Biographical Sketch

By Sketch by Michael Cisco

George Sterling, a poet and author of such volumes as A Wine of Wizardry and Other Poems, was at the locus of a Bohemian intellectual movement that was active on the West Coast of the United States at the turn of the century. He was also a friend and confidante of numerous other authors of the day, including Jack London and Ambrose Bierce, the latter having significantly helped Sterling establish a literary reputation.

Sterling came from an established family in an old Long Island whaling town, Sag Harbor. His mother, Mary Parker Havens, came from family that had immigrated to the area in 1698; her father was one of the Puritan patriarchs of the town. His father, Dr. George Sterling, Jr., whose family had immigrated to America in 1662, was the son of an Episcopal clergyman and strictly devout himself. His medical practice was highly successful, and the Sterlings lived well, but George, who was the eldest son, apparently thought little of his father's heavy drinking, and his tendency to place upon his wife the full burden of raising their nine children.

While showing no special affinity for literature, Sterling was an inquisitive boy with wide-ranging interests. Science, astronomy in particular, held a fascination for him, and the knowledge he acquired as a youth would later find its way into his poetry, and lay the foundations for his philosophy.

The events that led up to his break with Sag Harbor and his immediate family began when Sterling was seventeen. Sterling's father became increasingly intrigued by Episcopalian ritual and tradition, and, by this route, was drawn toward Catholicism, and he converted in 1886. (The Episcopal Church is in some ways highly similar to the Catholic—their differences are not so clearly defined as with other Protestant denominations.) Despite her family's staunch Presbyterianism, Mary Havens Sterling embraced this change with enthusiasm. The Sterlings were thus alienated from both sides of the family and from their community.

Sterling himself was becoming increasingly bored and impatient with Sag Harbor. He alleviated his cabin fever by forming a prank gang of "Night Hawks"; on one occasion, they unearthed an amputated leg, formerly belonging to one of the town officials, and bore it through the town in ghoulish procession. The "Night Hawks" did not neglect the churches, either: one Sunday a pirate flag waved from the steeple of the Old Whaler's Church, the pride of the community.

For all his irreverence, Sterling was evidently not immune to the change of faith in his family, and when his father proposed he study to become a Catholic priest, Sterling agreed. He left Sag Harbor for the first time in 1886, to attend St. Charles College in Ellicott City, Maryland. But, in his years there, Sterling's academic performance was mediocre and he was something of a social failure. He did establish one strong bond, however, to Father John Banister Tabb, who taught literature. Through Tabb, Sterling discovered poetry; and he had, in Tabb, an example of a poet (although not a gifted one) before him. The result of this exposure was not immediate, but it apparently gave Sterling the inkling of a different sort of life than the one into which he was headed. In 1889 Tabb, possibly confirming Sterling's own suspicions, advised him not to enter the priesthood.

Despite his family's expectations, Sterling took Tabb's advice, acknowledged his lack of vocation, and left the College. Having nowhere else to go, he returned home to Sag Harbor and his claustrophobic home life, made all the more oppressive by the disappointment and frustration of his parents. For a time, Sterling attempted to follow in his father's footsteps, but his study of medicine was vague and indifferent at best. He gave up in less than a year, and his father, completely disgusted, refused to support him thereafter. He did make one final provision for his son, however, dispatching Sterling to the West Coast to work for his uncle, Frank C. Havens, who ran a flourishing realty company in Oakland, California. When Sterling left Sag Harbor in 1890, he allegedly left this graffiti on the platform at the train station: "Sag Harbor, now I'm leaving you; / I bid you now farewell. / Whene'er I hear you spoken of, / I'll surely think of Hell."

Sterling took up his post as a clerk with his uncle's firm and worked diligently. After a year of relative restraint, living in his uncle's home, Sterling was introduced to Joaquin Miller, a world-renowned poet admired by Swinburne and Rossetti. Miller had acquired a circle of young disciples and artists that Sterling enthusiastically joined, but, more than this, Miller provided for Sterling something of a character model. But of all the literati on the west coast, there was none of greater standing than Ambrose Bierce, and Sterling met him in 1892.

Sterling was frankly awed by Bierce and made no attempt to conceal his admiration. Bierce was not immune to flattery of this earnest sort and took Sterling on as his protege. From this point on, Sterling lived a double life, half Bohemian, half businessman. He had not yet begun writing seriously, but he was immersed in an active literary circle.

On February 7, 1896, Sterling married his secretary, Caroline Rand. Their honeymoon in Hawaii was ruined by the chronic seasickness with which both of them were stricken on the voyage, which was so severe that Sterling lost twenty-two pounds. His mood thus blackened, there was little pleasure in the trip for Sterling, but it was also during this trip that he wrote his first serious poem, in blank verse, which unfortunately does not survive. This turn to poetry is significant, as it was the first step in a general trend that would lead him deeper and deeper into writing, in response to a series of adjustments life demanded of him. His first trial was married life itself, the second was the arrival in Oakland of his Sag Harbor family. Dr. Sterling's drinking and advancing age had handicapped his practice on the east coast, and he had come to Oakland en route to Hawaii, where he intended to buy a plantation. His condition on arrival in California was, however, not favorable to travel, and, on March 8, 1897, he died. In the same year, Sterling submitted his first manuscripts to Bierce, for editorial comment.

As 1900 passed, Sterling was still unpublished, and for that matter had not advanced in his uncle's firm. As time passed, it dawned on Caroline Sterling that Frank Havens was using her husband, placing properties in his name as a blind for his own interests, and passing him over for promotion and partnership. She was not happy to discover that Sterling did not care. A greater strain still on their marriage was the arrival of Jack London. He and Sterling met in Bohemian circles, of which Sterling was now one of the foremost lights, surpassing Miller and most others. A strong affinity grew up between Sterling and London; they became inseparable friends, much more personally intimate with each other than they were with their wives and families.

In 1903 Sterling published his first collection of poems, The Testimony of Suns and Other Poems. Of the title poem, Bierce said, "His imagination flies with a tireless wing. It never comes to earth for a new spring into the sky, but like the eagle and the albatross, sustains itself as long as he chooses that it shall. His passages of poetry are connected by passages of poetry. In all his work you shall find no line of prose." These comments are made apropos of certain criticisms that Sterling's work was lacking in message: the criticisms commonly made against "Art for Art's sake, " that it is pure self-indulgence. A typical example of such a response was Harriet Monroe's 1916 review in Poetry magazine, where she decried his "shameless rhetoric"; claimed his poetry was characterized by "the worst excesses of the Tennysonian tradition—he deals in emperies and auguries and antiphons, in causal throes and lethal voids—in many other things of tinsel and fustian." For all that, she admits "`The Testimony of the Suns' does indeed make one feel the sidereal march, make one shiver before the immensity and shining glory of the universe."

Sterling's early interest science, in astronomy, led him to a philosophy similar to supernatural fiction author H. P. Lovecraft's "cosmic indifferentism." John Gould Fletcher said that Sterling was "one of those unfortunate beings who early become aware of the thought that man is quite probably an insignificant and contemptible accident in the cosmic process of the universe." Under Bierce's tutelage, Sterling had styled himself and his work along Decadent lines, writing out of a sense of cosmic awe, a great love for beautiful language in and of itself, and of that especially Decadent nihilism that is both aristocratic and abject, both inspirationally liberating and horrific.

The Testimony of the Suns was an enormous success, if not financially, then in terms of its reception in literary circles and the attention it drew. Membership to San Francisco's Bohemian Club was immediately offered, and Sterling's local popularity boomed. Along with this newfound celebrity, Sterling found the opportunity for numerous affairs, which he pursued until the end of his life. Caroline first became aware of these liaisons when she was informed, in 1904, of a certain rented room Sterling used for his rendezvous. This, along with his failure to advance in real estate, and his alcoholism, broke her patience, and she threatened to leave him. To save his marriage, but perhaps also out of boredom with city life and society, Sterling left his post with Havens and moved with his wife to Carmel, California, in 1905.

Soon, and primarily through his own efforts, Sterling began to bring other authors and artists into his orbit. In the first decade of the twentieth century, there were many artistic rural cooperatives taking shape around the country, and Sterling became the locus of one such in Carmel, especially after the cataclysmic earthquake and ensuing fires that ravaged San Francisco in mid-April 18, 1906. The destruction was such that San Francisco's Bohemian community was thrown into disarray, and the refugees fled south to Carmel. What with settling into his new surroundings and the ever-increasing social distractions as more and more artists arrived, Sterling's output during this period was exceedingly small.

His next publication, "A Wine of Wizardry, " was a long poem he had written in intermittent bursts over the past several years, and then handed to Bierce in an attempt to find a publisher. After many rejections, Bierce finally opted to publish the piece in his own magazine, The Cosmopolitan, along with a highly inflated article praising Sterling's poem: "I am not overtrustful of my own judgement, nor hot in hope of its acceptance. Yet I steadfastly believe and hardily affirm that George Sterling is a very great poet—incomparably the greatest that we have on this side of the Atlantic. And of this particular poem I hold that not in a lifetime has our literature had any new thing of equal length containing so much poetry and so little else. It is as full of light and color and fire as any of the `ardent gems' that burn and sparkle in its lines. It has all the imagination of Comus and all the fancy of The Faerie Queene."

There were more sober and thoughtful responses. Writing shortly after Sterling's death, his fellow Californian and gifted poet, Clark Ashton Smith said: "I feel a peculiar partiality for `A Wine of Wizardry, ' the most colorful, exotic, and, in places, macabre, of Sterling's poems. Few things in literature are more serviceable as a test for determining whether people feel the verbal magic of poetry—or whether they merely comprehend and admire the thought, or philosophic content. It is not a poem for the literal-minded, for those lovers of the essential prose of existence who edit and read our Saturday Reviews and Literary Digests." The poem was a picaresque journey of Fancy personified, roaming at will through wild scenes.

The controversy that erupted on editorial pages everywhere had a great deal more to do with Bierce's article than with the content of the poem, but it did bring Sterling a great deal of attention, even though often unfavorable attention. He was condemned, as before, for his rhetoric and macabre imagery, and for failing to provide—as Brian Hooker of the Bookman stated—"a message to humanity." Sterling was all at once in the public eye.

One of Sterling's visitors was the poet Nora May French. She took her own life with cyanide in Sterling's home on November 13, 1907, evidently as a result of a long-standing depression. This event was enormously important, not simply for the rumors of romantic involvement between Sterling and French, or the more general and lurid gossip about wild Bohemian life: it led Sterling and his circle to discuss suicide at length, concluding that suicide was the only proper death for a poet. Sterling acquired an amount of cyanide, and the entire circle parceled it up between them, should they ever require it.

Meanwhile, Sterling's "Three Sonnets on Oblivion" appeared in Century magazine, affording him a boost in respectability. Upton Sinclair wrote to Sterling asking if he might come and visit, and Sterling, already a little bored with the sycophancy of this new crowd of "Bohemians" eagerly invited him. Their relationship was extremely rocky—Sinclair disapproved of Sterling's heavy drinking, and, while both men were socialists, Sterling was merely a dabbler. Furthermore, Sterling carried on a brief affair with the woman who would go on to be Sinclair's second wife, Mary Craig Kimbrough, to whom he wrote a hundred sonnets later published posthumously as Sonnets to Craig. But for all that, Sinclair was an influence on Sterling; he caused Sterling to think seriously about his drinking for the first time, and about his politics, but it was too little too late. Another visitor in those days was the young Sinclair Lewis, whom Sterling was able to help find a position at the San Francisco Bulletin.

In 1907 A Wine of Wizardry and Other Poems appeared and was well received, although few failed to notice how slender a volume it was. In general, Sterling was in something of a decline. He had become estranged from both Bierce and London, the former was losing respect for him, the latter was disintegrating into lethargic alcoholism. But, for all that, his own industry was returning gradually. In 1911 he published The House of Orchids and Other Poems, and traveled with his wife to visit Sag Harbor and New York City. The trip may have been a last attempt to rescue their marriage; if so, it was unsuccessful. Sterling and Caroline separated when it was over. They reunited briefly some time later, but Sterling was apparently driven deeper into drink by the disappearance of Ambrose Bierce, with whom he had been on bad terms, and the death of his brother Wickham, both losses striking with a month or so of each other in late 1913. Caroline divorced him. Sterling gave her nearly everything he owned and left for New York.

This phase in Sterling's life, beginning in early 1914, was a time of new responsibility. He moved to Sag Harbor, swore off drink, and set to work writing diligently. In three months, he wrote thirty-five sonnets and five short stories, but he met with no real success in his attempts to get them published. He had to borrow money to relocate to New York City, and grew increasingly bitter and impoverished. After a year of failure, he accepted an opportunity to write for the San Francisco Examiner and returned to California. Things continued to degenerate. In 1916, suffering from years of alcoholism and uremia, Jack London killed himself with an overdose of morphine. Sterling was disconsolate. He threw himself into his work, translating a play by von Hoffmansthal, which barely lasted a week in performance. His health was failing owing to his own chronic drinking. The one great concern of his life was the war in Europe, and he produced sheaves of poems and writings promoting the Allied cause.

When the war ended, events took a brief upturn for Sterling. His verse play, Lilith, which he had begun at the very beginning of the Carmel years, took up his attention again. He completed it, and it was well received. Theodore Dreiser said, "It is compact of a noble and haunting sense of beauty. At the same time, because of its modernity as to astronomical truth, as well as its conception of pleasure and pain as the two realities, it rings richer in thought than any American dramatic poem with which I am familiar. More, it poses the problem of good and evil in life in so intriguing and delectable a form that even he who is content with the non-argumentative contemplation of beauty must still pause to question of himself or life whether either pleasure or pain are desirable realities." Sterling responded to Dreiser personally, saying: "Schopenhauer claims that pain is the only reality, and indeed it is the greatest one. Nevertheless, pleasure is more than the absence of pain, as witness the violence and individuality of the sex-ecstasy, for instance. I should say that absence of pain was contentment, rather than actual pleasure. The pendulum is then at the bottom of its arc, though on its way toward either pain or pleasure. Of course the modern school of verse-writers will kick about my traditional form and spirit."

Sterling's triumphant good spirits, both at the appearance of Lilith and the Allied victory, were shattered by the news that Caroline, lonely, financially straitened, and depressed, had taken cyanide on August 7, 1918.

From that period on, Sterling lived out the rest of his life in a room at the Bohemian Club in San Francisco, paid for by an anonymous friend. He consciously styled himself as a living museum piece of the Bohemian past, but he continued to write and involve himself in the intellectual community. H. L. Mencken became a good friend, somewhat in the same mode as Ambrose Bierce. He met and made friends with Dreiser. But his depression never completely lifted—Joan London recalled that he was never without a white envelope upon which he had written the word "Peace." His drinking had not abated, but his ability to deal with alcohol was weakening, and he often ended up in the hospital with intolerable stomach pains.

In 1926 Mencken had offered to visit Sterling in San Francisco. Delays kept Mencken later than he had anticipated, and, in his impatience, Sterling turned to drink. After a heavy binge, and the inevitable pain in his stomach, Sterling took his cyanide. He was found dead in his room at the Bohemian Club. He left no note, but among the scraps of burned paper in his fireplace were these lines from Lilith, still legible against the charring: "Deeper into the darkness can I peer than most, yet find the darkness still beyond" and "I walk with phantoms ye know not."

Sterling's works fell into neglect shortly after his death. The negative responses of many critics to his work helped obscure his better qualities, and most were content to see him as an anomalous, transitional figure, embodying a contradictory relationship between conservative poetics and more radical ideas. For the most part, he is remembered for his role as the focus of West Coast Bohemian life, and for his associations with more prominent writers, especially as an influence on the development of American literary Modernism.

Source: Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2003.