Sunday, 1 August 2010

Carmel: Jeffers vs. Hearst

You can bet your latest Clint Eastwood video that the idiosyncratic Gray Line driver was not making my day by crawling deferentially past the mayor of Carmel’s seaside residence on the fabled 17-mile drive. (Was I hallucinating that the double-decker bus listed toward the Pacific as his spiel reached its peak of adulation? Yuck.)

There are two reasons I’m always glad to reach Carmel by whatever means—the Friends of Photography Gallery and the home of Robinson Jeffers. This Christmas season, in fact, will be the last time you can visit the FoPG in Carmel. I was delighted to learn, when I paid my last visit, that the world-class photo center was moving up north to San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center.

There it will assume the name of Ansel Adams, its longtime eminence grise and tutelary genius. Adams’s light meter must have flashed in his grave. For Fort Mason is the countercultural heart of the Bay area, and its commitment to peace and sharing is a benign transformation of the piers from which our troops sailed off to wars, from the Spanish-American to the Korean.

The last show at Carmel was not your median “art” show either—it was a chrestomathy of political images, from IRA-prone Northern Ireland reporting to a somber essay on work illnesses and handicaps, FoPG will shut down its Carmel site this year-end with a swatch of six Monterey area photographers.

But it’s Robinson Jeffers’ house and tower that will make Carmel a place of pilgrimage, especially this year, which is the centennial of the Pittsburgh-born poet. (I’m grateful to the American Poetry Center and its sponsorship of Jason Miller’s one-man show on RJ last fall for reminding me of the anniversary.)

I don’t understand why his rep has slipped as sharply as it has. I find lyrics like “Shine, Perishing Republic.” “Hurt Hawk” and “The Stonecutters” as strong a dark gloss on the American Dream as Whitman’s is on the upbeat side. Maybe his reputation while alive depended too much on his Broadway successes, like the Judith Anderson Medea. I’m not saying he’s in our top ten, but he’s too original a voice to let fade into the ever-ready American oblivion.

I was interested to learn in the Taos Public Library, reading Linda Resnick’s fine biography of that quirky heiress and woman-about-Amerinds, Mabel Dodge Luhan, that Luhan palavered at Jeffers to assume the D. H. Lawrence mantle of escaping from civilization when the British writer died unexpectedly in Venice in 1930.

Luhan was visiting Jeffers when the bad news came by cable from the south of France. But Jeffers was not even a joiner, let alone an organizer. He went to the wilds of Carmel to escape what Yeats called this “filthy modern tide.”

Jeffers sited Tor House (named for the “tor” of craggy knoll on which it was built) on Carmel Point, which meets the sea like the “prow and plunging cutwater” of a ship. When he began building it in 1918, he was alone in splended isolation. Nowadays it could be any subdivision, so hemmed in is it by the progress that he despised. He used granite stones hauled from a little cove below the house by a team of horses. It was small by design, hugging the hill to withstand the furious winter storms of the Pacific.

Hawk Tower surprised me by its narrowness: I had to squinch to get up the staircase. It took him four years to complete it (1924), a place of retreat for his wife and a magical hideaway for his sons. [Docent-led tours of the Jeffers relics run every Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., a limit of six at a time, $5. (Make reservations at 408-624-1813.)]

You can write the Tor House Foundation at Box 1897, Carmel 93921. First-time visitors probably should use the Gray Line Tour, adding on a $5 cab fare to get to Carmel Point. The tour includes a stop in Monterey, where the aquarium is a must-visit, a shrewdly recylced cannery on the old row that Steinbeck made famous. On the way back you get a shopping spree at Garlic City, in Gilroy, wold capital of that condiment.

But once you get the lay of the land, I’d recommend a circle visit centering in Salinas. The public library there is directed by a John Steinbeck partisan who has organized tours that are the most literate literary visits in America. (The docent prep material, for Joad’s sake, would make you an honorary M.A. in Steinbeck studies.) Motels are much cheaper in Salinas, and it’s a short rent-a-car sprint to both Carmel and Monterey.

Monterey has a regional art museum which is always worth scrutiny. That way you can set your own pace, the Gray Line itinerary being punctuated by short scenic stops between shopping sprees.

If you take an S.F. to L.A. car rental, of course, you can stop for the day in Carmel/Monterey and have a sundowner of Nepenthe (Greek for forgetfulness), one of the most attractive public venues in Big Sur, a few miles south of Carmel. Still further south is San Simeon, the most overrated piece of derivative architecture in North America.

Derivative, hell, derived—so much of it was carted off, lock, stock, and arch from European places that didn’t deserve to be raided by a journalist who afflicted American media with his arrogant hustles for two generations. I suppose it’s impolitic to sneer at William Randolph Hearst during the centennial of his media system, but if you compare visitor totals at San Simeon and Tor House, you know where America’s mind is at—or isn’t.

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