The family and I made a day trip this past weekend to Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel, one of the loveliest remnants of Spanish imperial influence left in California. It was founded in 1770 by Junipero Serra as the second of the Alta California missions, after San Diego de Alcala four hundred miles to the south. Serra made it his base of operations and his home, and died here in 1784.
If I had the proper architectural vocabulary, I would explain why the lines of the barrel vaulted ceiling in the church are so pleasing – and the old bell tower dome, and the walled-in gardens, and the mixed arcades that frame a courtyard planted with flowers and succulents, oaks and palms and a magnificent Monterey cypress. The sensory appeal reaches even to the nose: flush with odors of warm earth, incense, sap and pollen, of polished wood and leather and old stone. In and around the church (technically a basilica) and its adjoining chapels and shrines, one finds a rich collection of Catholic religious art and devotional objects: icons and statuary, dioramas, mosaics and bas-relief, and an impressive cenotaph of the Mission’s sainted founder, who lies buried beneath the red flags of the sanctuary floor.
After an hour at the Mission, the town of Carmel itself is such a sickly, sallow thing – full of pretense and needless show: multi-million dollar ‘cottages,’ double-parked German automobiles, blocks of superfluous would-be art galleries and price-gouging boutiques, each dedicated to a different fashion accessory. We made a drive along the shoreline where some of Carmel’s most impressively indulgent homes overlook a white sand beach and rocky promontory that necks its way into the Pacific. Crowded in here among the worst offenders is Robinson Jeffers’ old home, Tor House, with its adjoining tower, hand-built by Jeffers after he bought what in 1914 was a wild and somewhat isolated strip of property at the northernmost edge of the Big Sur coast.
Jeffers was the poet and chronicler of what I consider a ‘middle’ California, one placed somewhere between Serra’s California and today’s. As a child I sometimes glimpsed that middle California in the older downtowns and orchard corners of the countryside, and in the remembrances and manners of my maternal grandparents. It was a place recognizably home but no longer fully present: temperate and fruitful in more than climate, expansive and welcoming, but ultimately untamed and prone to temblors of unsettled identity. It was a place apart: American, but fingering still the short-lived Bear Flag with sufficient sense of its own mythical otherness to be not quite, not fully, a piece of America.
How little patience Jeffers would have had for present-day Carmel’s open orgy of cultivated excess and spotlighted consumption. How little patience he would have for the appointed keepers of his memory: those who manage the Tor House museum and hand out pamphlets printed with unicorns and his most saccharine off-hand quotations; and those who would make him into a patron saint of American environmentalism. Jeffers had little use for people, and even less for what men and women might do banded together in organized political movements. His pessimism for human value and endeavor was boundless. “I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk,” he wrote. For all that mankind might temporarily achieve or temporarily destroy, man for Jeffers was finally an object of indifference, nothing but a sport, a fad a nature and of Nature’s hard God, “who is,” he said, “very beautiful, but hardly a friend of humanity.”
Jeffers was hugely popular in the 1920s and ‘30s but isn’t much read today, which is a shame. At his worst he was a plain misanthrope, caught helplessly in the knot of his upbringing: the heretic son of a Presbyterian minister, forever rebelling against a predestinating God while lusting all the same after a parallel vision of naturalistic determinism. But at his best – in a number of his shorter pieces and a few of his epic California coastal narratives like Tamar and Cawdor – Jeffers was capable of epigrammatic potency and a taut, almost Sophoclean intensity of emotional expression rare in American poetry.
His fame brought famous visitors to Tor House - people like D.H Lawrence, Charles Lindbergh and J. Krishnamurti - and Jeffers was featured on the cover of Time magazine in April 1932. After the war, which Jeffers bitterly opposed, most of his readers and admirers abandoned him. Jeffers’ work largely vanished from print after his death in 1962. (It’s recently been reissued by Stanford University Press). The town of Carmel eventually wrapped itself around Tor House, filling in the woods that separated it from Junipero Serra’s Mission a mile inland and obscuring its view of the Pacific. Jeffers’ legacy and his home, I think, make a nicely illustrative chapter in the competing narratives of California, a place he loved and dreaded, and one he thought marked by its geography and impassive beauty for a special tragic destiny.