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Joaquin Miller (1841?-1913)
by Janice Albert

This statue of the Poet of the Sierras
is in Oakland's Joaquin Miller Park

Time works on literary reputation in such a way that, when the glacier of critical opinion is past, only El Capitan remains, splendidly removed from the fragmented shards and rubble ground to gravel underfoot. The agency of chance in creating El Capitan is forgotten. If the remaining knobs and knolls could speak of their own hopes and dreams, we would smile gently at their pretension. "You, too, aspired to greatness? Oh, puleeze."

These were my thoughts upon visiting the park located off Joaquin Miller Drive, a park which bears Miller's name, which includes his "Frémont Ranch," and which contains seven monuments left by the Poet of the Sierras.

The monuments themselves are crude by almost any measure. Miller seems to have done all the work himself, mixing equal parts of serpentine and Portland cement. There is a barrel-shaped tower dedicated to the Brownings, a pyramid to Moses, a battlement-like tower dedicated to General John C. Frémont.

The shapes themselves-triangle, circle, square-suggest a child's basic play set. His house remains, The Abby, California Historical Landmark no. 107, along with a "Sanctuary to Memory," where he stored his mementos and where his grieving daughter Juanita created a replica of her father lying in bed as he had during the last days of his life, surrounded by his boots and other memorabilia. In this vicinity is a statue of himself seated rather woodenly on a horse. This is the only monument not of his own design. The work of Kisa Beeck, it was commissioned by Juanita to mark the spot where her grandmother's cottage once stood. The seventh monument is a massive stone stage, approached by three broad steps. On this elevated platform, Miller wished to be cremated in an open funeral pyre in the manner of the Native Americans he so admired.

All around these emblems of the past, Joaquin Miller Park bustles with activity. The Oakland Parks and Recreation Department operates a community center; there is a ranger station and a municipal wood chipping site. Weddings take place here. For many years, residents of the wider East Bay have visited Woodminster Amphitheater to hear musical theater performed on summer evenings. For many local singers and dancers, Woodminster was their first auditioning experience, and for some, their first appearance on a professional stage. The amphitheater itself, with its adjacent fountain and spectacular views, is dedicated to California Writers. (The name Woodminster means "cathedral in the woods.") The park, now 512 acres, began with the acquisition by the City of Oakland of the 52 acres Miller purchased in 1886.

The man christened Cincinnatus Heine Miller, (1841?-1913) who idolized Moses and the Brownings, was advised by none other than Ina Coolbrith to adopt the mannerisms that would become his persona. She prompted him to dress in the fashion of the "Wild West" and to adopt the name of his hero, Joaquin Murrieta, as his own. To Miller, Murrieta was a champion, a modern Robin Hood. Miller shares this view with fellow poet Pablo Neruda, who sees Murrieta as a Chilean martyr to Yankee greed in his Splendor and Death of Joaquin Murrieta. Miller would read with interest the essay in Richard Rodriguez' collection, Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father in which a doubting Rodriquez writes of his trip to confront a human head in a jar. And he would scorn contemporary historian James D. Hart's dismissal of Murrieta as "probably simply another border ruffian" (274).

As a youngster, after traveling with his family to the West Coast in a wagon train from Indiana, Miller worked in the mines and lived among the Modocs on his way to becoming a poet. Like Robert Frost, he had to go to England to achieve first publication. He returned to the United States with a reputation as a man who had taken tea with the Queen.

Poems of Miller's, with their optimism, their regular meter and sonorous refrains, as well as their sharp social protest, held a place in the curriculum for the school children of his day. In "Columbus," the poet imagines an ongoing conversation between the good mate and the "Adm'r'l." At each crisis in the voyage the mate asks: What shall I say? What shall we do? And the Admiral's answer is always the same: On! Sail on! The form and dramatic situation, a crew member bringing a crisis to his superior, resemble Walt Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain." (Whitman was one of the few American writers to befriend Miller.) In "Resurgo San Francisco," the poet contemplates the rebuilding of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. Like a stern church father, he accuses San Francisco of bringing on its own ruin through its greedy ways-

Your prophets must not now forget:
Must not forget how you laid hold
This whole west world as all your own--…
The simple Mexican's broad lands
You coveted, thrust forth both hands,
Then bade Ramona plead her cause
In unknown language, unknown laws!

The reference to "Ramona" is shorthand for the plight of the California Indian made public through the writing of Helen Hunt Jackson, first in her book A Century of Dishonor and then in her more directly appealing, novelistic treatment of the same theme, Ramona (1884). Miller ends his poem with this taunting challenge to San Francisco: Who made your High Priest higher than/ The humblest, honest Chinaman?

Miller shared a dream with many early Californians-Bidwell, Sutter, London-that his most important work would be not merely the construction of lines, but the model of a new way of living. When he bought his 52 acres, historian Kevin Starr tells us, he "was planting the seed of a model city." In Miller's novel, The Building of the City Beautiful, protagonist John Morton dreams of building on the Oakland Hills overlooking the Golden Gate. Starr summarizes: "Through patient, Tolstoyan labor, Morton hopes to inspire the Bay Area to fill the hills that crowd the water's edge, not with commercially convenient lots, but with rhythmic sequences of landscaping and architecture." (290) In addition to his rustic monuments, Miller planted thousands of trees, eucalyptus, pine and oak, a legacy which is now completely taken for granted.

To most residents of Oakland, "Joaquin Miller" is the name of a picnic site, a location for music on summer nights, a route between Highway 13 and Skyline Drive. Although his plan to be cremated on the great funeral pyre was squashed by the city fathers, his ashes were scattered nearby. And so the park became an open-air, sunny mausoleum for this poet, pioneer, and nineteenth century champion of the multitude.

Joaquin Miller built this little house
which he called "The Abbey."

 

Works Cited:
Hart, James D. A Companion to California. New York: Oxford, 1978
Miller, Joaquin. The Poetical Works of Joaquin Miller. Stuart P. Sherman, editor. New York: Putnam's, 1923.
Starr, Kevin. Americans and the California Dream: 1850-1915. New York: Oxford, 1973

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