Beyond the Bear Paw Mountains: Charles Erskine Scott Wood's Literary Campaign for Freedom
"Hear me, my chiefs. [I am tired,]My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."
These are the final sentences of perhaps the most famous speech ever uttered by an American Indian, the surrender speech of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce on October 5, 1877. Chief Joseph's capitulation on that cold day at the foot of the Bear Paw Mountains, only fifty miles from Canada, also marks the beginning of the literary life of Charles Erskine Scott Wood, perhaps the most interesting man who ever lived in Portland. Chief Joseph's last speech is recorded in the handwriting of C.E.S. Wood but whether it was recorded at the moment of surrender, or whether the speech was delivered earlier by one of Joseph's braves and eloquently summarized by Wood is a matter of historical contention. What is clear is that at this moment, the incredible literary career of C.E.S. Wood begins.
During his long life (1852-1944) Wood wrote and published articles, essays, plays, stories (many under pseudonyms), satires, masques, poems (lyrics, epics, sonnet sequences and occasional verse) and a collection of Indian myths. Historian Edwin Bingham wrote of Wood: he "approached the Renaissance ideal of the universal man" and was a significant "force for cultural achievement and refinement in the Pacific Northwest." Wood was probably the most influential cultural figure in turn-of-the-century Portland, about whom Harry Corbett wrote, "the whole of Portland as it once was owes much of its culture to him and I doubt that even with the changes that have come on us you can erase real culture ingrained into the foundation of a city." Wood was a soldier, a lawyer, an orator, an bibliophile, a politician, a painter, a patron of the arts, a friend to the famous (John Reed, Emma Goldman, Mark Twain, Robinson Jeffers, Clarence Darrow) and a radical philosopher.
Wood's love affair with the West, which would become the passion of his prolific work, begins after graduation from West Point in 1874. An easterner, he is posted to Fort Bidwell in northern California, located on the fringe of the southeastern Oregon desert. Later in life, in a letter to Max Hayek, Wood reflects on the experience: "When I was a school-boy the map of the United States from the Missouri River west to the Rocky Mountains and beyond nearly to the Pacific Ocean was a blank space of pink paper, 'the Great American Desert.' ... When I graduated from West Point my first regimental station was on the edge of the desert. All of my Indian campaigns were in it. It means youth to me and the smell of sagebrush is the most delicious fragrance on earth, especially after a rain."
The desert, the American West, the wilderness, a less structured and freer environment than any found in the East—this is the backdrop to that day on October 5th, when Wood so lyrically records the words of Chief Joseph. His young psyche is already shaped by the West and when Wood begins to write and publish, in the decade after Joseph's surrender, among his first works is a vigorous defense of the great chief.
With a law degree from Columbia, Wood resigns his military position and moves his family to Portland. Through most of the 1880s and 1890s he is occupied with establishing his law career, specializing in maritime law with the firm of Durham and Ball. His wife Nanny Moale bears six children, one of whom dies at an early age.
The literary career begins slowly. Indian Tales is printed in a limited edition, a collection of Indian myths (mostly Tlinklit, Klamathand Nez Perce) thatWood gathered as a soldier. In a preface he writes, "Here begin these tales heard in canoe, on horseback or by the camp-fire and told in all faith and simple belief by children of nature." Wood will spend the rest of his life working out themes suggested here, in particular the association' of freedom with wilderness and the fundamental importance of human love. Both themes are suggested in "The Tale of Shshauni and Susshupkin" in Indian Tales.
As the century turns, Wood's literary energy grows; he begins a long, somewhat mysterious, relationship with The Pacific Monthly, a Portland magazine of ideas, culture and politics. Wood contributes poetry, book reviews, a monthly column called "lmpressions"-and, under a variety of pseudonyms (Orrin Seaman, Felix Benquiat, Francis du Bosque), short stories. His first political piece for the magazine recommends giving the Philippines their independence. The short stories, not generally considered his strongest medium, show the influence of Arabian Nights in their sensual and naturaldetail and also exemplify Wood's evolving philosophy of social anarchism. As in "The Tale of Shshuani and Susshupkin," freedom and love emerge as the writer's major themes.
About this same time, Wood publishes a work of genuine power, A Masque of Love. Here Wood attempts to understand the relationship of love, freedom and marriage. Three different tales make up the book: an idyllic, classical love story; a tragic and stormy tale of adultery and murder; and a philosophical pastoral. It is in the latter that Wood presents his evolving notion of love:
There is a love which binds these pretty wrens. A hot desire. Great Nature's spur-mere mating. It is passing. It breeds and there's the end. Great Nature's turn is served. The race will live. But there's a love of minds. A melting of Twin Souls. An endless high companionship. 'Tis folly to bind fast this only breeding love. As well decree eternal mating of these wrens. But when 'tis intermingled with this ever- growing marriage of the soul, there is a union needs no law to bless.
The first years of the twentieth century continue to find Wood writing with full energy. He begins a series of Christmas verses, printing them himself and giving them as gifts, a practice he will continue for two decades. All are imprinted with Wood's evolving social philosophy: one attacks munitions makers, another presents Christ as a pacifist. These notions will reappear in full fury in a major work, Heavenly Discourse. For the present, Wood calls his verses "sarcasm and propaganda." But the verses contain softer edges as well:
The greatest gift upon which all Christmas centers is love. It costs nothing; it is not purchasable; it asks no repayment. We are giving you this love, dear friends, and this is all we ask in return. Do not give us anything of greater value than your love. Indeed you cannot-and that leaves no obligation except to love in return.
The second decade of the twentieth century is the most tumultuous in Wood's life. Nearing sixty and beginning to look like a white-bearded prophet of the Old Testament, Wood falls deeply in love with Sara Bard Field, poet and suffragette (half of the "we" in the previous quotation), retires from law for good, leaves his wife, leaves Portland-but also writes the two works for which he will be best remembered.
Two historical events add to Wood's turmoil: the material: exploitation and social stratification of the west, and World War I. Wood is incensed by both and makes no bones about it. Yet somehow Wood becomes less the propagandist now: it is as if his affair with Sara, long discreet, finally forces action, to enact his belief in the freedom to love as love itself wills. With Sara, Wood reaches his full stature as a writer and a man.
They meet in 1911, introduced by Clarence Darrow. She is twenty-six and the wife of Albert Ehrgott, a Baptist minister. Wood and Sara become fast friends, relishing in the talk of books and progressive politics. In his private office (apart from his law offices), Sara begins to read the writings that Wood keeps in a chest. One long poem in particular interests Sara, called "Civilization," a poem that Wood had written while in eastern Oregon overseeing land owned by the great financier, Lazard Freres. Sara urges Wood to continue working the poem: at her urging, he compresses the passages of propaganda, and together they rework the poem for several years.
The finished poem, The Poet in the Desert, is published in 1915. Harriet Monroe reviews it in Poetry magazine the same year, balking at Wood's "social righteousness" but praising the poem's "orchestral richness." Anarchist Emma Goldman, a friend of Wood, sells a revised paperback version at rallies until she is deported to Russia in 1919. Later, in 1929, in an anti-imperialist pique, Wood revises the poem again, and it is published by Vanguard Press. But it is the 1918 version that appears, finally, in his Collected Poems (1949).
The Poet in the Desert is C.E.S. Wood's epic attempt to invoke the powers of poetry, of heightened speech, to define and resolve the issue of human suffering. In a sense, he is back on Bear Paw Mountain with Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce, trying to redeem their suffering and the injustice of their situation through the grace and strength of impassioned language. This Whitmanesque pastoral is set in the richly personified and emblematic Oregon desert and contains over fifty sections, resembling psalms that alternate between rhapsody and invective, lyricism and propaganda, the religious and the revolutionary, orthodoxy and heresy. The poem incorporates Christian archetypes, biblical rhetoric and a transcendental cosmology grounded in freedom and love to redeem a misguided mankind.
The poem begins with an invocatory prologue, passages of which appeared in several anthologies of the era. Here are the opening lines:
I have entered into the desert,
The place of desolation.
I have come to the great immutable one
In her sanctuary.
She sits on a throne of Light,
Her hands serenely clasped;
Her lips tranquil as Dawn;
Her eyes solemnly questioning.
I have come to the lean and stricken Land,
Which is defiant and fears not God,
That I may meet my soul face to face;
Naked as the Desert is naked;
Bare as the great Silence is bare.
In her review, Harriet Moore singles out the "magnificence" and
"impassioned beauty" of the prologue.
Wood's desert, in typical late Romantic excess, is personified as a shape-shifting and sensual woman whose voice is Truth. Some of the poem's sections are presented as a dialogue between Truth (the wisdom of nature) and the Poet, a technique Wood will use later in Heavenly Discourse.
Greed and idolatry are the causes of human suffering, according to Truth. A mammon-moloch "monster" made of gold, but with a heart of clay and a "swollen belly," sits on a "crimson pedestal " (the blood of men) resting "upon a great darkness" (ignorance). This monster "sits within a golden temple" crowded with idolators who pray, "0, God of Gold, let nothing be changed." Tothis prayer, Truth responds: "Change is the breathing of the Universe / Sacredness is Nature's scorn; Idolatry her contempt." This belief, expressed in one of Wood's finest lines, is central to the poem.
Wood's perception of the role of nature in illuminating man's /' life suggests Emerson's essay "Nature": "Nature is made to con_ spire with spirit to emancipate us." "I will be my own moralist I And nature shall lead me," Wood writes. What is essential here is that the condition of nature is freedom. We are reminded of Wood as a boy, staring at the blank space of pink paper on a map of the United States, the great American desert. Love, too, must be free. Thus Wood condemns both prostitution ("beautiful women...sell the godhood of their bodies") and marriage: "Nature has named Love holy. / But man has mumbled his fetish marriage / Holier than love."
Wood focuses on the problem in Section XXIX, a turning point in the poem:
This is the pedigree of Degradation:
Authority, father of Laws;
Laws, father of Privilege;
Privilege, father of Poverty;
Poverty, father of Degradation
I am a reaper of disordered fields,
And the sheaves which I gather are
Despair, drunkenness, crime, hate, ugliness,
Churches, jails, palaces of the idle rich,
And filthy nests of the debased poor;
Tormenting pain , unsatisfied longings,
A killing hunger of the body;
The hunger of the soul denied.
The disorder of human society is that authority has destroyed freedom by enacting laws that create privilege, inequality and injustice. Again, we hear echoes of Wood's experience with the Nez Perce. In an order of 1873, President U.S. Grant gave the Wallowa Mountains "as a reservation for the roaming Nez Perce Indians." But the white settlers refused to leave the valley, and the Wallowas were reopened to them in 1875; the Nez Perce War quickly followed. And Wood, a young lieutenant from West Point, is witness to it all.
In the desert, the Poet learns some difficult lessons. The only
way he can rise above the greed and idolatry that breeds injustice is to "carve God out of myself." This insight leads to a strong, visionary and revolutionary passage:
Nature has laid her finger on her lips.
Night and day she teaches that Beauty is her state,
Silence her delight,
And Freedom her condition.
After Man has shouted his cries
And fretted the air with his clamor,
Lo, he lies down, also, to the great Silence,
And is gathered up again by the patient roots
Into larger beauty.
Another major theme in the poem is the recognition of man's essentially minor place in the cosmos. Besides validating and strengthening Wood's major focus, this perception leads to several sections on "Death, perfecter of Life," which in turn move into several powerful antiwar sections, leading back finally to Bear Paw Mountain once again:
I have lived with my brown brothers
Of the wilderness
And found them a mystery.
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
Nature whispered to them her secrets,
But passed me by.
hey instructed my civilization.
Stately and full of wisdom
Thunder rolling in the mountains; Joseph,
Chief of the Nez Perce;
Who, in five battles, from the Clearwater
To Bear Paw Mountains,
Made bloody protest against Perfidy and Power.
The poem rolls on into a plea to the young to resist the idolatry of patriotism and to "take war by the throat, young soldier, / And wring from his blood-frothed lips / The answer—why?" "Everywhere," Wood writes elsewhere, "war blotted out love"—and it is Love, with Freedom, that reigns supreme in the poet's moral universe.
The Poet in the Desert is a call to action, a clarion call to end the evils of exploitation and war through the enactment of anarchism and freedom. C.E.S. Wood believes in the power of poetry to instigate social and political change, even as he recognizes that he is fighting a losing battle. In a letter he writes that he has
ridden, in the course of my campaigns, over this country from the Rockies to the Pacific, a country which was then scarcely inhabited , and I have seen that vast domain, water, timber, minerals, and arable land, taken by the few with the aid of Congress and secured to their heirs and assigns forever by that relic of the Middle Ages-the fee simple deed. There is not a place for the common man in the covered wagon.
Before Wood's own eyes, the West changes from a great blank space of pink on the map to a vivisection of fiefdoms and prison camps known as reservations. His response is The Poet in the Desert, powerfully presented, figuratively splendid, aurally delicious, humanistically resonant (though occasionally stilted and undeniably Victorian), a poem that weds Wood's transcendental sense of nature, his Whitmanesque faith in freedom, his New Testament sense of justice, his progressive attitude toward love, his revolutionary politics; a poem that pleas, as Chief Joseph's last speech pleas, for justice and a world without war, where men are free to roam into love, into joy, into a new world.
The only thing missing from The Poet in the Desert and from most of Wood's writing is a sense of humor. But humor is not missing from the poet's personality (Alfred Powers in History of Oregon Literature refers to Wood as "the merriest of men") and Wood finally gets the opportunity to express this part of himself in his work. Around 1912, having taken over editorship of The Masses, Max Eastman invites Wood to contribute to the magazine, emphasizing that "the magazine lacked any expression of humor." Wood responds with a series of satirical dialogues set in heaven, with a God whose views match Wood's and a supporting cast that includes various angels and many of Wood's literary and philosophical heros, including Voltaire, Tom Paine, Rabelais, Mark Twain, Robert Ingersoll, Margaret Fuller, Socrates and—foremost of all—Jesus, the Jesus of the Beatitudes, who is a poet, dreamer, optimist and quiet rebel, the same Jesus Wood puts in his Christmas verse. Contemporary figures also appear in these biting satires: Teddy Roosevelt, Elihu Root, Anthony Comstock, Billy Sunday and Charles Evan Hughes. And, of course, the Devil himself, promoter of war, greed and idolatry, whom Wood had written about before: "I saw the Devil in his playground / Leading his legions, who hopped gleefully about / And danced above a bloody chaos, / Shrieking with laughter" (The Poet in the Desert). Only eight of Wood's satires are published before The Masses is suppressed in 1916 for its opposition to U.S. involvement in World War I. But Wood, the late-blooming satirist, keeps writing them. Eleven years later, in 1927, Vanguard Press publishes them as Heavenly Discourse and the book becomes a bestseller. Critics call Wood's gift Rabelaisian, Voltairean; he is compared to Aristophanes, Lucian, Swift, Anatole France and George Bernard Shaw. By 1929, the collection of cosmic satire is in its thirty-first printing; it is still in print in the 1950s. Stanley Burnshaw calls it the "only major work of humanistic satire born out of America."
Wood has a wonderful time. He has gone after all his favorite targets but now has a large audience. There are forty satires in Heavenly Discourse, and they focus on the stupidity of war, the contradictions of imperialism and the inanities of Christian fundamentalism. Along the rough-and-tumble way, Wood takes shots at prohibition, censorship, Puritanism, private property, prudery, birth control, prayer, Sacco and Vanzetti, papal infallibility, revolution and England's general strike of 1926.
God is the central figure in the discourse. He is a kind fellow who would prefer to watch his universe evolve according to "eternal conditions out of which all things create themselves and grow. " But here's the rub: Earth, "that little pill," keeps sending up troubled, foolish, martyred souls, much to God's irritation. The People of Jesus' Earth keep doing such stupid things, such as waging war, holding patriotic rallies, passing laws of censorship and prohibition. One of Wood's favorite targets is Anthony Comstock, a powerful moral censor of the era and founder of the Society for the Suppression of Vice. In "Anthony Comstock in Heaven," Peter interrupts God's contemplation to tell him, "there is a soul just outside the gate cutting the most ridiculous capers." God has Peter send out a party to "shoo him in." The dialogue continues:
GOD: Can't you talk to him?
ST. PETER: Not till he can find the rag of a cloud to wrap about his middle.
GOD: What does he say then?
ST. PETER: Says he is naked.
ST. PETER: Says he is naked.
GOD: Well, by myself, did he expect to bring his trunk with him?
There are many such moments in Heavenly Discourse. In one Billy Sunday tries to convert heaven to Christianity by holding a red-hot revival meeting; in another, Teddy Roosevelt enters heaven shouting patriotic slogans and tries to organize the angels into an army to take over the universe in the name of democracy and Christianity; in a third, monkeys complain that the theory of evolution, linking them to mankind, is ruining their reputation: "we monkeys have always been a decent people-we haven't made any wars or oppressed anybody. " The list goes on and on.
To this day, Heavenly Discourse can make people laugh out loud. Its Rabelaisian mixture of wit and wisdom still rings true. But throughout its time of popularity, Wood is disappointed that The Poet in the Desert cannot attract a large audience as well. And, of course, the prolific Wood keeps writing: a collection of essays called Too Much Government; a sequel to his satire, called Earthly Discourse; other works. Nothing, however, matches the statement of The Poet in the Desert.
Wood spends the last years of his life in a way consistent with his philosophy. He and Sara retire to a hillside home called "The Cats" in Los Gatos, California, a home they design and landscape together, even as Sara was the influential editorial voice behind Wood's masterpiece. They spend quiet hours reading, writing, entertaining friends and-in lofty disdain of the Volstead Act-making their own wine. When C.E.S. Wood dies peacefully on January 22, 1944, sixty-seven years after that cold, gray day at the foot of the Bear Paw Mountains, he is the oldest graduate of West Point-and a pacifist.
This essay was published in Sweet Reason: A Journal of Ideas, History & Culture 5, a publication of the Oregon Committee for the Humanities, in the fall of 1986 (Charles Deemer, ed.). I have made a few minor changes in the interests of accuracy.