A Poet in Outland

By Mary Austin

Probably no writer ever keeps his work wholly consistent to the medium to which his hand is most subdued. He must, if only to validate his final choice, try himself out in another vehicle, fortunate if he can so far succeed with it as to make one hand wash the other. But George Sterling was, by the necessity of his nature, bound to select for his alter opus a medium the least likely to win him either audience or recompense. What he would have liked to do when he was not doing what he did, would have been to produce tales of romantic fancy. He could have done with "Treasure Island," but would have preferred some of the less micabre tales of Poe or Hewlet's "Love of Prosperpine." Born to the American scene, however, and to a decade given over to the romantic realism of Jack London, Sterling's impulses in that direction failed to put forth more than a tender leaf or two.  I doubt, indeed, if any beside myself gave him an encouragement, though Jack loyally translated one of George's ideas into "The First Poet" and tried to sell a short story, the manuscript of which may still be in existence. It was called, I think, "The Dryad," and was the story of a man who had seen a veritable dryad in Carmel woods, and managed somehow to get through into the dimension in which dryads and all such have their being, though at the cost of a total disappearance from this.  It was my sympathy with the idea rather than with the story as George had written it, that had consequences, which, since they have already attained the dignity of book publication may have some interest still for Sterling's friends. But first I must go back a little to explain how "Outland" came to be imagined before it was written.

One of the poet's endearing traits, which he shared with all creative workers and most children, was a quick capacity for entering into an imagined situation and "playing" at being whatever at the moment most interested him. His favorite play, reminiscent of his boyhood in Captain Kid's country, was the "lost treasure" game in which I had so lively a sympathy that by the end of our first summer at Carmel we had between us created the whole of the "King's Treasure," and brought it to the coast in the hold of a strange Chinese seeming craft, which the Japanese abalone fishers reported as lying sunk off Point Lobos. Of the treasure, which you will find partially described in "Outland," which George and I hunted as happily as though we really believed it, there were many more explicit items, of which the crown of opals and the ruby necklace were the poet's exclusive creation, as the King's cup was mine. It was George's idea that the place where the treasure had first been got together, was a burial cave of kings, but of the other incidents not even I can now recall the original author; by the time the book was written practically every one of our group had had a hand in it.

It was Vernon Kellogg who gave us the first suggestion of "Anthers," for though he is now head of National Research and was then Professor of Bioeconomics, or something equally imposing, at Leland Stanford University, he wasn't above playing with us, provided there were no other scientists about to be mystified by it. That was the morning after the severest storm any of us had known at Carmel, and we were exploring the beach toward Mission Point, strewn with the many colored treasure of the deep. Along the tide mark drifts of yellowish sea-scum piled or broke and skimmed the opalescent sands like great birds, overhead a scum of cloud veiled the foreshore; seaward the liquid turquoise of the bay splashed and cradled. In the tide shallows unfamiliar purple sea-snails wallowed clumsily and it was while we were helping them back to deep water that Vernon suggested that there might be other helpers about, gerni loci as invisibly incomprehensible to us as we were to the murex-tinted creatures of the sea bottoms.  Didn't we after all feel this to be so? Well, it was so easy to believe as archangels, easier than for a sea snail to believe in a Professor of Bionomics. Thus as we discussed how such creatures might live and herd together the Anthers and the Far Folk came to figure in our play, though never so explicitly for the others as for George and Mary. Only if we walked in the wood and fell on that singular sense of presence lurking unseen in the world, or found a seeming human trace that could have had no human origin someone would say—"There's your word people!" Or, if we spun adventures for entertainment, the Anthers became lay figures of wish fulfillment in everybody's favorite adventure. Often it was suggested that these adventures should be written; but they were so varied and unrelated, so uncreate, that it was not until two or three years later, when I was lying ill in a Pension in the Rue d'Assars in Paris that it occurred to me definitely to do so. I was homesick and in pain, and while the first condition made for vividness in recollection, the second makes always, in my case, for beauty, but beauty rather of form and detached unreality, since by a personal idiosyncrasy I am debarred from all the pharmacetic aids, and Beauty is my only anodyne. So the story came out, as one of the English reviewers said, "enclosed within a rainbow film of unreality." For which reason chiefly it failed to find an American audience.

John—————, who admitted later that he accepted the book unconditionally on reading that "literature is produced not by taking pains but by having them." Published "Outland" in England under a pseudonym, and several years later Boni & Liveright brought it out with the author's own name, in New York, with scarcely any more popular result. However, the reaction that interested me most was Sterling's. He was disappointed at first that I had really begun the story in the middle, omitting the part in which he had figured as the discoverer of the treasure, and commander of the ship, now deep under weed off Lobos, that brought it to our shores. Although the part of villain in the struggle between Anthers and Far Folk had been of his own choosing, he would have preferred to figure for the first printed venture, in the more heroic role, and for years after would urge upon me another volume in which his own favorite adventure would be made to appear. But the fortunate conjunction in which I could afford to do that never came about. It is perhaps because I still hope to find the opportunity, say in my Christmas stocking, that I do not relate it in any incompleted fashion. And perhaps because it comes to me more and more that there is a profound significance in this unpremeditated revelation of the poet soul, a significance in reference to the unachieved creature endeavor that should receive only the most considered handling. For the part Sterling chose to play in the adventure of the "King's Treasure" was in a larger, more sophisticated, intellectually more creditable way, the part he played in "Outland" as Ravenntgi, an attempt to attain through and by and at the expense of women, a great desideratum which had little or nothing to do with the woman personally. It was not until years after "Outland" was written that I began to have a realizing sense of the profound psychological significance of what when it was fabricated appeared as a charming pastime. What both the poet and the novelist should have known is that where there is a true gift of poesy no movement of the poet soul is without significance.

Overland Monthly and Out West Magazine (1868-1935); Nov 1927; Vol LXXXV, Number 11; pg 331