|Jaime de Angulo & Pacific Coast Culture||A New History of Higher Education in America|
Andrew Schelling. Tracks Along the Left Coast. Jaime de Angulo & Pacific Coast Culture. Berkeley, California: Counterpoint, 2017.
review by Fernando Pérez Villalón
Tracks Along the Left Coast provides a compelling, contagiously enthusiastic, and multifaceted introduction to Jaime de Angulo (1887-1950), to his life and character, to the various circles with which he interacted, and to the most relevant aspects of his literary, linguistic, and anthropological achievements. Schelling convincingly argues for a reading of De Angulo’s oeuvreas deeply rooted in the physical and cultural environment where it was produced, and to which it responded. His book follows in detail De Angulo’s often ambivalent relation to academic anthropology and linguistics, and to the literary scenes in which he participated (of for whom he would become a relevant predecessor).
The adventurous life of this “cattle puncher, medical doctor, bohemian, buckaroo, army psychiatrist, novelist, crackshot linguist, ethnographer, poet” (xx) intersected with prominent figures in several fields, such as the anthropologist Franz Boas, for whom he did much linguistic fieldwork; the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, with whom his first wife worked, and who embarrassed De Angulo because of his arrogant and tactless behaviour in a meeting with Taos elders; and writers such as Robert Duncan, who served as his secretary for a while; D. H. Lawrence, whom he intensely disliked; and Ezra Pound, with whom he had a lively correspondence near the end of his life and who helped get some of his work into print.
Jaime de Angulo was born in Paris to Spanish parents, raised in an affluent and extremely pious environment, against which his whole life can be seen as an extended act of rebellion, and educated in a Jesuit boarding school. He moved to the United States in 1905, and spent several months ranching in Colorado and Wyoming before traveling to San Francisco, then wandering to Honduras before returning to San Francisco on the eve of the great earthquake of November 6th 1906, a manifestation of nature’s force with which Schelling’s book appropriately begins. He would never again live in Europe, but instead choose to remain in America, where he obtained an MD degree from Johns Hopkins University and married Cary Fink, with whom he had a daughter. In 1916, he bought a property in the Big Sur area on Partington Ridge, which he called Los Pesares (The Sorrows). During the 1920s he alternated between the ranch he built there and Berkeley, where he started teaching and doing fieldwork on Native American languages and cultures, a work for which he was naturally gifted because of his personality, excellent ear, and multicultural heritage. By then, he had separated from his wife, whom he later divorced to marry Lucy Shepard Freeland (who called herself Nancy), who encouraged his interest in linguistics and anthropology (a discipline in which she had formal academic training). De Angulo’s lifelong interest in Native American cultures resulted in several ethnographic and linguistic studies (many of them never published), an account of his first linguistic field trip to the Achumawi tribe of Northern California published as Indians in Overalls in 1950 (which earned him William Carlos Williams’ praise as one of the most accomplished writers he had ever encountered), a vast compilation of oral folklore and fieldwork anecdotes (published posthumously under various titles and broadcast on Pacifica Radio, KPFA, as “Old Time Stories”), and an unfinished manuscript on theoretical linguistics (very influenced by Sapir’s work) entitled What is Language?. As Schelling writes,
That book, in one manuscript coming to 458 pages (…), is a close study of many facets of language. De Angulo includes chapters on fonetiks, words, syntax, verbal nouns, pronominal relations, and much else. It is more a “how does it work” than a “what is it” treatise. Written in American idiom, it uses Pomo, Chinese, Achumawi, Spanish, and Basque for its main examples. (150)
The fact that the book was written in De Angulo’s unorthodox phonetic spelling did not help to get it into print, although both Ezra Pound and Marianne Moore tried to place it with various publishers, who ultimately rejected it.
Throughout his book, Schelling follows De Angulo’s wandering tracks, reconstructs his thought, and tries to produce a faithful portrait of this elusive character, while at the same time maintaining his mythical status. As he writes:
In my study of de Angulo’s work, and through conversations with people who knew him or had investigated the territory he wrote about, I’ve come upon a great many stories. Some of the stories contradict one another, or fit poorly into documented timelines. I want to get the best of these down—especially the apocryphal tales. Through them de Angulo becomes part of the folklore of Left Coast life, a figure in the ecology of the imagination. The tales as I hear them form a cycle in the sense folklorists categorize such things. A trickster cycle.
So a warning. This book won’t exactly be a biography; I’ll get the chronology and facts straight, though sometimes this might mean hopelessly snarled. (xxi)
This folkloric-ethnographic approach proves by turns exhilarating and exasperating. It is surely appropriate for a figure such as De Angulo, in that it embraces his passionate engagement with indigenous culture and his mistrust of the detachment of so-called scientific anthropology, but it also shows that it can be impossible to simultaneously embrace the myth and try to find the reality behind it. At times one wishes the author had written from a more detached analytical perspective, or frankly settled for a fictional memoir. The book tries to be both and fails at the attempt, not without providing many fascinating reflections, critical insights, and telling anecdotes. Schelling defends his choice not to follow chronological order by pointing out that “describing events in other than chronological order is a Karok literary technique” (xx-xxi). Nevertheless, his repetitions can become annoying; he often fails to fully develop a topic with the excuse that the book will return to it later, or he dwells too long on personal experiences, without making clear their relevance to the topic at hand. Overall, the book lacks both the warmth and liveliness of oral narration and the careful architecture of good written material.
The book’s most important contribution is its reconstruction of the intellectual environment where De Angulo thrived and which eventually isolated him. One gets the feeling that he was ahead of his time, and that both his thought and his lifestyle would have found a more amicable soil in the decades after his death in 1950. The argument about the relevance of De Angulo as a mentor, model, and intellectual referent for the poets of the San Francisco Renaissance is quite convincing, although it could have been developed at greater length. The book also dwells on the fact that De Angulo’s work is tightly intertwined with the geographical landscape where it bloomed, a hypothesis that might have been more fully explored through explicit dialogue with the contemporary school of Ecocriticism. Schelling, however, does not examine in detail the tension between De Angulo’s fascination with California, his deep engagement with its physical, historical, and human landscape, and the fact that he was a European immigrant. One could imagine that his fascination with the West Coast is in many ways a reaction to his Old World upbringing. His devotion to the landscape is probably related to his being in many ways foreign to it (and, as the book does point out, he was often accepted by Native Americans on the grounds that he was perceived as non-Anglo American).
Among his many literary friendships, De Angulo’s epistolary relationship with Ezra Pound is particularly fascinating. Their correspondence started in 1948, when he was in treatment for the cancer that would kill him two years later, at Fort Miley Veterans Hospital in San Francisco, while Pound was a recluse at St. Elizabeths Hospital. They exchanged views on the importance of the pineal gland (!), Chinese philosophy (De Angulo had translated Laozi, whom Pound at that point loathed), and their dislike for Carl Jung. In his letters, De Angulo shared the childhood memories that would later be published as “Don Gregorio” and details on the composition of his Indian Tales, the work for which Pound would call him “the American Ovid,” and which he and Dorothy Pound would help to get published after Angulo’s death, with the help of Allen Ginsberg.
It is tempting to see De Angulo as the inverted reflection of Americans like Ezra Pound, or T. S. Eliot, who sought in Europe what they thought America lacked: cultural density, tradition, contemporaneity, aesthetic sophistication. This contrast is part of what makes the correspondence between Pound and De Angulo fascinating: both are independent spirits that share the habit of eccentric spelling, a keen ear for languages (including a parallel interest in Chinese writing), an alert eye for beauty, a critical stance on the contemporary world, and an extremely acute sense of humour. But their paths and the scope of their search sharply diverged. As De Angulo puts it in a 1950 letter to Pound, “this country is just getting started, Yurop iz ded end berid, let the Rooshunz have it, and good luck to them with that poison!” (37) Pound might have agreed with that statement (made by a man who knew that he was dying of cancer), but he would return to die in Europe. “The thought of what America would be like / If the Classics had a wide circulation / Troubles my sleep…”, he had written earlier in his career. In a way, De Angulo’s work was a search for America’s own Classics, remnants of older civilizations that had a freshness and youth to them that Europe in his eyes lacked. One can only imagine the work that might have resulted from a closer collaboration or dialogue between them: this book provides several clues of how it might have looked like, and of the many ways in which it is still being written, or yet to be written.
Charles Dorn. FOR THE COMMON GOOD. A New History of Higher Education in America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. 320 pp. $35.
review by Rhett Forman
Pound notoriously exchanged punches with American higher education and, despite losing that fight, continued to take pot-shots at the institution as a poet-scholar in exile. In his quest to “know more about poetry than any man living,” he “fought every University regulation and every professor who tried to make [him] learn anything except [poetry], or who bothered [him] with ‘requirements for degrees’” (“How I Began”). In fact, it’s a good thing Pound never amounted to anything in academia because without his failures at UPenn and his dismissal from Wabash College, it is unlikely that we would have benefitted from his success as a poet. And despite his own repeated attempts (and his family’s very recent ones) to get accepted into the American academy, Pound still contributed greatly to the world as a scholar, a vocation which is perhaps a different thing than being an academic. As for the traditional canon upheld by so many colleges and universities, Pound tried to “make it new,” rewriting the tradition in ABC of Readingand calling us all fools for “read[ing] classics because [we] are told to and not because [we] like them.”
In many ways, the higher education system Pound contended with both is and is not recognizable in today’s American university. In order to understand the academic milieu Pound came of age in, we must learn about the growth and variety of American universities, a subject concerning which Charles Dorn’s new book, For the Common Good: A New History of Higher Education in Americais indispensable. As a Professor of Education at one of America’s oldest institutions, Bowdoin College, Maine, Dorn reveals that Pound underwent his formal training in an age when commercialism dominated American life, including life at the university.
Dorn divides the history of American higher education into four time periods representing four attitudes. He argues that during “The Early National Period,” America’s reverence for civic-mindedness molded its first universities, including Bowdoin College, South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina), and Georgetown College (now Georgetown University). However, a shift toward practicality in “The Antebellum and Civil War Eras” encouraged the establishment of agricultural and mechanical universities and teachers’ colleges such as the Michigan Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) and the California State Normal School (now San Jose State University), while a growing emphasis on commercialism during “Reconstruction through the Second World War” led to the founding of business and career-centric programs at Stanford University, Smith College, and Howard University. Finally, Dorn argues that for the past seventy years from “The Cold War Through the Twenty-First Century” our perception that a university education procures a life of affluence and consumerism has resulted in such institutions as the University of South Florida and in the expansion of the community college system, including the Community College of Rhode Island and Santa Fe Community College. Of course, the four types of universities predicated upon these four principles of civic-mindedness, practicality, commercialism, and affluence continue to coexist and influence each other.
Dorn seeks to correct oversights in what has heretofore been the definitive history of American higher education, Laurence Veysey’s The Emergence of the American University, first published in 1965. Though undeniably interesting and well-written, Veysey’s book leads us to believe that the American university has remained unchanged since the decades immediately following the Civil War. As a result, Dorn surveys a greater variety of universities than Veysey includes in his work. While Veysey’s book might have been sufficient in the latter half of the last century, few would disagree that Dorn’s contribution is necessary now given the financial and ideological plagues currently descending upon American universities. In order to deal with our current troubles, Dorn suggests that “we can’t know why higher education functions as it does in the present without fully comprehending what it was in the past. This book resolves that problem” (2).
Indeed. Dorn has quenched our curiosity concerning why so many different types of programs count as higher education in America, but he has not helped us solve any of the problems that we currently face. Dorn seems to overlook the fact that his four attitudes can really be distilled into two types of education, liberal and utilitarian. It would have been helpful of him to have used those words. Allow me to do so in his stead. Dorn teaches us that once upon a time higher education was for the elite and concerned itself with molding boys into gentlemen. It was a liberal education, meaning it was free from worrying about whether it advanced its pupils’ careers. Ever since then, however, it has been utilitarian, that is, enslaved to either “practicality,” “commercialism,” or “affluence.” So higher education is either liberal and elitist or slavish and democratic. It is either not obsessed with money, in which case it is only for the rich, or it is obsessed with money, in which case loans are available for everyone to pay for it. So now we have a deeper understanding of the problem, but Dorn very obviously abstains from taking a stand on how to solve it, rendering the book rather unsatisfying and inconclusive.
The tension I have just pointed out, namely, that between a liberal, elitist education, and a commercial, democratic one is important and very much defines the world of higher education in a country where small, private liberal arts colleges must compete with huge public universities and where cheap community colleges are subservient to expensive research institutions. Dorn does a fine job of teaching us how this condition came about. He does a poor job of offering anything at all in the way of what we might do about it. In all fairness, he perhaps did not view this book as the right forum for offering up solutions, but his hesitancy or humility—whichever it is—gets the better of him. He reads like someone who is very knowledgeable and wise and who must know something, but who never reveals what his secret is.
What Dorn does offer us, though, is the comfort of knowing that the troubles facing the American university now—student protests, curriculum changes, debates about inclusivity and diversity, and operating costs—have always been around. In the first decades of our nation students at South Carolina College revolted and vandalized professors’ homes in an act of violence and hostility that even overshadows the recent uproars at Evergreen State, Middlebury, UChicago, UC Berkeley, etc. It is comforting to know that everything is generally the same as it always has been and that, while no progress has been made, we at least have not digressed. Or have we? As Dorn’s book implicitly demonstrates, what hasn’t always been around is the immense chasm of debt U.S. college students and graduates are increasingly incapable of crawling out of, a very new issue which is perhaps even more important than the perennial issues that American higher education has thus far successfully endured. Dorn does mention this development in his epilogue, but again leaves it up to us to provide the solutions.
Of course, Pound’s criticisms focused more on curriculum than cost, but we can certainly envision how the two might go hand in hand. Especially now, why would we suffer the exorbitant cost of a university education when, as Pound argued, that education is itself stifling to those who, like Pound, already know precisely what they want to do in the world. What of those of us who are successful academics? Have we been duped? Have we fallen for the trap of luxury and prestige provided by positions in the academy at great cost to our treasure and time? In any case, our positions and our prowess now depend on our ability to upright the wobbly structure of higher education. But of course, like Dorn, I am merely explicating the problem. You will have to look elsewhere for the solution or, like Pound, we will all be forced to go out and make it new.