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

Lot 47

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Item 47. King’s Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada—“King was the first to climb the Sierra Nevada, and the first to write of the range in sunlight and storm”(Powell).

47. KING, Clarence (1842-1901). Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada. Boston: James R. Osgood and Company, 1872. [6] 292 pp. 12mo, original green cloth, gilt-lettered spine, beveled edges. Lightly rubbed and some outer wear (spine buckled, spinal extremities frayed), interior very fine, overall a very good copy, with contemporary ink ownership inscription (Wm. Martin, Port Richmond, Staten Island, New York).
First edition, first issue, publisher’s monogram on title, stereotyper’s notice not present. Cowan I, p. 130. Cowan II, p. 328. Currey & Kruska, Yosemite 224. Edwards, Enduring Desert, p. 143. Farquhar, Yosemite 12a. Holliday 608. Howell 50, California 568. Howes K148. Huntington Library, Zamorano 80...Exhibition of Famous and Notorious California Classics 47. Libros Californianos, pp. 54-55 (Powell commentary): “The book consists of sketchy memories of his work in the Sierra with the California Survey, and affords a delightfully intimate view of the first extended exploration of the Sierra, and of California in that transitionary period that follows the gold-rush. King was an extraordinarily intelligent man, and wrote with a facility that gave his book a literary superiority”; p. 70 (Hanna list): “The classic in books on American mountaineering by one who knew the Sierra long before the automobile and summer vacationist penetrated its sequestered depths.” Neate, Mountaineering and Its Literature 420: “The great mountain classic of the U.S.A.” Norris 1950. Powell, California Classics, pp. 128-41. Walker, San Francisco’s Literary Frontier, pp. 286-90. Zamorano 80 #47. ($400-800)


Franklin D. Walker, in San Francisco’s Literary Frontier, described King’s book as “probably the most exciting book ever written about mountain-climbing.” James D. Hague, in writing an appreciation of the geologist for the December 28, 1901, New York Evening Post, praised his book calling it “a work of rare literary excellence and charm, in which the lofty scientific view of Tyndall as a mountain climber seems blended with the keen and witty perception of Bret Harte as a social observer, merging the sublime and the ridiculous with exquisite taste and fascinating grace.” As pointed out by Sierra Nevada historian and bibliographer, Francis P. Farquhar, it was the only nonofficial account resulting from the activities of Josiah D. Whitney’s California State Geological Survey. Mountaineering is indeed a true classic of Californiana, nature writing, and mountaineering.
A graduate of the Sheffield Scientific School at Yale, King came to the West in 1863, and by a chance encounter, met fellow Sheffield graduate Professor William H. Brewer (q.v.) on a boat on the Sacramento River. Recognizing talent, the professor offered him a job with the State Geological Survey under Dr. Whitney. For the next several years, King and colleagues explored much of the Sierra and the Mt. Shasta region. He named geologic formations in honor of the survey’s boss. King also achieved much fame in scientific circles for the geological exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, and in 1872, for uncovering in Wyoming the sensational mineral fraud known as the Great Diamond Hoax.
While in California, King’s literary talent emerged around the campfire, and in October 1870, Bret Harte’s Overland Monthly accepted his “The Falls of the Shoshone.” In 1871, James D. Fields of the Atlantic Monthly heard King speak and was so charmed by the geologist that he invited him to contribute “sporting articles” to this widely-circulated magazine. These sketches describing his adventures scaling Mt. Whitney, Mt. Shasta, Mt. Tyndall, and surveying the Yosemite Valley and surrounding high country later became chapters in Mountaineering. His articles are packed with sublime descriptions of scenery, rock climbing, and winter and summer storms. King possessed that rare talent of explaining hard science in lyrical terms, allowing general readers to share the adventure and not become smothered in an avalanche of geologic jargon. Perhaps inspired by Harte’s mining camp tales, King also penned three fictionalized articles based on his mountain rambles: “Kaweah’s Run,” “The Newtys of Pike,” and “Cut-Off Couples.” As explained by Farquhar, these stories all “may be regarded as interludes in which the fancy has been allowed untrammeled freedom.”
The Boston firm of James R. Osgood published King’s Atlantic articles in book form in 1872. Following a typical marketing strategy, that same year an English edition under the imprint of Sampson Low, Marston, Lowe & Searle appeared. Initially well-received, and printed with electrotype plates by Welch, Bigelow & Company, it was reprinted two more times before Osgood published a true new American edition in 1874. Its bibliographic history has been brilliantly charted by Francis P. Farquhar in his Yosemite, Big Trees, and High Sierra and in the 1935 W. W. Norton & Company edition.
Upon publication, Mountaineering received positive reviews in a number of national magazines, comparing King to John Burroughs, Washington Irving, Francis Parkman, Richard Henry Dana (q.v.), and other literary giants. Theodore Solomons in the Overland Monthly pronounced it “the first real literature on the Sierras” and Gertrude Atherton proclaimed it an “impeccable classic.” In contrast, King himself described Mountaineering as “a slight book of travel,” and others criticized his tendency to exaggerate. Later scholars including Wallace Stegner, James D. Hart, Lawrence Clark Powell, and Kevin Starr all sing the praises of Mountaineering. One of the laments concerning Clarence King is that the talented scientist did not pursue writing more jewels of mountaineering and travel literature.

——Gary F. Kurutz

Additional sources consulted: Francis P. Farquhar, Preface to Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1935); Lawrence Clark Powell, California Classics (Los Angeles: The Ward Ritchie Press, 1971), pp. 128-41; James M. Shebl, King, of the Mountains (Stockton: Pacific Center for Western Historical Studies, 1974); Kevin Starr, Americans and the California Dream (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), pp. 179-81; Franklin D. Walker, San Francisco’s Literary Frontier (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1939), pp. 286-90; Thurman Wilkins, Clarence King: A Biography (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1958), pp. 132-49.

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