Book review "Footloose in Arcadia"

By George R. Stewart

Footloose in Arcadia: A Personal Record of Jack London, George Sterling, Ambrose Bierce. By Joseph Noel. New York: Carrick & Evans, Inc. 1940. 330 pp. $3.00.

In a Foreword Mr. Noel terms himself a "fumbling Boswell to a group of Johnsons." We might suggest a shift to make the statement read: "Boswell to a group of fumbling Johnsons." Mr. Noel need not be so modest about himself as a memorialist, but the material presented him by his subjects seems to have been seldom memorable.

Mr. Noel's method was also Boswellian. Again in the Foreword, he notes that after night sessions with Sterling he sat at his typewriter and was able to "recall whole stretches" of conversation. The actual wording of the conversations is thus perhaps closer to the original than in most memoirs.

Least space is devoted to Bierce, whom Noel in fact met only twice. Most of his information about Bierce was passed on through Sterling, and little of this is of much interest or significance. Probably Sterling shaped Noel's conception of Bierce, which is the provincial one that he was the "grand mogul of American letters" (p. 72).

Noel knew London well; his reminiscences are voluminous, and often vivid. About 1913 the two quarreled. As might therefore be expected, Noel fails to indulge in much hero-worship, and his sometimes caustic judgments are an antidote to previous eulogies. Of the much romanticized "oyster-pirate" incident, for instance, he concludes curtly that the stealing of oysters is the same as "entering a potato patch in the dark of the moon and filching the potatoes of a farmer. At best, it is burglary in a boat" (p. 22).

Sterling is the most fully presented of the three figures. By general consent he would certainly be rated the least important; on the other hand, much less has been written about him, and these reminiscences are correspondingly welcome. It is unfortunate—however pardonable in a friend—that Noel overrates Sterling's work excessively and assumes for it an importance in American poetry which few people would be prepared to grant. The case is not strengthened by the conjuring up of "many authorities" (not named or specified) who according to Mr. Noel class A Wine of Wizardry as "the greatest poem ever written by an American author" (p. 163).

None the less, Sterling is a figure of some interest; little is available about his career; and Mr. Noel's contribution is correspondingly original and welcome. The evolution of the poet from a clock-punching, impeccable suburbanite into the most extreme of Bohemians is in itself a fascinating story, and there is reason to regret that Mr. Noel failed to unify his book around this theme instead of making it merely one chief thread.

Mr. Noel devotes much space to isolated details. That Sterling used an inordinate amount of salt is perhaps interesting, but until the physiological basis of poetry is better worked out, it will not help much in the appreciation of a poet. On the contrary, Mr. Noel fails to emphasize (although he suggests) the main and tragic drift of Sterling's career. Under Bierce's dubious tutelage Sterling, a belated romantic, gained some prominence in a period when American poetry was at an ebb. The tide rose after 1912; Sterling failed to develop—and was engulfed. He found his compensations; as one of his friends once remarked to me, "Sterling's chief gods were Bacchus and Venus." In his making of Apollo a secondary deity, Sterling perhaps sensed his own tragedy as when he said of Jeffers: "He does not waste his heart on life as I did" (p. 314). The end was a room in the Bohemian Club, and a vial of cyanide.

The suicide-motif in fact shapes all the last section of Mr. Noel's book. If these Californians were not in themselves wholly great, they at least made the Great Denial. Bierce's end was to all intents suicide; London's suicide is generally admitted; Sterling's is certain. To these, add the suicides of the lesser members of the coterie: Nora May French, Mrs. Sterling, and Herman Scheffauer. This "cavalcade of death," as Mr. Noel terms it, is perhaps the greatest claim which the group may make to originality in the annals of American literature.

From: American Literature; 1940, Vol. 12 Issue 3.