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A Coyote Life

Review by Trevor Carolan

Tracks Along the Left Coast: Jaime de Angulo and Pacific Coast Culture
Andrew Schelling
Counterpoint, 2017

A kind of Don Quixote of the New World imagination, Jaime de Angulo is one of the West Coast’s genuinely mythic figures. Put it this way, before Henry Miller, Jim Morrison, or Charles Bukowksi, there was de Angulo and in manifold ways he wrote the playbook on living the outlaw life for brainy, bad-boy wannabees. Strangely, actual knowledge of his life, adventures and accomplishments has remained spotty. His legend has thrived on anecdotes shared by those who knew, or were close to those who knew him. That’s until now. As Andrew Schelling’s book resolves, de Angulo was a diligent, unbelievably hardworking (if unorthodox) scholar in precarious economic times. A pioneering linguist and ethnologist of privileged émigré Basque-Spanish family in Paris, de Angulo made his way to the western U.S. while redefining himself variously en route as Schelling has it, as a “cattle puncher, trained medical doctor, bohemian, buckaroo, Army psychiatrist, novelist, crackshot linguist, ethnographer, and poet.”

For decades, de Angulo’s work has been known among Beat Lit scholars. The significance of this pathbreaking book though is to consolidate anthropological knowledge of de Angulo’s crucial role in the work of preserving both archival and living linguistic memory and storytelling from the northern California/southern Oregon Indigenous First Nations peoples. With his sharp appetite for wilderness life and constant investigative hunger for the topographies of primitive mind—where as Robert Duncan affirmed “the old gods reside”—de Angulo, who died in 1950, rests as a pivotal figure in the development of what we now recognize as Ethnopoetics. A loner and eccentric cuss by inclination, he was a myth-collector par excellence in his travelling, working and living among the indigenous peoples of first Mexico’s Oaxaca region, then from the Klamath River south toward the Big Sur country around Partington Ridge where many of us first heard word of him through Henry Miller’s writing.

De Angulo arrived in San Francisco at the age of 19 just in time to live through the city’s devastating earthquake in 1906. Schelling offers good demographic portraiture of the city in the aftermath and traces de Angulo’s early linguistic attunement to the remarkably polyglot immigrant culture that pitched in together during the rebuilding that followed. With the city’s 20,000 strong Chinese community, the young migrant’s ear learned to discriminate between Cantonese and Mandarin in what would become an enduring sphere of cultural and philosophical interest for him. Ecologically, California itself talked to him: other than his medical schooling at Johns Hopkins and his anthropology fieldwork, he would live there for the rest of his life. Significantly, as Schelling informs, it was during his medical studies that he first encountered Lao Tzu’s Taoist masterwork the Tao Te Ching and he forged an intellectual bond with it that he would carry engraved on his heart throughout his life.

Schelling, who enjoys his own extensive interests in Asian insight traditions, observes tellingly that de Angulo was already making inquiries into the nature of meditative stillness and power while a young man. Based on this, he intuits the origins of de Angulo’s spiritual grounding during the writing of his important 1924 essay “On the Religious Feeling Among the Indians of California.” Keep in mind the time-lines involved when a Caucasian settler and essentially auto-didact scholar from Europe could recognize:

The spirit of wonder, the recognition of life as power, as a mysterious, ubiquitous, concentrated form of non-material energy, as something loose about the world and contained in more or less condensed degree by every object—that is the credo of the Pit River Indian.

Whether it was his vestigial Basque origins at play—among Europe’s last tribal peoples—De Angulo was a figure who felt instinctively at home in associating with the quilt-work of California’s tribal peoples he regularly came in contact with. Evidently, this companionable regard was reciprocal and during his 25-30 years of linguistic research he travelled and lived among some 30 separate tribal and linguistic indigenous First Nations groups.

Of contemporary note is his self-association with Coyote’s trickster/Creator figure, a totemic relationship he treasured that significantly predates any current academic/ literary culture fetish with this primal archetype so beloved, yet warily regarded, among tribal peoples. His acquisition of Coyote lore and the unrivalled hoard of mythological tales he was entrusted with began in earnest when he returned to the West Coast from medical school. Settling in the Big Sur area, he progressively deepened his knowledge in “salvage ethnography [&] linguistics” by travelling among indigenous peoples in his favourite mode, on horseback. Schelling’s writing demonstrates how acutely de Angulo’s understanding quickened of tribal consciousness and “reason” in the north coastal California region in a manner that departed radically from the customary Darwinian approach of his traditional academic contemporaries.

Salvage ethnography and language study was a concept forwarded by the early anthropologists Franz Boas, Alfred Kroeber, Paul Radin, Edward Sapir and their colleagues who were determined to secure what knowledge could be recorded of North America’s indigenous languages and cultures before they “blinked out” beneath the dominant weight of white settler culture. Strikingly, Schelling links this early 20th century academic passion with Modernism, illustrating the inescapable synchronicity between the time of great Cultural Innovation in Western industrial society and the “Great Dying” of North America’s indigenous languages, notably in the west. Salvage linguistics relied upon training scholars who could capably record and write down the languages, the customs, traditions and rituals of peoples who were becoming extinct. What de Angulo had going for him was a non-indigenous ally’s familiarity with the characteristics of local First Nations’ societies that gave him a deep appreciation of the significance of orality and storytelling as theatre in these tribal cultures: this made him an ideal documentarian. He produced an abundance of research documentation that is still relevant, yet was begrudged legitimate scholarly recognition, a sinecure, or reliable funding for his work during the depths of the Great Depression. For much of his life he lived essentially hand-to-mouth and for long stretches was compelled to take on whatever roustabout country work presented itself. Yet, unlike academic theoreticians who worked in east coast and European universities and that often lacked first-hand contact with tribal peoples or had travelled comparatively little among them, his depth of knowledge about the complex influence of landscape dynamics on tribal society and language made his research capabilities unique.

The book’s sustained commentary on the origins of Anthropology as a scholarly research discipline will be timely and informative even for non-specialists. De Angulo’s peregrinations in seeking funding support for his field missions will also be familiar to anyone who has ever endeavoured to secure institutional financial assistance. What is refreshing are the glimpses that Schelling gives us of de Angulo’s key relationships with Kroeber, Boas, and their university chums who wore the big-boy pants while regarding de Angulo as a wild man, not really out of the top-drawer like them. Plus ça change! Kroeber’s association with de Angulo, for instance, grew plainly combative and sexually possessive as he fretted over the loss of “his girl”, the gifted student Lucy Freeland, who became de Angulo’s wife and blue-ribbon fellow researcher. We are seldom permitted such negative glimpses of renowned men.

Through his interpretive analysis of de Angulo’s life and work with its many related literary sidebars, Schelling details the characteristics, as well as a valuable time-line study into the development of our Pacific Coast’s recognizable mode of literary and artistic cultural expression, of which Ethnography is close to its heart. Implicitly, he reveals how this has contributed so much to its alternative, or countercultural world view. In shedding light on the convergences in de Angulo’s hybridized “interdisciplinary” Chinese and Indigenous American interests, Schelling presents readers with a garland of discoveries about critical American literature that a threads such de Angulo friends and colleagues as Ezra Pound and Robinson Jeffers through to Kenneth Rexroth, Henry Miller, William Everson, Gary Snyder, Joanne Kyger, and what ultimately shapes up—literally—as a bona fide West Coast/Turtle Island lineage numbering many others.
Schelling’s material compounds in becoming a rich scholarly reading dense with cross-references, secondary supportive information, and notes alluding to a linked diaspora of books that are crystallized in value in this singular volume. Schelling writes in a literary-colloquial style that is easy and entertaining to follow, but there is much in the work that is of superior research quality. Specifically, one notes its plenitude of direct source documentation obtained through personal interviews, and its strong secondary research sources; personal letters are especially well-mined.

Of additional value are the book’s excellent historical and demographic portraits of late 19th/early 20th century life along the California littoral, especially the San Francisco Bay region south to Big Sur. Noteworthy is its thoughtful treatment of the region’s Mexican and earlier Spanish missionary periods of sovereignty. Regarding the authenticity of Schelling’s research in what has previously been much the provenance of conjecture, based on my own years of residence, scholarly training, and outdoors familiarity in the northern Humboldt County/Trinity River region in which de Angulo worked, I am comfortable with Schelling’s descriptive detail and characteristics of the greater region. His discussion of mythic Big Sur as a literary and cultural incubator is superbly executed.

Regional studies enthusiasts will appreciate the book’s timeliness in its discussion of approximations between indigenous West Coast and archaic Chinese/Taoist metaphysics. This area of studies in consciousness has been sounded at times and from diverse perspectives by such eminent Pacific Coast writers and scholars as Gary Snyder, Jerome Rothenberg, Dale Pendrell, Joanne Kyger, Bill ‘Red Pine’ Porter, Robert Bringhurst, Joanna Macy, Rex Weyler, Sam Hamill, Judith Roche, Wade Davis, Maxine Hong Kingston, Barry Lopez, among others. Again, like Coyote, de Angulo precedes them all. If this litany of names seems lengthy, the cast of characters among de Angulo’s literary associations that Schelling addresses with authority includes Mabel Dodge Luhan, D.H. Lawrence, Jack Spicer, Carl Jung, and Ishi “the last wild Indian.” That says something about a literary personality who, while having authored landmark papers in indigenous linguistics and whose posthumous collection entitled Indian Tales is now a revered modern classic, was never able to publish a book of his own during his lifetime. Through his ethnographic work and unconventional example De Angulo became, quite simply, influential. Pound called him “the American Ovid.” W.C. Williams claimed that he was “one of the most outstanding writers I have ever encountered.”

Late in de Angulo’s career when he moved to San Francisco and the Berkeley Hills, the poet Robert Duncan served as his amenuensis and Schelling provides a highly commendable look into this period during which the surrealist poet Philip Lamantia also appears. De Angulo’s possible impact on these younger writers of what would come to be known as the San Francisco Literary Renaissance is fascinating. Building onto Duncan’s role here is Schelling’s discussion of Charles Olsen’s Projective Verse concept and de Angulo’s linguistic theories that is both instructive and possibly provocative for Black Mountain fanatics.

No account of de Angulo’s life would be complete without treatment of his renowned public radio broadcasts on KPFA alongside station stable-mate Alan Watts; however, Schelling’s account of the role played by Ezra Pound, Allen Ginsberg and Carl Solomon in the eventual publication of the stories de Angulo shared in his more than 100 programs—collected as Indian Tales, and that are still in print—will be entirely new to many: it’s wonderful information.

And so to the best-known story about de Angulo concerning the late-life period in which he left Big Sur to live in San Francisco’s Telegraph Hill/North Beach community. Schelling notes discretely that de Angulo lived there openly “in drag”, a mystifying aspect of the de Angulo legend that has percolated into popular awareness of his life and work. In the post-war 1940s, even in liberal San Francisco, such flamboyant behavior would have been extraordinary. Apparently he carried it off. One hears it said from those nearer to him that de Angulo was in a period of mental unbalance during this period; Schelling notes the tradition of First Nations’ shamanic gender crossovers or contraries. It surely requires fuller discussion.

This book then is an invaluable, essential study of the legendary Big Sur trickster figure who researched as a non-First Nations ally among Northern California’s indigenous peoples in the early 20th century. More than this, Schelling’s formidable book establishes Jaime de Angulo’s role, along with Indigenous and trans-Pacific wisdom traditions, San Francisco’s Literary Renaissance, and the formative ideas contributing to Bioregionalism, in the shaping of our contemporary Pacific Coast’s cultural imagination. For Turtle Island School aficionados it’s an absolutely must-have book.

Trevor Carolan’s current work is New World Dharma: Interviews and Encounters with Buddhist Teachers, Writers and Leaders (SUNY Press, 2016). He writes from British Columbia, Canada.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #22