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Andrew Schelling. Tracks Along the Left Coast. Jaime de Angulo & Pacific Coast Culture. Berkeley, California: Counterpoint, 2017.


            review by Fernando Pérez Villalón



Jaime de angulo


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.