March 1, 2012

Joaquin Miller: This was the new Eden

Ten years had gone by since Joaquin Miller published the British edition of The First Fam'lies of the Sierras. In England, he was an immediate sensation, known for his quirky, eccentric, western American ways and appearance. In the United States, he wrote a new preface to the slightly edited American edition, dated March 1, 1881:

The work was written in Europe in the first twilight of the now famous realistic school. But my maturer judgment, advised by the better sense of my American publishers, disapproves of some of its realistic features and I have here swept them away.

I have changed the name in the revised edition from "The First Fam'lies of the Sierras," to that of "The Danites in the Sierras," because the book treats chiefly of that once dreaded and bloody order. And then it was through this little volume, and what has grown out of it, that this name has become known to the two worlds.

With the new title The Danites of the Sierras, Miller was also associating the book with a stage adaptation that had premiered in the interim between the two additions. At least one critic admitted the stage version was a decent show, if somewhat long, despite his expectations for a disaster. It was wildly popular, at least partly because of Miller's eccentric reputation, and partly due to its anti-Mormon subject matter (the Danites were a murderous secret society of Mormons). The work may have been slightly inspired by Ina Coolbrith, whom Miller had recently met before his European travels. Coolbrith had broken away from the Mormons along with her mother and maintained a strong dislike of their practices.

The book version is written in Miller's usual style — short, choppy sentences with meandering themes that imply a lack of interest in polishing a final draft (which, in fact, Miller rarely did). It also features his stereotypically western interests, as noted by the "Sierras" in the title, by portraying the western United States in a romantic, if melodramatic,way:

This was the new Eden. It was so new, it was still damp. You could smell the paint, as it were. Man [i.e. Adam] had just arrived. He had not yet slept. The rib had not yet been taken from his side. He was alone.

In Miller's fictional California, everyone has extra gold in their gold-pans and men are exceedingly honest (none have a lock on their door). His complete inability to understand the hardships of western life as well as his chronic lying problem has since led to his dismissal by modern literary critics. In fact, Miller's contemporary popularity on the east coast and overseas was because they had no idea that Miller's cowboy style (and antics) were insincere. In The Danites of the Sierras, he predicts why in his own oblivious way:

When the great Californian novel which has been prophesied of, and for which the literary world seems to be waiting, comes to be written, it will not be a bit popular. And that is because every true Californian, no matter how depraved he may be, somehow has somewhat of the hero and the real man in his make-up. And as for the women that are there, they are angels. So you see there is no one to do the business of the heavy villain.

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