The Poet's Cabin: Joaquin Miller
photo credit: Library of Congress
You are visiting Washington, DC. It is 1884, and you’ve
been convinced to travel to the outskirts of the city, two miles beyond
the nearest streetcar line to satisfy your literary curiosity. You have
heard that Joaquin Miller, the Poet of the Sierras, the Byron of the
West, has built himself a log cabin here and dubbed it “a little
edge of God’s rest.”
You arrive in the Arlington Heights neighborhood (where Meridian Hill
Park is today) and sure enough, you see a cabin under a circle of oak
trees. Someone has hung elk skins and bows and arrows on the outside,
which is otherwise unadorned and unpainted, the bark from the logs,
peeling. As you wade through the tall grass on your way to the front
door, you notice a man in the entry way, watching you approach. He stands
statuesque with a bear skin over one shoulder, the same bearskin, he
will later assure you, that has been handled and admired by Queen
Victoria, Princess Alexandria, and the Shah
of Persia (Marberry 178-80). Entering, you are intrigued, and
he, though a self-professed hermit, heartily enjoys the attention and
company. His wardrobe captures your imagination. (Perhaps you’d
like the bearskin as a souvenir? he asks.) His voice is mesmerizing.
He tells you of his life among the Modocs in California and the Indian
wars, when a near-fatal arrow pierced his jaw. In the next breath, he
tells you of his travels to England and introductions to Alfred,
Lord Tennyson, Anthony Trollope and Edward
John Trelawney, his friendship with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and others of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, and a fantastic story
of a reception in a castle with the Queen herself (Marberry 103).
* * * *
Joaquin Miller had a short residency in the nation’s capital between
1883 and 1886, moving to DC originally as part of a compromise with
his second wife, Abbie. Abbie, a hotel heiress and New Yorker, loved
city life, while Joaquin found urban environments sterile, barren of
the Muse. Only weeks after his move, the social scene in Washington
proved just as discouraging to Miller, and his marriage broke up, Abbie
moving back to New York, and Miller eagerly breaking ground for his
cabin. Between visits with friends, poets, and statesmen, Joaquin put
together a new book, Memorie and Rime, published in 1884, a
collection of verse and diary entries with titillating name-dropping
from his early London trip (Marberry 182). Perhaps he was disappointed
that a dream of a prestigious political appointment was not fulfilled,
or perhaps, he simply grew homesick for the West, but Miller’s
DC cabin was really the last stop on Joaquin’s path to his final
and most harmonious home, the Hights, high in the hills above Oakland,
California. There he entertained guests, celebrating Nature and literature
while cultivating his storyteller’s drama until his death in 1913.
It was at the Hights in 1892 that Joaquin Miller composed the poem he
is most famous for today, “Columbus,” in honor of the 400th
anniversary of the discovery of the Americas. “Columbus”
became Joaquin Miller’s signature poem, a popular choice for childhood
recitations for several decades. The poem closes:
Then, pale and worn, he kept his deck,
.......And peered through darkness. Ah,
Of all dark nights! And then a speck—
.......A light! A light! A light! A light!
It grew, a starlit flag unfurled!
.......It grew to be Time’s burst
He gained a world; he gave that world
.......Its grandest lesson: “On!
The refrain throughout the poem: “Sail on, sail
on, sail on, and on!” matches Joaquin Miller’s lust for
travel and his literary perseverance. His fame via Columbus is nearly
ironic, for creating an accurate biography of Joaquin Miller today is
as difficult as presenting a sympathetic portrait of Columbus. Legend
tended to overwhelm fact in both cases, making culling the truth from
the fiction especially difficult and, at times, controversial.
Joaquin Miller was born Cincinnatus Hiner Miller
in 1837 on a farm near Liberty, Indiana, though he often subtracted
five years from his age, recording his birth as 1841 or 1842. As a young
man, he changed his name to Joaquin (wah’-keen) after
the famous Mexican bandit Joaquin Murietta, and at
some time later in his life his middle name, Hiner, took on the spelling
and pronunciation of the famous German Romantic poet’s, Heinrich
Heine. As for his famously poetic declaration, “My cradle was
a covered wagon, pointed West,” Miller was fourteen years old
before he made that expedition over the Rockies to Oregon Territory.
(No one will argue that Miller liked to bend the truth, and the charm
of his fibs pleased many, though it must have aggravated more talented
writers who could not profit from Miller’s king-sized dose of
charisma.) In 1854, the first poems may be found in his journal (Frost
20), and soon after, bored with his family’s life in Oregon, a
teenaged Miller traveled to California to seek his fortune in gold.
He cooked for a mining camp for a short time and is said to have given
himself scurvy by eating only his own cooking. On that same adventure,
he became involved in the Indian wars in the McCloud River region of
California near Mount Shasta and at points was captured and interrogated
by both Indians and settlers. Then in late 1857, he returned to Eugene
City, most likely at the request of his parents, to attend school at
Columbia College. Although Miller inferred on more than one occasion
that he had graduated, in reality he spent only two or three months
at the college before it burnt to the ground (Frost 26).
Joaquin Miller spent ten more adventurous years on his beloved west
coast before he ventured east. For a short time he returned to California
and was said to have married an Indian woman there and had two children.
(One child, Cali-Shasta, was sought out by Miller 14
years later, after her mother’s death, and raised by Ina
Coolbrith in San Francisco [Frost, Chapt. 1 notes].) Later,
he worked as a surveyor, returned to his family’s Oregon home,
studied law, taught school, and for a short time practice law in Oro
Fino, Idaho before giving that up for the excitement of riding with
the Pony Express. He was a partner in the business when it was bought
by Wells Fargo in 1862, and with his earnings he returned to Eugene
City, bought his parents a home and invested the rest of his money in
The Eugene City Democratic Register, becoming an editor (Frost
29). Amid all the excitement, Miller fell in love with and married a
young poet named Minnie Myrtle, also known as Theresa Dyer,
and they had three children. Also in the 1860’s, he began to practice
law again and was eventually elected Judge of Grant County, Oregon,
serving from 1866 to 1869 (Frost 11).
In 1869, as Miller was giving stump speeches arguing that he should
become a Supreme Court Justice, his marriage fell apart. This new turn
of events combined with his literary dreams to lead him first to San
Francisco, where he gained valuable encouragement and a theatrical fashion
sense, and then on to London, where his reputation as an American writer
and eccentric was confirmed.
People in London were fascinated by the frontiersman poet, the Byron
of the Rockies, the Wild West poet. According to Marberry’s biography
of Miller, Miss Lily Langtry exhibited the curiosity
common among Londoners as she related her understanding of Joaquin:
“He had lived a life adventuresome….He ran away from school
to mine for gold, he had been adopted by the Indians, imprisoned for
some imaginary offence, had escaped from jail by the aid of an Indian
girl, swam a river with her to freedom, and married her—all before
twenty.” He loved an audience, and good whiskey. He dressed the
part, complete with spurs and sombrero, when the mood struck him, and
of course, his famous bear skin. And while in London, Joaquin Miller
managed to publish several volumes of his own poetry, one, Songs
of the Sierras, to critical acclaim.
Some American writers who joined Joaquin in London found his habits
pompous and unnerving. Even some London critics refused to yield to
the intrigue of his posing. However, Miller seemed to weather most criticism,
as tenaciously as Columbus in his poem. He did not give up hope. He
sailed on! Miller clearly enjoyed the voyage, despite its perils. Others’
disdain for his self-promotion was not sufficient to tip his boat. Songs
of the Sierras sold very well in England.
Even writers who were generally friendly with Miller could not overlook
his unconventional habits and unlikely fame, however. Mark Twain
wrote of Miller’s behavior in London:
He was affecting the picturesque and untamed costume
of the wild Sierras at the time, to the charmed astonishment of conventional
London. He and Trollope talked all the time, and both at the same
time. Trollope pouring forth a smooth and limpid and sparkling stream
of faultless English, and Joaquin discharging into it his muddy and
tumultuous mountain torrent—well there was never anything just
like it except the Whirlpool Rapids under Niagara Falls (Marberry
Brett Harte, who first met Joaquin
Miler as a young writer in San Francisco, tended to be jealous and disparaging,
and even Walt
Whitman championed and defended by Miller and a kind friend
to Joaquin throughout his life, was said to have admitted in 1881, “Miller
never did quite the work I expected him to do” (Marberry 145).
photo credit: Library of Congress
Critics in America rejected Songs of the Sierras but the public
still loved Joaquin Miller, so when his welcome wore thin in England,
he moved back to the states, though he visited England a number of times
in the 1870’s. In New York, he tried his hand at drama and prose
and he met his new love, Abbie Leland. They married
in 1879 and had one child, Juanita. But within three
years of his nuptials, the poet’s urge to “sail on”
set in again. Joaquin tried to convince his wife that they needed to
leave the city in favor of a lyric wilderness, in the name of preserving
his creative energy. Dead set against moving her family to the West
to raise her child ”in a dirty lean-to” (Marberry 177),
Abbie did finally acquiesce, agreeing to try a shorter move, a move
to Washington, DC, where although their attempts to cohabitate failed,
Miller Cabin was born.
* * * *
When Joaquin Miller left DC, most sources agree that he gave his cabin
to a friend, who in turn gave it to the Sierra Club. Then in 1913 the
cabin was carefully disassembled at the urging of the California State
Association and moved to its current location in Rock Creek Park, near
the intersection of Beach Drive and Military Road, where it is now the
property of the National Park Service. By and by, another Miller found
inspiration in the cabin. From 1931 through the 1950’s, Pherne
Miller, Joaquin’s niece, leased the cabin from the Parks
Department, and there she gave art classes and sold soft drinks and
Today Joaquin Miller’s Washington Cabin is tightly sealed and
in need of some repair. Nonetheless, Tuesday evenings in June and July
at 7:30 PM, it is the site of a long-lived poetry reading series. The
Joaquin Miller Cabin Reading Series begins its 33rd year this summer.
Poetry by the cabin lives on! Gathered at picnic tables and in camp
chairs beside the cabin, audiences gather to listen to local and nationally-known
poets read their word. The reading series—developed and sustained
by the literary non-profit, The Word Works, and nurtured especially
by The Word Works president, Karren
Alenier and its beloved host, the late Jacklyn
Potter—is a fitting tribute to the man whose imagination
championed exploration and whose legendary tales and exploits brought
the West to the East. I like to imagine him standing in the doorway,
listening, proud of the good fortune his handy-work has brought the
nation’s capital, and perhaps hatching a plan to crash the reception
and sell another authentic bearskin rug.
Ah! there be souls none understand;
Like clouds, they cannot touch the land.
Unanchored ships, they blow and blow,
Sail to and fro, and then go down
In unknown seas that none shall know,
Without one ripple of renown.
Call these not fools, the test of worth
Is not the hold you have of earth.
Ay, there be gentlest souls sea-blown
That know not any harbor known.
Now it may be the reason is,
They touch on fairer shores than this.
Frost, O.W., Joaquin Miller,
Twayne’s United States Authors Series, College and University
Marberry, M.M., Splendid Poseur, Joaquin Miller—American Poet,
Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1953.
Specimens, Carter Hines, 1868
Joaquin et al , S.J. McCormick, 1869
Pacific Poems, Whittingham and Wilkins, 1871
Songs of the Sierras, Longman, Green, Reader and Dyer, London;
Roberts Bros., Boston, 1871
Life Amongst the Modocs: Unwritten History, London, 1873; Heyday
Books/Urion Press, Berkeley, 1996
autobiographical novel of mining and living with Indians behind Mt.
Memorie and Rime, Funk & Wagnals, 1884
True Bear Stories, Rand McNally & Co., 1900
Overland in a Covered Wagon: An Autobiography, ed. Sidney G.
Firman, D. Appleton, 1930
A Royal Highway of the World, Metropolitan Press, 1932 (Miller's
1864 diary of Canyon City, edited by
.......Oregon's great bookman Alfred Powers)
Joaquin Miller: His California Diary, ed. John S. Richards,
Dogwood Press, 1936
Selected Writings of Joaquin Miller, Urion Press, 1977
Central California Poetry Journal: http://www.solopublications.com/jurn6101.htm
Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission: http://www.ochcom.org/miller/
Joaquin Miller: A Chronology: http://www.notfrisco.com/calmem/miller/chrono.html
Cowboy Poetry: http://www.cowboypoetry.com/miller.htm
The Word Works, Inc.: http://www.wordworksdc.com/miller_cabin.html
Originally from the Pacific Northwest,
Kathi Morrison-Taylor is Co-Director of the Joaquin
Miller Cabin Reading Series in Washington, DC. Her work has appeared
in Seattle Review, Stand, Calyx, and New
York Quarterly. Her first book of poems, By the Nest,
will be published by The Word Works in the Fall.
Published in Volume
9, Number 3, Summer 2008.
To read more by this author:
Morrison-Taylor: DC Places Issue