The Passing of an Oak

Cover of “The Passing of an Oak.” Courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

In 1905, workers in Monterey, California cut down a dead oak tree and tossed it into Monterey Bay. Perhaps they did not know that it was the most famous tree in the city’s history.

Three centuries before, on 3 December 1602, the expedition of Spanish explorer Sebastián Vizcaíno landed at the mouth of a creek in Monterey Bay. Vizcaíno’s mission was to locate safe harbors that the Spanish galleons could use on their voyages back from the Philippines, and this bay looked superb. The expedition’s chronicler, a Carmelite friar named Antonio de la Ascensión, celebrated Mass under the limbs of a large oak tree that stood near the creek. In his report, Vizcaíno noted the tree as an excellent landmark for future Spanish explorers.

Title page of “The Passing of an Oak”

Despite Vizcaíno’s glowing report, many decades would pass before the next expedition to Monterey, that of Gaspar de Portolá in 1769. Spain was now anxious to establish outposts in California before the empires of Russia and England could do the same. After many hardships, Portolá arrived overland on 24 May 1770. Junípero Serra sailed into Monterey Bay the following week, on 3 June 1770, and said Mass under Vizcaíno’s oak tree.

The oak tree was damaged by lightning in 1840 but remained otherwise healthy until 1903, when workmen repairing a culvert accidentally introduced salt water to the roots. The tree died the next year. (Our book’s foreword instead blames the tree’s illness on damage from engraving beetles, which are a type of bark beetle.) Let us charitably assume that those who cut down the tree in 1905 and unceremoniously threw it into the bay were ignorant of what the tree meant to the city.

Foreword of “The Passing of an Oak”

Fortunately, Ramón Mestres, the pastor of Monterey’s Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo, heard what had happened and had the tree pulled from the water. With financial assistance from civic leader and philanthropist Harry Ashland Greene, the remains of the trunk were preserved with creosote and erected behind the cathedral. Greene also commissioned local craftsmen to make several chairs out of its branches, two of which he donated to the local parlor of the Native Sons of the Golden West. One of the chairs was exhibited along with other Monterey products at the Panama Pacific International Exposition in 1915. The oak trunk remained on display at the Cathedral, along with a marble plaque, for many years until it deteriorated beyond repair. Several fragments of the tree are now preserved in local museums.

Page 1 of “The Passing of an Oak”

At this point, enter James A. Murray (1840-1921), a wealthy entrepreneur. According to his biographer Bill Farley, Murray was a “western iconoclast, a pioneering and dominating spirit, more comfortable in saloons than board rooms, who fought for wealth and mother country to his last breath.” Murray had made his first fortune in the mines of Montana, and proceeded to make further fortunes with investments across the United States. He established a second home in Monterey in 1904, and quickly took a keen interest in local history. Murray owned one of the three paintings by Léon Trousset depicting Junípero Serra’s first Mass beneath the famous oak tree. In 1908, to commemorate the lost tree, Murray commissioned sculptor Douglas Tilden to carve a tall granite Celtic cross with bas-relief portraits of Serra and Mission Carmel. The cross was erected near the original site of the tree and is now California Historical Landmark #128. (The Celtic design was a nod to Murray’s homeland of Ireland, where he feverishly supported the expulsion of the British and creation of an independent Irish republic.)

In 1949, the California Centennials Commission unveiled another historical marker a few yards away from the granite cross, this one commemorating Portolá’s founding of the Monterey Presidio in 1770.

The Vizcaíno-Serra Oak, late 1800s. At some point a plain wooden cross was set in the ground, bearing the date of Serra’s landing. Several different postcards were printed with views similar to this.

With all that as backstory, let us turn to today’s book, The Passing of an Oak. In 1909, Mary Murray, James’s wife, commissioned Paul Elder & Company to publish Mary Spence’s short poem about the Vizcaíno-Serra Oak. It is an elegant but slim volume: just seven stanzas of poetry, one stanza per page, in simple blue paper wraps. Remarkably, only twelve copies were printed, an almost comically small press run. Elder’s books were typeset by hand, and this was a lot of trouble to go to for just twelve copies. Surely it took longer to set the type than to print the twelve copies! If Mrs. Murray felt so strongly about printing Mrs. Sullivan’s poem and honoring her husband’s philanthropy, why did she print so few?

It’s unknown whether Murray first saw Spence’s poem and decided to publish it, or Spence wrote the poem upon commission from Murray. In any case, Mary Murray and Mary Spence must have been acquainted, and were perhaps even good friends. As you will read below, poet Mary Spence married well, and was ensconced in Monterey’s upper-crust society. The Murrays often vacationed in Monterey before moving there, and were donors to the local arts scene.

The granite monument as first erected in 1908, near where the oak once stood.

Mary Spence was born Mary Teresa Sullivan in San Francisco in 1863. Her father was Irish immigrant “Big John” Sullivan (1824-1882), who was a member of the pioneer Stephens-Townsend-Murphy party of 1844, the first wagon train to cross the Sierra Nevada during the expansion of the American West. He later was one of the five co-founders of the Hibernia Bank of San Francisco. Mary received a private education from a French governess, and later attended the College of Notre Dame in San Jose. In 1886 Mary married Rudolph B. Spence (1858-1913) of Monterey. Rudolph’s Scottish grandfather David Spence had married into Monterey’s Estrada clan, owners of the extensive Rancho Llano de Buena Vista, a large Mexican land grant in the Salinas valley. In due course Rudolph inherited a portion of the rancho. Mary did not pursue a literary career, content with occasional short poems, fables, parodies, and book reviews under different pen names. She died in San Francisco in 1920 and is buried next to her husband in the Monterey City Cemetery.

Close-up of the monument. Photo by Kevin Dayton, 2015.

The landscape where the oak once stood has been much altered since the late 1880s and does not resemble the period photographs shown here. The granite cross is located at the corner of Pacific St. and Artillery St. in Monterey (see annotated photograph below). There is no parking of any kind at that intersection, but turn right onto Artillery and then right again on Corporal Ewing and you will find a small parking lot. It’s also an easy walk from other historic buildings nearby, such as the Custom House (where the United States flag was first raised over California in 1846) and California’s first theater, at the corner of Pacific and Scott.

In 2015, a mural was unveiled along the Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail, depicting the oak as it was thought to look in Vizcaíno’s day. While the mural and the oak tree site are only about 50 yards apart as the crow flies, there is no direct way to get from one to the other: you must walk the long way around via Scott St.

The preserved remains of the Vizcaíno-Serra Oak at the Cathedral of San Carlos Borromeo
Close-up of the plaque underneath the preserved oak tree
Map of the immediate vicinity. The landscape has been much altered since Serra’s day, when the shoreline was much closer to the oak tree.
One of the chairs made out of fragments of the Vizcaíno-Serra Oak
2015 mural of the Vizcaíno-Serra Oak alongside the Monterey Peninsula Recreational Trail.
Historical marker commemorating the founding of Monterey by Portolá on 3 June 1770, located a few yards south of the granite cross.

In the Realms of Gold

Cover of “In the Realms of Gold,” with artwork by Morgan Shepard

The final poet that Ella Sterling Cummins profiles in her curious but informative 1893 review of Californian writers, The Story of the Files, is a young Italian immigrant:

Among the volumes of verse published in California none have so pathetic [i.e. emotional] a history as those written by Lorenzo Sosso. Born in Italy, young Sosso came when but a child with his parents to California, and soon forgot his native language. But the spirit of genius burned on through years of poverty and menial labor. In intervals of work poems came crowding into his brain, almost faster than he could write them. Night study brought familiarity with classic myths and the meters of the poets. His savings of years published a volume before he was twenty years of age. It contained many ideas and graceful lines, but of this edition he did not sell a copy.

Cover of “In the Realms of Gold,” with artwork by Morgan Shepard

Cummins goes on to describe several more of Sosso’s failed publications, and then, worst of all, his employment at the Post Office: “here he became part of the machine, and has been so busily employed that in the time that has since elapsed he has written not one word. But he has evidently been thinking, and, when a few more years have passed over his head, may speak again.”

That same year, Lorenzo Sosso married Emma Henley, and by 1895 they two children, so it is perhaps unsurprising that he took a job in “the machine” to support his family. As Cummins surmised, Sosso had indeed been thinking, though it took a decade to achieve results. in 1902 Elder & Shepard published Sosso’s In the Realms of Gold, a 171-page volume containing 114 poems written between 1891 and 1901. The dedication, to his wife Emma, would touch the heart of any romantic:

Cover of “In the Realms of Gold,” with artwork by Morgan Shepard

To her whose faith is still secure
Through all incertitudes of life,
The many days of joy, the few
Joyless, since she is joy thereof;
To her, the purest of the pure,
To her, the truest of the true,
The mother wedded in the wife,
I dedicate this book with love.

Paul Elder published a fair amount of original literature and poetry, but almost all of it was of poor quality, and Sosso is no exception: his verses are not memorable. There are some sparks that exhort the reader to a greater good, such as in his poem “The Socialist”:

While I hear the wailing
Of the wronged and weak
Sadly unavailing
Are the words you speak:
Where there is oppression
Manhood must resist;
Therefore this confession—
I’m a Socialist!

Every back we lighten
Of its burdens sore,
Every home we brighten
Helps us more and more:
O the millions living
Toiling in the night!
O the task of giving
To such millions light!

Cover of “In the Realms of Gold,” with artwork by Morgan Shepard

Sadly, Sosso’s wife Emma died in 1914, at the age of 53. Sosso never remarried, and died in Marin County on 2 November 1967 at the age of 98.

In the Realms of Gold was issued in a limited edition of 500 copies, printed on non-watermarked laid paper by the Murdock Press. The cover artwork is not signed but is undoubtedly by Morgan Shepard, who probably also designed the tomoye on the title page. The frontispiece, a single leaf on coated stock, is a signed portrait of Sosso. On the title page, Elder is still calling himself “D. P. Elder.” There is no colophon.


Cover of "Poems"
Cover of “Poems”

Paul Elder published a lot of poetry in his career: of the 420 titles on the checklist, at least sixty-one (15%) are poetry. Alas, not much of it is good poetry. (In this Paul Elder was not alone: I have a friend who collects “bad poetry” from across the Arts & Crafts period.)

Irene Hardy’s Poems (1902) is likely a vanity publication, a limited edition of 300 printed by Charles A. Murdock. (As we shall see below, half of the edition was lost in a fire.) The binding and paper are of good quality, and the typography is typical of the period: crisp typeface but a small font, leaving excessive white space around the edges of the page. The author’s name is consistently printed as “Irenè Hardy”: note the odd use of the grave accent, which in French would normally be “Irène.” I have always assumed this was a typographical error by Murdock, but it’s possible Hardy insisted on the unusual spelling. (Hardy was not French; she was born in Ohio.)

Title page of "Poems"
Title page of “Poems”

Although Hardy’s verses may no longer be remembered, since her 1922 death Stanford University has held an Irene Hardy Poetry Contest (now called the “Clarence Urmy-Irene Hardy Prize for Poetry”).

The following obituary of Irene Hardy is from The Stanford Illustrated Review, Volume 23, Issue 9, June 1922, p467. “A little book of her verse” refers to Poems.

Irene Hardy, a student at Stanford from 1892 to 1895 and a member of the english department faculty from 1894 to 1901, died June 4 at her home, 453 Melville Avenue, Palo Alto, following an attack of pneumonia. She was born in Yellow Springs, Ohio, eighty-one years ago [22 July 1841] and for the last fifteen years had been totally blind. In spite of her handicap, she continued to write, publishing verse in the “Sunset” and other periodicals. To the last she retained the admiration and devotion of her former pupils and associates, both of Stanford and the Oakland High School, where she taught for twelve years before coming to Stanford. She began teaching at 16 years of age and alter taught in Antioch, Iowa, Preparatory School. In 1861, the opening year of the Civil War, she entered Antioch College, of which Horace Mann was first president. Because of failing health, she came to California in 1871 and remained here until here death. Miss Hardy was widely known as a poet. A little book of her verse was published in 1902 in San Francisco. Half of the edition was later destroyed in a bookstore fire and the remaining volumes were taken up by students. Among the poems included in the volume are “Ole for Forefather’s Day,” “1887,” “Ariel and Caliban,” “A Wedding Day Gallop,” and “Palo Alto Hills.” Her work later appeared in “The Overland Monthly,” “Sunset” and other periodicals. She was a pioneer in the educational field in California and had a lasting influence on the teaching of composition and literature.

Pages 12-13 of "Poems"
Pages 12-13 of “Poems”


Sonnets of Spinsterhood

Cover of "Sonnets of Spinsterhood"
Cover of “Sonnets of Spinsterhood”

In 1915, the poet Snow Langley was 36 years old and unmarried: a “spinster” in the thankfully now-obsolete parlance. Spinning wool was typically the job of unmarried women, and spinster was used in legal documents as early as the 1600s to denote an unmarried woman who was likely to stay that way. One might think, then, that a book entitled Sonnets of Spinsterhood would be full of bitterness about years of loneliness. However, a better indication of what lies ahead is in the subtitle: A Spinster’s Book of Dreams: Delicate Traceries of Dim Desires. Langley writes in her introduction:

These Sonnets need, perhaps, a word of explanation. In a recent reading of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, the conviction was borne in upon me that the sentiment of love is worthy of expression, whether or not it outwardly finds an object; “for the romantic passion” as a dream, an ideal or a memory is a source of inspiration in every human life. I have endeavored to make the sequence of sonnets show the ideal progress from the personal to the racial, from the love which seeks individual expression to the love for humanity.

Title page of "Sonnets of Spinsterhood"
Title page of “Sonnets of Spinsterhood”

The book is bound in lavender paper, highlighting the personal, feminine nature of the content. The beautiful decorations are by Audley B. Wells, whom Elder used in a number of his publications.

Nannie Snow Longley was born in Ohio in 1879. Her family moved to California some time after, and she graduated from Los Angeles High School in 1896, where she gave the valedictory address, a historical narrative entitled “The Ballad of Lady Mary.” She left the ranks of spinsterhood at the age of 49 when she married Grant S. Housh in 1928; they had no children. For many years she was an English teacher at Los Angeles High School, where one of her students was the future science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury; he credited her with instilling in him a love of poetry. She died in 1963 and is buried in the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles.

Introductory "Proem"
Introductory “Proem”

The first sonnet.
The first sonnet.

Page 14-15 of "Sonnets of Spinsterhood"
Page 14-15 of “Sonnets of Spinsterhood”

The last two sonnets.
The last two sonnets.

Abelard and Heloise

Cover of "Abelard and Heloise"
Cover of the 1911 edition of “Abelard and Heloise”

The story of Abelard and Heloise is too well known to need repetition here, for these two rank with the few great historic lovers of the world, as well they may. The love of Heloise was sublime in its intensity, romantic in its constancy, appealing in its pathos, and tragic in its suffering.

When I first picked up Abelard and Heloise, I had never heard their names before. But one hundred years ago, so Ella Costillo Bennett informs me, I would have known all about them. (I hope this reflects the great differences in literary curriculum between then and now, as opposed to my ignorance of a story that everyone knows!) Bennett has taken some of their love letters and rewritten them as poems.

Title page of "Abelard and Heloise"
Title page of the 1911 edition of “Abelard and Heloise”

Pierre Abélard (1079–1142) was a medieval French scholastic philosopher, theologian, composer and preeminent logician. Héloïse d’Argenteuil (1090?–1164) was a French writer, scholar, and later a nun and abbess. Their story is certainly a captivating one: two brilliant scholars who meet, fall in love, are separated, but continue to meet in secret. She becomes pregnant and bears a son, they are married but then separated again when Héloïse is sent to a convent. (I am leaving out many details.) They begin a long correspondance, which has become the thing of legend.

Images of Abelard and Heloise's tomb at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
Abelard’s and Heloise’s tomb at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Even their mortal remains have become legendary. Their bodies were moved several times over the intervening centuries, most recently to Père Lachaise Cemetery in 1817 by Josephine Bonaparte. At the time, Père Lachaise was outside the dense urban area of Paris, and the reburial is thought to have considerably increased the cemetery’s popularity. It has since become tradition for lovers, or lonely singles, to leave letters at their tomb in hopes of finding true love.

Paul Elder published Abelard and Heloise in a limited edition of 500 copies in 1907, accompanied by illustrations by Will Jenkins. He published a trade edition in 1911.

Page 14-15 of "Abelard and Heloise"
Page 14-15 of “Abelard and Heloise”

Ella Costillo Bennett (1865-1932) was a San Francisco socialite and a minor player in the local literary scene. She was a feature writer for a number of newspapers, including The Wasp and The Pacific Coast Weekly (for which she wrote “Knocks from the Iconoclast”), and an associate editor for Mythland, a children’s magazine.

Much of what is known about Ella Bennett comes from a 138-page scrapbook (now at the University of Colorado at Boulder), created by her daughter Mary L. Bennett. In addition to manuscript letters, typescripts of original poetry, and published articles written by Ella, the scrapbook contains materials relating to the women’s suffrage movement and anti-war petitions. Also figuring prominently is Ella’s son Ray Raphael Bennett (1895-1957), a television and film actor.