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- The Native Son - 1/6 -


The Native Son

By Inez Haynes Irwin

To Those Proud Native Sons

James W. Coffroth Meyer Cohn Porter Garnett John Crowley Willie Ritchie J. Cal Ewing James Wilson Andrew J. Gallagher

And To Those Apologetic Adopted Sons

Albert M. Bender Austin Lewis Sam Berger Xavier Martinez Gelett Burgess Perry Newberry Michael Casey Patrick O'Brien Perry Newberry Patrick Flynn Fremont Older Will Irwin Lemuel Parton Anton Johansen Paul Scharrenberg Waldemar Young

All of Whom Have Played Some Graceful Part In Translating California To Me

This Appreciation is Dedicated

The Native Son

The only drawback to writing about California is that scenery and climate - and weather even - will creep in. Inevitably anything you produce sounds like a cross between a railroad folder and a circus program. You can't discuss the people without describing their background; for they reflect it perfectly; or their climate, because it has helped to make them the superb beings they are. A tendency manifests itself in you to revel in superlatives and to wallow in italics. You find yourself comparing adjectives that cannot be compared - unique for instance. Unique is a persistent temptation. For, the rules of grammar not-withstanding, California is really the most unique spot on the earth's surface. As for adjectives like enormous, colossal, surpassing, overpowering and nouns like marvel, wonder, grandeur, vastness, they are as common in your copy as commas.

Another difficulty is that nobody outside California ever believes you. I don't blame them. Once I didn't believe it myself. If there was anything that formerly bored me to the marrow of my soul, it was talk about California by a regular dyed-in-the-wool Californiac. But I got mine ultimately. Even as I was irritated, I now irritate. Even as I was bored, I now bore. Ever since I first saw California, and became, inevitably, a Californiac, I have been talking about it, irritating and boring uncounted thousands. I begin placatingly enough, "Yes, I know you aren't going to believe this," I say. "Once I didn't believe it myself. I realize that it all sounds impossible. But after you've once been there - " Then I'm off. When I've finished, there isn't an hysterical superlative adjective or a complimentary abstract noun unused in my vocabulary. I've told all the East about California. I've told many of the countries of Europe about California. I even tell Californians about California. I will say to the credit of Californians though that they listen. Listen! did I say listen? They drink it down like a child absorbing its first fairy tale.

In another little volume devoted to the praise of California, Willie Britt is on record as saying that he'd rather be a busted lamp-post on Battery Street than the Waldorf-Astoria. I said once that I'd rather be sick in California than well anywhere else. I'm prepared to go further. I'd rather be in prison in California than free anywhere else. San Quentin is without doubt the most delightfully situated prison in the whole world. Besides I have a lot of friends - but I won't go into that now. Anyway if I ever do get that severe jail-sentence which a long-suffering family has always prophesied for me, I'm going to petition for San Quentin. Moreover, I would rather talk about California than any other spot on earth. I'd rather write about California than any other spot on earth. Is it possible that any Californian Chamber of Commerce has to pay a press agent? Incredible! Inexplicable! I wonder that local millionaires don't bid their entire fortune for the privilege. Now what has Willie Britt to say?

Yes, my idea of a pleasant occupation would be listing, cataloguing, inventorying, describing and - oh joy! - visiting the wonders of California. But that would be impossible for any one enthusiast to accomplish in the mere three-score-and-ten of Scriptural allotment. Methusalah might have attempted it. But in these short-lived days, ridiculous to make a start. And so, perforce, I must share this joyous task with other and more able chroniclers. I am willing to leave the beauty of the scenery to Mary Austin, the wonder of the weather to Jesse Williams, the frenzy of its politics to Sam Blythe, the beauty of its women to Julian Street, the glory of the old San Francisco to Will Irwin, the splendor of the new San Francisco to Rufas Steele, its care-free atmosphere to Allan Dunn, if I may place my laurel wreath at the foot of the Native Son. Indeed, when it comes to the Native Son, I yield the privilege of praise to no one.

For the Native Son is an unique product, as distinctively and characteristically Californian as the gigantic redwood, the flower festival, the ferocious flea, the moving-picture film, the annual boxing and tennis champion, the golden poppy or the purple prune. There is only one other Californian product that can compare with him and that's the Native Daughter. And as for the Native Daughter - - But if I start up that squirrel track I'll never get back to the trail. Nevertheless some day I'm going to pick out a diamond-pointed pen, dip it in wine and on paper made from orange-tawny POPPY petals, try to do justice to the Native Daughter. For this inflexible moment, however, my subject is the Native Son. But if scenery and climate - and weather even - do creep in, don't blame me. Remember I warned you. Besides sooner or later I shall be sure to get back to the main theme.

In the January of 1917 I made my annual pilgrimage to California. On the train was a Native Son who was the hero of the following astonishing tale. He was one of a large family, of which the only girl had married a German, a professor in an American university. Shortly before the Great War, the German brother-in-law went back to the Fatherland to spend his sabbatical year in study at a German university. Letters came regularly for a while after the war began; then they stopped. His wife was very much worried. Our hero decided in his simple western fashion to go to Germany and find his brother-in-law. He traveled across the country, cajoled the authorities in Washington into giving him a passport, crossed the ocean, ran the British blockade and entered the forbidden land. Straight as an arrow he went to the last address in his brother-in-law's letters. That gentleman, coming home to his lunch, tired, worried and almost penniless, found his Californian kinsman smoking calmly in his room. The Native Son left money enough to pay for the rest of the year of study and the journey home. Then he started on the long trip back.

In the English port at which his ship touched, he was mistaken for a disloyal newspaper man for whom the British Secret Service had long been seeking. He was arrested, searched and submitted to a very disquieting third degree. When they asked him in violent explosive tones what he went into Germany for, he replied in his mild, unexcited Western voice - to give his brother-in-law some money. All Europe is accustomed to crazy Americans of course, but this strained credulity to the breaking point; for nobody who has not tried to travel in the war countries can realize the sheer unbelievability of such guilelessness. The British laughed loud and long. His papers were taken away and sent to London but in a few days everything was returned. A mistake had been made, the authorities admitted, and proper apologies were tendered. But they released him with looks and gestures in which an abashed bewilderment struggled with a growing irritation.

That is a typical Native Son story.

If you are an Easterner and meet the Native Son first in New York (and the only criticism to be brought against him is that he sometimes chooses - think of that - chooses to live outside his native State!) you wonder at the clear-eyed composure, the calm-visioned unexcitability with which he views the metropolis. There is a story of a San Francisco newspaper man who landed for the first time in New York early in the morning. Before night he had explored the city, written a scathing philippic on it and sold it to a leading newspaper. New York had not daunted him. It had only annoyed him. He was quite impervious to its hydra-headed appeal. But you don't get the answer to that imperviousness until you visit the California which has produced the Native Son. Then you understand.

Yes, Reader, your worst fears are justified; I'm going to talk about scenery. But don't say that I didn't warn you! However, as it's got to be done sometime, why not now? I'll be perfectly fair, though; so -

For the Native Son has come from a State whose back yard is two hundred thousand square miles (more or less) of American continent and whose front yard is five hundred thousand square miles (less or more) or Pacific Ocean, whose back fence is ten thousand miles (or thereabouts) of bristling snow-capped mountains and whose front hedge is ten thousand miles (or approximately) of golden foam-topped combers; a State that looks up one clear and unimpeded waterway to the evasive North Pole, and down another clear and unimpeded waterway to the elusive South Pole and across a third clear and unimpeded water way straight to the magical, mystical, mysterious Orient. This sense of amplitude gives the Native Son an air of superiority . . . Yes, you're quite right, it has a touch of superciliousness - very difficult to understand and much more difficult to endure when you haven't seen California; but completely understandable and endurable when you have.


The Native Son - 1/6

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