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

Lot 24

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Item 24. Cummins’s The Story of the Files—“The first serious attempt at a survey history of California journalism and literature” (Kurutz).

24. CUMMINS, Ella Sterling [Mighels] (1853-1934). The Story of the Files: A Review of Californian Writers and Literature...Issued under the Auspices of the World’s Fair Commission of California, Columbian Exposition, 1893. [San Francisco: Co-Operative Printing Co.], 1893. [6, ads] 460 [3, ads] pp., frontispiece, plates, numerous text illustrations (including halftone portraits), 2 errata sheets tipped in. 8vo, original brown pictorial boards, beveled edges, decorated endsheets. Fragile binding lightly rubbed, chipped, and with a few splits (mainly at spine and joints), overall a very good copy of a fragile book, interior very fine.
First edition. Cowan I, p. 61: “The material in this work is an exceedingly valuable collection, which, with the numerous portraits, could never again be regathered.” Cowan II, p. 152. Holliday 253. Howell 50, California 403. Huntington Library, Zamorano 80...Exhibition of Famous and Notorious California Classics 24. Norris 907. Rocq 17027. Streeter Sale 3014. Walker, A Literary History of Southern California, p. 167; San Francisco’s Literary Frontier, pp. 360-61. Zamorano 80 #24. See Hart, Companion to California, p. 271. ($100-200)


In 1919, the California State Legislature recognized Ella Cummins as the first “Historian of Literary California.” The Story of the Files, her major work, is the first serious attempt at a survey history of California journalism and literature, and preserves much information that would otherwise have been lost because of the cataclysmic 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire. Her documentation of forty years of literary development served as a foundation for such later works as Franklin Walker’s San Francisco’s Literary Frontier. While modern scholarship has superceded much of her research, The Story of the Files is packed with still-useful information, is beautifully written, and reflects the opinions of someone who lived the times.
Ella Cummins was indeed well qualified for the task. In the prelude to her book she wrote, “But the writer, who was born in the mines, cradled in a gold-rocker, and grew up in a quartz-mill, knew many of these shadows [meaning writers] as living realities, from her childhood, and honored and adored them. Thus it has become a labor of love.” An accomplished journalist, she began work on what eventually became The Story of the Files when writing for the San Francisco Wasp in 1891. During the course of time, she corresponded with and interviewed scores of California authors, gathering the raw data for her articles. As she revealed, she yielded to the gentle pressure to assemble her research into book form as part of the California exhibit at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exhibition. In so doing, she covered just about every figure and literary event in the state’s post–Gold Rush history beginning with that pioneer publication, The Golden Era.
She centered her study of the publications themselves with chapters, for example, entitled the “Overland [Monthly] School,” “Writers of the Sage Brush School,” and “The Argonaut School.” For each topic, she included short, useful profiles of the various writers. Her book included excellent summaries of the early magazines and newspapers that made California such a remarkable land of letters. She devoted entire chapters to such giants of the California scene as H. H Bancroft, Henry George, Ambrose Bierce, and “the incomparable three”: Mark Twain, Bret Harte, and Joaquin Miller. Importantly, her profiles recorded the contributions of dozens of now minor short story writers, novelists, poets, and journalists. As a woman laboring in a restrictive nineteenth-century man’s world, she was keenly aware of the limitations put on her gender and emphasized the role of women throughout her text. She even added a chapter called “Literature as a Profession for Women.” Taking advantage of the new technology of her times, her book was amply illustrated with over one hundred halftone photographs of her subjects.
In addition to compiling and writing this work of reference, Cummins (later married to Henry H. Mighels), wrote six other books, including two novels; an anthology, Literary California (1918); and an autobiography, Life and Letters of a Forty-Niner’s Daughter (1929); and edited her father’s Gold Rush diary, How Many Miles to St. Jo? (1929).
The Story of the Files originally sold for $2.00 a copy in a leatherette binding with a California poppy decoration on the front cover and was marketed to libraries. In 1982 Yosemite Collections of San Leandro published a facsimile edition of 500 copies with an introduction by Oscar Lewis.

——Gary F. Kurutz

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