anyway, but I feel no true life of Joaquin Miller will be written! And I don’t want to lend myself to any stained glass angel portraiture of a book that would have made our dead friend angry himself. Not that I believe you contemplate anything of the kind though it would be difficult to avoid it. But I do feel and believe that when you drop into my second catalogue and simply use Joaquin as a tent for some splendid literary achievement of your own that the results will not be good. Secondly, I don’t quite understand what you wish me to do? Would you give me a little more light? And don’t get mad at this mere expression of my belief.”22

Although Whitaker enjoyed Jack London’s company—London was often traveling such as to England to write his novel about East End London poor and to Japan as a correspondent covering the Russo-Japanese War—he noted to the novelist Mary Austin, after yachting with London on London’s return from the Orient, changes in London’s personality. “I was to have gone on a long cruise with him this week but was forced through an unexpected event of the circus to break the engagement. I had promised the children and will not disappoint them.

“As regards our little talk of London, it seems to me that he is developing along the lines you mentioned—becoming more brutal in thought, action and appearance. Now, let me live up to my philosophy. He can’t help it. He was made that way and must so develop according to the invariable lines of individual evolution. Yet truth is truth and I am more than ever convinced that we can never expect from him anything but the coarsely physical aspects of life . . . .”23

London died in 1916. Elsie Whitaker Martinez commented: “Our rugged individualists—Ambrose Bierce, George Sterling, Jack London—all considered suicide a noble end, solving their problems of disillusionment. Bierce, who lamented the passing of the pioneer age; Sterling, whose Greek hedonism was stifled by the late Victorianism; and London, disgusted with a humanity that would not accept the Marxian panacea for the good of this world, all committed suicide. Marty had ten friends who committed suicide. The newsmen would ask him, since all were friends of his, had not there existed a suicide club?”24

Whitaker almost died when his automobile rolled over, pinning him on a mountain road. He stayed calm and directed his rescuers how to proceed. His indomitable spirt helped him survive when most would have died. He took a long time to recover and walked with a limp.

Alyse’s physical and mental problems caused anguish for Whitaker. Elsie claimed that the mental strain Alyse placed on Whitaker took ten years off his life— borne out by Whitaker’s correspondence. A letter from Whitaker of June 13, 1915 to a friend commented that “Alyse has been ill for five months now.” He had to do the housework and gardening, which took hours away from writing time. He was “frightfully run down—physically and mentally—cannot think two consecutive thoughts. I’m all in. I have to beg off the lecture as I will be in Guatemala, the date you set [for the filming of The Planter]. I can’t afford the work it would take to get it up in any case. Alyse contacted my cold—put antiphylogistive plasters on her lungs to ward off pneumonia.”25 Then in July, he wrote: “Dreadfully tired, no ambition except to avoid malignant people next door.” By January 24, 1916 he reported: “Alyse home for two weeks—improving—weighs more than me (135). Harpers wants new book. It’s a relief to be working again. It’s to be Mexican‚ in desert somewhere. My contract calls for 150,000 words. I shall try to beat The Planter.”26 This new novel, Over the Border (1917), his best, depicts the ruthless realism that foreshadows the work of Cormac McCarthy, the present-day American author of Blood Meridian and other border novels. Three American tough characters rustle herds from ranchers in Mexico during the distracting years of the Mexican Revolution to sell them on the American side of the border. As one of them says: “But with the government switching every five minutes between Orozco, Villa, Huerta, Carranza, an’ the jefe-politicos an’ governors slaughtering each other betweenwhiles, it’s nobody’s business to look after us.”27

Over the Border distinguishes the American from the Mexican mentalities as diametrically opposite. Its love interest involves the luring of a young and handsome American into Mexico to come between the brewing relationship of a handsome Mexican with the beautiful daughter of an American rancher. Description of the events of the Revolution intensify the brutalities of roaming Mexican bands upon American ranchers and identify the hatreds that have continued until today. Of Whitaker’s novels made into films, this one, renamed “Three Bad Men,” was directed in 1927 by John Ford, who later became revered for his cinematic treatment of the West. Whitaker dedicated the novel “To Jack London, In Memory of Old Friendship.”

When the European War began in 1914, Whitaker wanted to cover it, but only after the U.S. declared war on Germany in April 1917 did he find the means to go. “With that great struggle going on over there,” he said, “everything I write, everything I do, seems so trivial, so unimportant.”28 Whitaker had separated from Alyse by this time, and, although he had a loving relationship with the authoress Mary Bourn, for which his children were thankful, he was eager to see action. A few hundred dollars were scraped together to get him to Washington where Senator Phelan, a friend to California writers, arranged for the passports and permits to send Whitaker to France. His old friend General Pershing put him in touch with the American Admiral William Sims, who helped him cover every action of the American fleet.

Whitaker’s reports were taken by twenty-three newspapers and Harpers and Sunset magazines. In one despatch he told of his adventures in a seaplane looking for German submarines to attack. “We swept about on a twenty mile circle, and as we came roaring down the opposite shore, there suddenly emerged from golden haze a number of vessels with destroyers in the lead and a converted yacht. We were still too high to distinguish people but a quick electric blinking was translated by the observer into a hearty greeting. . . . Just as military planes are ‘the eyes of the army,’ so the naval planes are the eyes of the destroyer fleets. Working together, the plane spotting from on high the prey the destroyer cannot see, they are irresistible and this is the thing these clear-eyed sailor men in Paris are trying to bring about.”29

Whitaker spent three weeks on a torpedo boat chasing submarines and forty-eight hours in a submarine. Having completed the manuscript of Hunting the German Shark; the American Navy in the Underseas War, he left it with a publisher and joined the Second Battalion, 314th Infantry, to spend the last week of fighting taking photographs and collecting material for his dispatches.30 His regiment stormed hill 319 of the Meuse on the morning that the armistice was signed. Whitaker armed with a camera and a cane to help support his leg crept from shell hole to shell hole while machine gun bullets whistled round his ears, shells burst from German artillery and men dropped around him. Two officers were shot near him, a private next him got a bullet in the ankle and Whitaker had a bullet cut in his pants. He took fifty photographs crawling around on the flat of his belly as his regiment pushed the Germans back for one and a half miles.

The French invited him to be present at the entry of their troops into Metz, to which he took an automobile and then motored to Colman, Strasbourg and Luxembourg. He crossed over the Rhine and was captured by a German officer. After a long conversation, the officer relented and escorted him back across the bridge. Whitaker traveled one thousand miles in two weeks and took numerous photos. He wrote to his daughter Vera from the American Embassy in Paris on December 1, 1918 describing his exploits and defending his estranged wife Alyse from his daughter’s criticism: “Alyse is mentally ill . . . she is being punished for her faults . . . leave her alone. I expected to be killed in the war so deferred hurting Alyse unnecessarily. If it were not for Alyse I would come back to live with you but must settle with Alyse first.”31

He did not mention the great pain he was suffering for which he was taking enough laudanum to kill a normal person; his system was used to it. He suspected cancer but did nothing about it until his troopship landed in New York City when he entered St Luke’s hospital. He learned it had spread throughout his body. Before he died ten days later he asked his nurse to write to his children to scatter his ashes over his beloved Round Top, an extinct volcano in the Piedmont hills, where he had walked for inspiration over the years. He died on January 20, 1919. He was 52 years old.

Elsie Whitaker Martinez reflected on that period of artistic brilliance when she was an older woman: “Ambrose Bierce, Joaquin Miller, Charles Warren Stoddard, and from the next generation, Jack London, George Sterling and Marty continued the development of the personality cult. Rugged individualism, rooted and developed in the pioneer age, faded out in the age of capitalism and two world wars. We are finding life is fitted into tight patterns now with no place for individualism.”32

Whitaker predicted this change in The Settler: “Therewith the gray cynic hurried away to plan and scheme, upbuild, tear down, without slack or satiety of enormous constructive appetite; to live in travail greater than the labor of women, and give birth ceaselessly to innumerable works; to inundate the plains with seas of wheat and carry bread to Europe’s teeming millions; to sow towns, villages, cities broadcast over the north, make farms for countless thousands; to join the Occident and Orient with gleaming rails, clipper ships; to do evil consciously all his days and work unconscious good, crushing the individual for the weal of the race, and caring nothing for either; to live feared and die respected, leaving the world bigger and better than he found it.”33

Whitaker wrote five novels: The Settler is set in Manitoba, Cross Trails concerns northern Quebec, The Planter, Over the Border, and The Mystery of the Baranca deal with Mexican slavery and cattle rustling. Most of his 250 stories and articles are set on the Canadian prairies and northlands, many in The Probationer and The Tenderfoot and Other Stories. Canadian readers will find The Settler a good novel to start with. Its characters are laid bare—"of Scottish descent, dogmatic, wedded to convention, intense clannishness reinforced in the settlers bitter morality, racial hatred, the condemnation of sin.” For instance the character Murchison—"stout, robust, ruddy, with that mottled-beef English complexion, he came of that stout yeoman stock whose twanging long-bows sounded France’s knell at Crecy and Poitiers, of that rich blood the slow drainage of which to her colonies has left England flabby, anemic, flaccid. He had not wished to leave, but the motherland had become industrial without further place for yeomen. Over fields that were enriched by the tilth of thirty Murchison generations, a thousand factories were depositing soot and blighting acids. American wheat and beeves had wiped out profits, while enormous rents ate up the farmer’s substance. So Murchison, England’s best, had become partner in exile with the remittance-men, her worst.”

Whitaker’s contributions to an understanding of the early settlement of the Canadian prairies and his importance as a Canadian author may now be recognized.

***

David Richard Beasley lives in Simcoe Ontario. Born Canadian he lived in Europe and Manhattan for 40 years, has a PhD in political economics, worked for years at the New York Public Research Libraries where he was the president of the union of library workers. He has written over a score of books in all genres including biographies of Canada’s first novelist, of North America’s greatest actor, of the great artist Clay Spohn, of the curator Douglas MacAgy, a major force behind modern art,  historical novels of WWII in Burma, escape from slavery in North America, child abuse in 1805, and 19th century Hamilton Ontario, a trilogy of acclaimed detective novels set in New York city, travels by donkey in Turkey and canoeing down a Canadian river, a political-economic study of the invention of the automobile, light entertaining social novels, short stories, novellas and Episodes and Vignettes; an AutobiographySarah’s Journey, the story of a slave escaping to Upper Canada in 1820, won a literary prize and with From Bloody Beginnings; Richard Beasley’s Upper Canada won a Brag Medallion. He was awarded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal for his writings.   See www.davuspublishing.com.

***

1 Beasley, David, Understanding Modern Art; the Boundless Spirit of Clay Edgar Spohn (Simcoe; Davus Publishing, 1999), p.6.

2 Elsie Whitaker’s portrait by Xavier Martinez “An Afternoon in Piedmont” is in the Oakland Museum.

3 Russ Kingman to David Beasley, Glen Ellen, Ca, Dec.31, 1991

4 The Letters of Jack London, ed Earl Labor (Stanford; Stanford  Univ. Press) p.233

5 Ibid, p.241

6 Ibid., p 256

7 “More on H.J. Whitaker, flamboyant hill author,” The Montclarion, Oakland, March 19, 1975, GE10.

8 The Letters of Jack London, op.cit., p.352

9 Russ Kingman wrote: “Whitaker was a very interesting man but a little weird. For instance, when Harpers sent him to Mexico in 1904 he just left his family to shift for themselves.” Russ Kingman to David Beasley,  Feb.2, 1992.

10 Russ Kingman wrote that Alyse, Whitaker’s second wife, with her then husband Reggie Bassett, were among this group. She divorced Bassett, who became head of the Music Dept. for Paramount Pictures, to marry Whitaker. Letter to David Beasley, Feb.2, 1992.

11 Letters of Jack London, op.cit. {letter May 31, 1906) p.578

12 Whitaker, Herman, The Settler (New York, Harper, 1907) p.145

13 Herman Whitaker to George Stirling, March 18, 1909. Bancroft Library, U.C. Berkley, Ca.

14 California Writers Intimate Studies: Herman Whitaker by Joe Whitnah, Feb 4, 1917

15 The Letters of Jack London, op.cit. p.800. London gave Whitaker advice from a money-wise writer. Whitaker’s novel The Planter at 168,000 words should have been split in two to make “twice as much money”. For instance Call of the Wild, $30,000; The Game, $15,000; Before Adam, $40,000; White Fang, $70,000; Adventure, $70,000.

16 Whitaker, Herman, The Mystery of the Barranca (New York; Harper & Bros., 1913) p.294

17 Herman Whitaker to Ina Coolbrith, Dec 11, 1912. Bancroft Library

18 Herman Whitaker to General Pershing, Fremont, Dec 2, 1912. Bancroft Library

19 Whitaker, Herman, Cross Trails (New York; Harpers, 1914) p.241

20 West Winds (San Francisco, 1914), “The bandit’s better half from the merry wives of Tehuantepec.”

21 Herman Whitaker to Ina Coolbrith, Saturday evening, 1913.

22 Herman Whitaker to Henry Meade Bland, Piedmont, n.d.  Most of these following letters were found in the small Jack London Research Center, Benzinger Family Winery, London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen, California.

23 Herman Whitaker to Mary Austin.. Henry E Huntington Library has his correspondence to Mary Austin and to his publishers.

24 Elsie Whitaker Martinez, San Francisco Bay Area Writers & Artists. (Berkeley, U. of C. Regional Oral History Office, 1969). p.139.

25 Herman Whitaker to Ina Coolbrith, Piedmont, June 13, 1915.

26 Herman Whitaker to Ina Coolbrith, January 24, 1916.

27 Whitaker, Herman, Over the Border (New York; Grosset & Dunlap, 1917) p.10

28 “Herman Whitaker—an Inspiration”, Article in Oakland Tribune by H.A. Lafler

29 “THE HEAVIER,THAN AIR’S” by Herman Whitaker. Oakland Tribune

30 [Winston Churchill should have read Hunting the German Shark as it might have prevented him from making one of his biggest mistakes in World War II— the massive bombing of German cities rather than sending his planes to direct British destroyers to the German submarines which decimated convoys creating a lifeline from North America to the British Isles and Russia.]

31 Herman Whitaker to Vera, American Embassy, Paris, Dec.1,1918.

32 Martinez, Elsie Whitaker, San Francisco Bay Area Writers and Artists (Berkeley, U. of C. Regional Oral History Office, 1969) p.139-140. Elsie spoke of Ambrose Bierce’s death, a mystery, which she clears up: He wandered into Diaz’s camp when Diaz’s troops were raiding Columbus, New Mexico and communicated with sign language that he had no purpose there. The soldiers warned him about the dangers of the desert, especially the vultures which would pick him to pieces. Since they could not take this old man with them and he had no horse, they shot him to save him from the vultures.

33 Whitaker, Herman, The Settler (New York; Harper & Brothers, 1907) p.363.

***

 
 

 
 
home | past issues | world & politics | essays | art and style | fiction and poetry | links
The Montréal Review © All rights reserved. ISSN 1920-2911
about us | contact us