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

Lot 55

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Item 55. Joaquin Miller’s Life amongst the Modocs—“Regarded as Miller’s finest prose work, earning him praise for calling attention to the injustices perpetrated on the California Indians by the invading white man” (Kurutz).

55. MILLER, Joaquin [Cincinnatus Hiner] (1837-1913). Life amongst the Modocs: Unwritten History. London: Richard Bentley & Son, 1873. viii, 400 pp. 8vo, original brown cloth decorated and lettered in black on upper cover, spine gilt-lettered, beveled edges. Spine sunned, light shelf wear, internally very fresh, overall a very fine to fine copy, with printed book label of Thomas D. Murphy, contemporary pencil ownership inscription “H. W. Shield(?), 2 Hyde Park Gardens, London, W.” on front free endpaper, tipped-in typed slip at front “Robert J. Woods” (bibliophile, one of the essayists in the Zamorano 80 bibliography).
First edition, Blanck’s binding A (no sequence determined). BAL 13755. Cowan I, p. 154: “The author was an advocate of the cause of these Indians, and this work is in the best of his forceful, vigorous style.” Cowan II, p. 429. Howell 50, California 636. Howes M608. Huntington Library, Zamorano 80...Exhibition of Famous and Notorious California Classics 55. Norris 2471. Walker, A Literary History of Southern California, pp. 104-106; San Francisco’s Literary Frontier, pp. 345-46. Wright II:1710n. Zamorano 80 #55 (Phil Townsend Hanna): “When the London Athenaeum characterized the book as ‘monstrously dull,’ the poet in a letter told his critic ‘to his teeth that he is a liar, a cowrd (sic), and a cur.’” ($200-400)


Joaquin Miller ranks as one of California’s most colorful and best-known eccentrics. In many respects, he is better known for his Byronesque countenance, melodramatic ways, colorful nicknames, and picturesque dress than for his poetry and prose. Taking his first name from the feared bandit chief, Joaquín Murieta, the one-time lawyer, Indian fighter, poet, school teacher, horse thief, and newspaper editor demonstrated as well as anyone that in nineteenth-century California you could reinvent yourself over and over again. Cutting a dashing figure and dressed in stereotypical Western garb, he enthralled the pre-Raphaelite elite of England. He strutted through life proudly sporting such charming literary titles as “The Byron of the Rockies,” “The Poet of the Sierras,” and “The Byron of Oregon.”
Life amongst the Modocs is regarded as Miller’s finest prose work, earning him praise for calling attention to the injustices perpetrated on the California Indians by the invading white man. He dedicated his work “To the Red men of America.” His book was published just at the time the Modoc War raged in the lava beds, and for this reason, drew considerable interest. Part autobiography, part dime novel, part romance, Miller’s narrative describes his adventurous four years living in the wilds of northeastern California with the Klamath, Shasta, Modoc, and Pit River Indians. He also tells of his romance with Paquita, a Modoc who helped him escape from jail and was later murdered by soldiers. To further protect the Native Americans from harm, he promoted the idea of creating a wilderness utopia by establishing an Indian republic among these tribes. In many respects, Miller’s quasi-autobiography with its tender love story had more of a positive impact on improving the lot of the Indians than Jackson’s Ramona (q.v.). Showing advanced thinking for that era, Miller discerned how differently the Indian and miner treated the land that gave them a living. He wrote: “They do not smite the mountain rocks for gold nor fell the pines, nor roil up the waters and ruin them for the fishermen. All this magnificent forest is their estate.”
Life amongst the Modocs was first published in London, the scene of Miller’s international triumphs. The first American edition, issued by Mark Twain’s American Publishing Company of Hartford in 1874, included a “Publisher’s Announcement” warning potential readers that Miller’s friendly views toward the Native American “will not accord with those of many of our people.” It went on to say, “A view of the case from the Red Man’s stand point is a novel one.” The announcement, prominently located before the table of contents, hoped that its audience would look with sympathy “upon the doomed Indian.” To buttress this point, the publisher added the 1873 report of the commissioner of Indian Affairs. A popular work in the nineteenth century, Life amongst the Modocs was reprinted several times with variations in its title. The American Publishing Company in 1881, playing on the Indian sympathy angle, gave it a new title, Paquita, the Indian Heroine, with the following arresting subtitle: “A true story, wild and sad, overflowing with romance and adventure; and presenting graphic pictures of Indian home life in peace and war beheld by the author during his residence of four years among the Red Men.”
When the first American edition appeared, the San Francisco Daily Alta California reviewed the book and the Overland Monthly apparently ignored it. The London Athenaeum condemned the book as “monstrously dull.” The Alta reviewer accurately summed up the impact of the book, writing, “He likes to make a sensation, and he has made one.” The Alta praised its literary composition as “strongly dramatic in effect” and that it was a book the reader would not want to leave unfinished. According to Franklin Walker, the book did much to increase this self-proclaimed living legend’s popularity and it brought him a “pot of money” to boot. Walker further noted that the poet testified that Prentice Mulford had actually rewritten the book before publication and this heavy polishing accounted for its engaging style.
Because of its emphasis on the plight of the Native Americans, it was reprinted in 1968 by The Gregg Press as part of its American Novels of Muckraking, Propaganda, and Social Protest series.

——Gary F. Kurutz

Additional sources consulted: Benjamin S. Lawson, Joaquin Miller, Western Writers Series 43 (Boise: Boise State University, 1980), pp. 32-37; Franklin D. Walker, San Francisco’s Literary Frontier (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1939), pp. 341-47.

Item 55.

Item 55. Selected text from Life amongst the Modocs by “the Poet of the Sierras.”

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