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Auction 12: The Zamorano 80 Collection of Daniel G. Volkmann Jr.

Lot 1

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Item 1. Atherton’s Splendid Idle Forties—“The finest stories ever written about early California” (Hanna).

1. ATHERTON, Gertrude [Franklin Horn] (1857-1948). The Splendid Idle Forties. Stories of Old California.... New York & London: Macmillan & Co., 1902. vii [3] 389 pp., 8 halftone plates by Harrison Fisher. 8vo, original red pictorial cloth in gilt and colors. Spine slightly dark, joints rubbed, extremities lightly worn, corners bumped, a few minor spots to binding, lower hinge starting, occasional mild foxing (mainly affecting a few of the plates and adjacent leaves), overall very good, the lovely pictorial upper cover with mission and poppy motifs fine and bright. With Beatrice Simpson Volkmann’s pencil notations on front pastedown: “1st ed. Rummage Sale.” Armorial bookplate of Josselyn on front pastedown. On lower pastedown is the small printed cream pictorial label of San Francisco bookseller Robertson’s.
First edition thus (revised and enlarged edition of Before the Gringo Came, 1894). Baird-Greenwood 113. Barrett, Baja California 114n. Cowan I, p. 8. Cowan II, p. 23. Howell 50, California 969. Huntington Library, Zamorano 80...Exhibition of Famous and Notorious California Classics 1. Johnson, p. 23. LC, California Centennial 274. Norris 130. Notable American Women I, pp. 64-65. Powell, California Classics, pp. 103-14: “Atherton’s stories of love and death, bull and bear fights, moonlight meriendas, horse races and fancy dress balls, are increasingly meaningful and precious. They are truly classics of Californiana” Zamorano 80 #1 (Leslie E. Bliss): “Perhaps the best known collection of stories of that romantic period of California history when the incoming Americans were first intermingling with the Californians of rancho and presidio.” Lawrence Clark Powell (California Classics, p. 104) tells of trying to locate a copy and being told by a Boston bookseller who could not find one in his shop: “Don’t blame me.... It used to be a common book. Then some nuts out west got out a bibliography of what they claimed were the best books of Californiana, including The Splendid Idle Forties.” ($100-200)


As quoted by Lawrence Clark Powell, in his California Classics, bibliographer and historian Phil Townsend Hanna proclaimed Atherton’s Splendid Idle Forties as “the finest stories ever written about early California.” While agreeing with Hanna, Powell went on to remark: “Although romantic, mechanically plotted, and theatrical in characterization, they are nevertheless essentially faithful to history, landscape, and human motivation. They poignantly embody the drama of that crucial decade.” Her novel, along with Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona, gave us the popular and nostalgic Anglo-American view of Spanish California and its demise during the Gold Rush. As brought out in her novel, California, however, was not splendid for women as the ruling families and the church overly protected them, denied them worldly experience, and relegated them to subservient roles.
Atherton, along with Jack London, was California’s first native-born novelist to achieve international fame. Unlike London, she was born into and married into elite California families. Her husband, George, was the son of the wealthy pioneer, Faxon Dean Atherton. After launching her career as a writer, she rejected her native soil as too provincial and conservative and lived in London and New York. As related in her autobiography, Adventures of a Novelist (1932), Atherton was considering what to write next and happened upon a magazine article whose words caught her eye: “Why do California writers neglect the old Spanish life of that state? Never has there been anything more picturesque and romantic in the history of America, and it is a mine of wealth waiting for some bright genius to pan out.” At that moment, Atherton must have thought she had been struck by a literary lightning bolt. She turned her full attention back to California and hit pay dirt. Like Jackson’s preparation for Ramona, Atherton interviewed descendants of the California dons, visited the missions and towns from the old Spanish days, and read such poignant works as Dana’s Two Years before the Mast (q.v.) and Hittell’s massive four-volume History of California (q.v.). Her own family likewise provided much information. By the time she put pen to paper, she had a thorough command of the people, places, and events of the 1840s.
The novelist first published her stories in English magazines (she was rejected by American editors) and then as a single volume with eleven stories entitled Before the Gringo Came (J. Selvin Tair & Sons, 1894). “The Pearls of Loreto,” the longest story, was her favorite. A decade later she had a new publisher, Macmillan, who agreed to reprint eleven stories from the earlier edition plus two more. However, the sluggish sales of Before the Gringo Came caused her to worry that the original title had little appeal. In making the title change, she related that a critic, after reading one of her other novels, wrote: “‘Why doesn’t Mrs. Atherton give us more stories of the splendid idle forties?’ I immediately wrote my New York publisher to change the title of this book to The Splendid Idle Forties, which carried the stories to a long steady sale.” No doubt, too, the eye appeal of its spectacular pictorial binding and the “romance novel” style of illustrations by Harrison Fisher boosted sales. She dedicated the book to the Bohemian Club for placing its splendid library at her disposal. In 1915, Stokes of New York published an enlarged edition with the old, bothersome title, Before the Gringo Came.

—Gary F. Kurutz

Additional sources consulted: Gertrude Atherton, Adventures of a Novelist (New York: Liveright, 1932); Emily Wortis Leider, California’s Daughter: Gertrude Atherton (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991), pp. 111-12; Oscar Lewis, Preface to The Splendid Idle Forties: Six Stories of Spanish California (Kentfield: The Allen Press, 1960); Lawrence Clark Powell, California Classics (Los Angeles: The Ward Ritchie Press, 1971), pp. 103-114.

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