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Robert Duncan: the ambassador from Venus.

I. The Antediluvian World

I would shake the Mahjong table, and the palace of many gardens and courts, the majestic halls and ramparts, constructed by giant hands from another world, the corridor where the Queen walked in the evening to meet the King, would fall. It seemed as if distant almost real shouts of anguish rose among the tottering ivory walls, and, making my play of earthquake - for I was the genius of the scene - I almost heard the confusion of delicious dismay, grief and fear, echoed in my heart as if bonds of human sympathy united me with the inhabitants of this world I created to destroy again and again.

- Robert Duncan, The H.D. Book

On April 18, 1906, one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history struck the city of San Francisco. Through the damp morning air, punctuated by the smell of eucalyptus leaves, came what sounded like the engine of a locomotive and then the ground began to shake. It was just after five A.M. when that first tremor struck, a foreshock through which few in the city slept. In a boarding house on Folsom Street, nineteen-year-old Minnehaha Harris tumbled out of bed, and stepping toward the window, swept strands of long dark hair out of her face. The sky was a pale blue-black, and behind the clouds, barely visible, the last of the morning stars were fading into the dawn. From out on the street came an unusual early morning cacophony - the song of sparrows, the distant barking of a dog, and the ongoing rumble. Suddenly the building leapt as if a wrecking ball had been driven into its side. The girl turned and called out for her mother in an adjacent room. What echoed against her own voice was a sound unfamiliar to her - the wail of wood grinding against wood, an eerie chores rising through the hallways of the tenement. Within seconds of the first temblor that had pulled her from her bed, the great earthquake of 1906 roared along the San Andreas Fault.

Several miles to the north, in a small house in East Oakland, a twenty-three-year-old housewife named Marguerite Duncan woke with a start. The windows were rattling and her two-year-old son George was crying in his bedroom. As she stood up, the building shifted beneath her feet - first to the left and then to the right, twisting from side to side as if the entire house were being slowly pushed down an embankment of sand, gathering momentum until the furniture danced spastically upon the hardwood floors. Marguerite lifted George and his sister Edna from their beds, carrying them down the stairwell and toward the front porch. Glass was breaking everywhere, and some blocks away in downtown Oakland the facades of the new granite buildings on Broadway were plummeting to the sidewalk. For those who witnessed it from the street, the scene was nearly indescribable. Overhead trolley wires whipped through the air and snapped. Lamp posts were bent from side to side like saplings in a wind storm. It would be another twenty-six minutes before the ground was completely still.

In San Francisco the fires erupted almost immediately. At the post office on Seventh Street and Mission, the walls caved in, slabs of marble cracked open, and chandeliers crashed to the floor, sending shards of glass into the air like sparks from a welder's torch. On Howard Street, the walls of the American Hotel collapsed onto an adjacent fire station. A blaze that had started at the corner of Hayes and Gough was creeping across the Western Addition toward City Hall. Another fire was reported in Chinatown, and another at the Hearst Building on Third and Market. A few blocks away a man lay pinned beneath a steel beam. While he cried out for help a small group of onlookers gathered around. The flames were approaching, and two of the bystanders tried to pull him free without success. Finally a lone figure stepped from the crowd, kneeled down before the trapped man, and drawing a revolver, put a bullet through his head. The crowd dispersed and the mangled corpse was consumed in a sheet of fire that swept across the intersection.

There were 135 aftershocks on that day. By nightfall, the city skyline glowed bright red and a thick smoke blanketed the hills. Army units and police officers patrolled the streets with orders to shoot anyone caught looting. Meanwhile the city's residents scoured the burning neighborhoods, searching for family and friends, attempting to rescue those trapped in the debris. Wherever one walked, muffled cries rose up from beneath the smoking rubble of timber and brick. A rumor had spread that San Francisco was sinking into the Pacific. People congregated in parks, dazed and frightened. Some wandered the streets in tears. And then there were the few who attempted to carry on business as usual, such as a peculiar group of men who made their way to the Masonic Temple at the corner of Montgomery and Post at dusk only to find it engulfed in flames. The fifty-second annual convocation meeting of the Grand Chapter of the Royal Arch Masons had been postponed, indefinitely.

For nearly four days the city of San Francisco burned. It was the twenty-first of April before the fires were stopped at Twentieth Street, near Dolores, in the Mission District. The city lay in ruins. Tens of thousands of buildings had been destroyed, more than three thousand people were dead, and more than half the residents of San Francisco were homeless. There had been a catastrophe.(1)

II. Native Son of the Golden West

The soul, my mother's sister, Aunt Fay, told me...was like a swarm of bees, and, at night, certain entities of that swarm left the body-hive and went to feed in fields of helium - was it in the upper atmosphere of the Earth or in the fire-clouds of the Sun? The 'higher' ascended nightly, and in its absence, the 'lower' dreamed, flooding the mind with versions of the Underworld.

- Robert Duncan, The H.D. Book

Fayetta Harris Philip turned thirty-seven during the summer of 1919. On most days she could be found at Philip & Philip, the corner drugstore on Fruitvale Avenue in East Oakland that she managed with the help of her husband Bruce. She would rise at dawn, pin her long red-brown hair into a bun, and make breakfast for her two children before walking down the street to open the store. Other mornings, when the children were visiting her mother, she spent the early hours of the day in a small room on the ground floor of the house. Sequestered in her makeshift library, she would pull books from the shelves and begin to write. Fayetta Philip was a devoted theosophist. It had been with her mother's encouragement that she attended occult study groups while still in high school. By her adult years she was not only a member of a hermetic brotherhood in Oakland, she was also an avid writer on various subjects, compiling manuscripts of data about the hidden nature of the universe - lengthy pseudo-scientific treatises which she referred to as her "discoveries." Fayetta Philip believed that in a previous lifetime she had studied the phenomenon of light in the Egyptian pyramid of Giza. In her present human form while she was not filling prescriptions, writing poems, and theorizing as to the gaseous composition of the soul, she was searching for a definitive key to light's great secrets.(2)

Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood during the early 1900s was still in many ways a part of the wild American frontier. At Philip & Philip, customers stopped in to buy Fayetta Philip's special black salve Horse Liniment, a cure-all for ailments ranging from appendicitis to cancer. Farms, dairies, and logging settlements dotted the Oakland Hills, and downtown there was a carnival atmosphere, where interspersed between the gold-rush pawn shops and saloons were tiny storefronts advertising palm readings by Egyptian gypsy clairvoyants and world-renowned spiritual mediums. Oakland's European citizens had come from pioneer families, drifting in toward the Golden Gate from the northern territories of the Oregon Trail, and from the east, across the Great Plains and through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The areas surrounding the city had first been inhabited by the Ohlone Indians, whose culture there can be documented to a time period some thousand years before the birth of Christ. It was in 1775 that the Spanish first set foot on the ground that would later become the city of Oakland, so named for its abundant oak trees. In 1820, much of the land, then called Encinal by the Spanish, was handed over to a cattle rancher named Luis Maria Peralta. During the 1840s, Peralta kept legal hold of the area despite an unruly influx of gold prospectors. Then, during the early 1850s, a young lawyer and real estate speculator from New York City named Horace Carpentier arrived, purchased the land from Peralta, chartered the city, and became its first mayor.

The Oakland that Fayetta Hams Philip knew had expanded a great deal since Carpentier's time. Having sustained lesser damage than its neighboring San Francisco during the 1906 earthquake and fire, Oakland became a refugee settlement, and its population nearly doubled between 1900 and 1910. By 1919 downtown Oakland was a central hub of the Southern Pacific Railroad Company, providing connections to Los Angeles, New Orleans, Denver, and Portland.

Managing a drug store in the wake of the First World War proved to be a full-time activity for the Philip family. It was not unusual for Fayetta Philip to spend long days assisting customers, unpacking stock in the back room, and attending to her two young children who played in the enclosed yard behind the store. On those rare occasions that there was a lull in the activity, she would sit outside hoping to catch up with the gossip of passers-by. Fayetta Hams Philip was something of a curiosity around town. As a girl, she had dreamed of becoming a doctor like her older sister Dee. One of the first women to graduate from the University of California's pharmacy program in 1901, Philip went on to study English literature, creative writing, geology, and physics. Those who knew her invariably described her as "a real character."(3) The lady pharmacist of Fruitvale who collected rocks and believed that Shakespeare's plays had been written by Francis Bacon could out-talk almost anyone about almost anything. To make matters all the more intriguing, rumor had it that her mother, Mrs. Mary Harris of Piedmont Avenue, had brought her children up among an array of seance tables, fortune tellers, and ouija boards.

There was a certain anxious optimism in the air that summer in the aftermath of the First World War, and yet there were still many pressing issues closer to home - not the least of which being a deadly influenza epidemic that had killed hundreds of Californians during the previous winter. But there had been nothing remarkable about that particular afternoon of August 1 when a woman named Myrtle Carpenter walked into the small-town corner drugstore. It was a still summer day, and the morning fog had burned off to reveal the Oakland Hills to the north, tinged a golden brown against the bright blue sky. Fayetta Philip was talking with another customer about life at home. Her younger sister Minnehaha had been trying to adopt a child. There were peculiar circumstances surrounding the adoption. Minne and her husband Edwin had consulted an astrologer who advised them to find a specific boy - a boy who had been born earlier in the year, at dawn on January 7. Such a child, the astrologer told them, would lead an auspicious though troubled life. Minne had gone so far as to secure a job at the local Children's Home Society of California adoption agency, and she had enlisted the help of the Native Sons of the Golden West, a fraternal association of native California citizens.(4) Despite her efforts, the child had not been found.

Myrtle Carpenter, upon overhearing the two women engaged in talk, quickly joined in the conversation. Her sister-in-law, Marguerite Carpenter Duncan, had given birth to a boy on January 7. Though Myrtle Carpenter wasn't certain, it seemed possible that the baby had been born at dawn. Marguerite Duncan had died soon after, and the infant was being given up for adoption. There were already seven children in the household, and the baby's father, Edward Duncan, no longer had the financial means to provide for them all.(5)

He was case number 27436 at the Children's Home Society. Though he would later be known as Robert Symmes, and later still as Robert Duncan, at birth he had been given the name Edward Howe Duncan, after his father, a railroad engineer who worked on the Southern Pacific line.(6) What remains of the elder Edward Duncan is the modest evidence of his signature - a careful rounded script left on his wife Marguerite's interment papers in Oakland's Mountain View Cemetery, dated February 23, 1919. The Duncans then lived on Twelfth Avenue, less than a mile from the East Oakland neighborhood of Fruitvale, and Philip & Philip, Druggists. It was the house that the younger Edward Howe Duncan had been born in, and it was the house which would soon accomodate not only the baby and his seven older siblings, but also a woman named Mae, who apparently consoled Edward Duncan after the loss of his wife, and later moved in bringing children of her own.(7) At first it had seemed reasonable for the two oldest daughters, Edna and Marguerite, to care for their newborn brother, but before long, eighteen-year-old Edna married and fled the crowded household. According to family legend, the elder Edward Duncan "went into shock that lasted for months"(8) after his wife Marguerite died and it soon became clear that he was in no way capable of caring for all of the children. Finally, it was not only the newborn boy, but also the two youngest girls, Florence and Doris Anne, who were orphaned during the first half of 1919.

Facts that complicate the story emerge out of Edward Duncan's tenuous relationship with Marguerite Carpenter's family. It had been Marguerite's brother Wesley Carpenter and his wife Myrtle who first offered to take responsibility for the three youngest Duncan children. The Carpenters lived nearby, and Wesley, a meterman for the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, felt confident that such a plan was financially plausible. In addition, Myrtle Carpenter, the mother of several sons, was eager to adopt Florence and Doris Anne Duncan. Wesley Carpenter proposed that he and his wife take in all three of the children, but with little explanation Edward Duncan refused their offer. As one of Robert Duncan's sisters later explained to him: "...all four of Momma's sisters had wanted to adopt any of us that Dad wasn't going to keep, so that we would not be separated. Dad's edict was that we were not to go to anyone that was a relative."(9) There had been an undercurrent of conflict between the Carpenters and the Duncans from the beginning. Perhaps Marguerite's parents had been reluctant to hand over their seventeen-year-old daughter to a young man with a questionable future as an employee of the Southern Pacific Railroad, an occupation that would require him to be away from home much of the time. Whatever the case, when Edward Duncan had married Marguerite Carpenter in San Francisco on September 21, 1900, it had not been with the blessing of her family.(10)

III. A Family of Heroes

"Carpentering was real work, it was for the good of all and without vanity. It seemed to me poetry was only an avocation and words were not needed things. The wood was real. No wonder in the dream I had nothing to turn to."

- Robert Duncan, "A LETTER"

They called her Daisy. Marguerite Pearl Carpenter had a mischievous grin and sharp grey eyes. Her descendants would remember something more. For years after her death what remained was the myth - Daisy Carpenter had been special; she was the family gem.(11) One of the youngest siblings in a large family, she was born during the spring of 1883 in Oakland, California. Her father, Lewis Carpenter, was a native of Kentucky. Her mother, Isabelle McIntee, was the daughter of Irish immigrants who had originally settled in Brooklyn, New York during the early 1800s. Lewis and Isabelle passed down to their children the distinct Anglo-Irish Carpenter characteristics that their daughter Marguerite would pass down to eight children of her own. They were stocky people with unruly chestnut brown hair, their wide kind faces concealing a quick temper and a quick wit.

It was not unheard of for a Carpenter to have a place in history. Wherever they went, descendants of the lineage typically came to towns, started schools, and got involved in local politics. Oakland's first mayor, Horace Carpentier, was said to represent one offshoot of the family, and John Carpenter, the town clerk of London who endowed the Carpenter Free School on the Thames in 1505, represented another. But that was just the beginning. In 1896 when Amos B. Carpenter published a definitive genealogy of the clan, The Carpenter Memorial, he pointed out that the Carpenters were universally known as "a family of heroes."

The American branches of the Carpenter tree found their origins in the colonies during the early part of the seventeenth century with the arrival of two men, both named William Carpenter. One disembarked in 1636, landing in Providence, Rhode Island; the other arrived two years later, landing in a Massachusetts harbor. Robert Duncan was a descendent of the latter, though at various points in his autobiographical writings he would claim descent from both. The William Carpenter of Duncan's lineage was born in England in 1605, and arrived in America at the age of thirty-three on a ship called the Bevis. He was accompanied by his wife Abigal, and his father who had spent most of his adult life employed as a carpenter in Wherwell, England after having left his native London as a religious dissenter.

The Carpenter family's life in the colonies is well-documented. The young William Carpenter and his wife Abigail settled in Weymouth, Massachusetts where he served as a representative from Weymouth to Massachusetts's general court in Boston. In 1642, he was appointed a captain of that court, and in 1645 he and his family moved to the nearby town of Rehoboth. At some point before his death on February 7, 1658, he drafted a will, "in which he bequeathed to son William his Latin, Hebrew, and Greek books"(12) as if to set the course for a long line of respectably educated Carpenters in America. From there the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of William Carpenter would be scattered through various towns in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Missouri, and Kentucky, where in 1833, Robert Duncan's maternal grandfather Lewis Whipple Carpenter was born, the son of Whipple Carpenter and Elizabeth True, who had been married in Woodburn, Kentucky during the 1820s. It was during the Gold Rush and after the death of their mother in 1850, that Lewis and his brother Milton, both teenagers at the time, made their way west from Savannah, Missouri, to San Francisco, California. They crossed the Great Plains on foot, a somewhat unusual undertaking, though Lewis Carpenter was remembered in family lore as an enthusiastic naturalist. As a young man he purchased a plot in Oakland's Mountain View Cemetery out of a fascination with a small creek that ran alongside it.

Some years after arriving in San Francisco, Lewis Carpenter met Isabelle McIntee. The two were married there in 1866, and by 1880 they and their children had relocated to a house on Ninth Avenue in East Oakland just above the Lake Merritt district. Carpenter would spend the next several years working at various trades and moving his family from neighborhood to neighborhood as the boundaries of Oakland expanded. He and his brother Milton were employed for several years in a broom-making factory. Later he ran a dairy with the assistance of his sons Lewis and Wesley, and still later he worked as a house painter. When he died in 1924 at the age of ninety-one, he was buried next to his wife Isabelle and their daughter Marguerite in the cemetery plot adjacent to his favorite stream.

IV. The Genius of the Scene

Now days are dragon-ridden, the nightmare Rides upon sleep: a drunken soldiery Can leave the mother, murdered at her door, To crawl in her own blood, and go scot-free; The night can sweat with terror as before We pieced our thoughts into philosophy, And planned to bring the world under a rule, Who are but weasels fighting in a hole.

- William Butler Yeats, "1919"

Nineteen-nineteen was to be a turbulent year and the 1920s would see several failed attempts at returning the United States to stability on any front. Throughout that early winter, Californians were inundated with advice on ways to avoid contracting Spanish influenza, and while most sources reported that there was no occasion for panic, public gathering places were closed and the state employment bureau announced a number of special job opportunities for influenza nurses in Oakland and San Francisco. As American soldiers were welcomed back to the United States from all over the globe, the epidemic grew more troubling, in the end killing nearly twenty million people worldwide between the spring of 1918 and the winter of 1919.

But 1919 was also the year that the experimental Bauhaus school opened in Weimar, Germany under the direction of the architect Walter Gropius; it was the year that the author of the Oz books, L. Frank Baum, died; and it was the year that the infamous butcher of Hanover collected young war orphans in German train stations, lured them to his apartment, murdered them, and ground them into sausage.(13) Stateside, prohibition began that year, as did the United Artists film corporation.

On Monday, January 6, the Oakland Enquirer announced the death of ex-president Theodore Roosevelt, and while the country mourned, there were continued reports of Woodrow Wilson's efforts towards peace in Europe, alongside news of bloodshed and civil unrest in the streets of Berlin and Moscow. Robert Duncan was born on the following morning, on January 7, 1919, in a small upstairs bedroom of a two-story house in East Oakland. It was a geography not unfriendly to literary phenomena. During the 1880s, the young Gertrude Stein had lived in the same part of the city, a neighborhood sometimes referred to as the San Antonio, where the houses stood on land that had previously been the acreage of Luis Peralta's vast cattle ranches. Its large one- and two-family homes were originally separated by gardens and rows of trees which would later be removed to make room for smaller, less expensive flats. As an adult, Gertrude Stein would return to find the open spaces of the San Antonio gone, leading her to the exclamation "There is no there there."(14)

The house that Edward and Marguerite Duncan were tenants of that winter stood at 2532 Twelfth Avenue.(15) With a steep triangular roof that loomed above the properties to either side of it, it belonged to the group of domiciles built during the first wave of the neighborhood's development, and perhaps initially had been the main house of a small dairy estate. One indication of that came in the form of a flat-roofed garage which stood in the shadows of the house, a squat structure with twin sets of double doors wide enough to accomodate horses, cows, and later cars.

The Duncans moved quite frequently during the years before Robert Duncan's birth, most likely due to the financial challenges implicit in the arrival of their sixth child, Florence, in 1914 and their seventh child, Doris Anne, in 1916. The house on Twelfth Avenue was not one that they could ever expect to own, and despite its size, it would have been cramped quarters for a family of nine. From the front porch, its tenants entered a high-ceilinged foyer with a stairwell and adjacent living room. The sunlight on the ground floor was provided by three large square windows in the front room overlooking the street. To the back of that living room area was a dining room, and to the side of that, an adjacent narrow brick kitchen with a woodburning stove. The second floor of the house was divided simply into two bedrooms - the larger to the back, and the smaller to the front.

Marguerite Duncan hadn't intended to deliver her eighth child at home, but she had been ill and a local hospital refused to admit her, fearing that she was infected with Spanish influenza. There were probably several factors that contributed to her death some hours after her son's birth. She was six months into her pregnancy - the baby was due not in January, but in April. And despite the fact that the child weighed only six-and-a-half pounds, the crown of his head was wide, further complicating the birth. Marguerite Duncan hemorrhaged during the delivery, and under the best of circumstances there would have been reasons to expect difficulties - she was a small woman in her late thirties who had already given birth to nine children, two of whom had been stillborn.(16)

Though the accounts of that day vary, the delivery was most likely carried out under the supervision of a Dr. Woods with the assistance of the older Duncan girls and one of the Carpenter family cousins.(17) Duncan's sister Anne conjured the scene from her own memory some sixty years later: "I stood at the foot of my mother's bed and watched Robert being born. I was two years old, and I remember a great deal of blood and water. He was born at six o'clock in the morning and mother died, I think, at four o'clock the same afternoon."(18) While the rest of the children stood quietly in the bedroom's doorway, Marguerite's husband Edward sat beside the bed, his weary profile reflected in the room's single window, facing west toward downtown Oakland and toward the Pacific beyond. It was close to dawn when the baby arrived. The birth was recorded in official records as occurring at 6:30 A.M., though it's probable that Duncan was born at least a half-hour earlier, a detail which would be particularly significant in the subsequent readings of his astrological chart. When Marguerite Duncan died later that day with her tiny newborn son beside her, the sky was beginning to darken, and a fine winter rain pattered against the roof of the house.

V. Symmes

"At dawn in Oakland in the cold of the year I was born, January 7th, with the sun before rising or just below the horizon in the false dawn and Saturn in his own house, in Capricorn. But that is according to the old astrological convention. Actually, the sun has advanced; the winter solstice has progresst to the sign of Sagittarius. I was born in the head of the archer."

- Robert Duncan, "A Sequence of Poems for H.D.'s Birthday"

Robert Duncan knew the story of his adoption. Before his birth, his step-parents had become involved in a theosophical group in the Bay Area, a hermetic brotherhood modelled after late-nineteen-century occult groups such as London's Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and Madame Blavatsky's Theosophical Society of New York and India. The Symmeses had discovered Robert Duncan, or more accurately, he had been sent to them. By the reckoning of their religion, his astrological chart indicated that he had, in a past life, lived on the mythological continent of Atlantis as one of its great innovators. He was of the ancient generation that had turned their knowledge to ill-means and subsequently destroyed their own world. Born under the sign of Capricorn, with the moon in the sign of Pisces, his ascendant sign was in Sagittarius, and the presence of Gemini in his sixth house suggested that he had acted as a messenger in a previous incarnation.(19) According to hermetic doctrine, his mother Marguerite Duncan's role had been simply that of a "vehicle" of his birth. She was an agent of his reincarnation and she had died so that he might be handed over to his rightful parents. The preparation for the child's arrival began some time before 1919. For the Symmeses the terms of the adoption were threefold. The baby would be born at the time and place appointed by the astrologers, the natural mother would die shortly thereafter, and the child would be of Anglo-Saxon protestant descent.(20)

In Celtic tradition, August 1 marks the Lammas Tide, a celebration of the first harvest of the autumn. It was a date that fascinated Robert Duncan, and a date that appeared in more than one of his poems.(21) It had been on August 1, 1919 that Fayetta Philip told her sister Minnehaha Symmes of the conversation that had transpired in the Philip & Philip pharmacy on that day. The following day the Symmeses made arrangements to see the Duncan child for the first time, and on August 4, six-month-old Edward Howe Duncan was placed in the custody of Minnehaha and Edwin Symmes through an arrangement with Edward Duncan, Sr. and the Native Sons and Daughters Central Committee on Homeless Children of San Francisco. Minnehaha and Edwin took the baby home to their apartment in Oakland, at 914 Taylor Avenue and he was soon renamed Robert Edward Symmes, apparently after a friend of his stepfather.(22) Seven months later, on March 10, 1920, the Superior Court of the State of California named the Symmeses the child's legal parents. During October, 1920, they adopted a baby girl and named her Barbara Eleanor Symmes. She had been born in Oakland almost exactly a year after Robert, on the evening of January 6, 1920. A reading of her astrological chart also played into her adoption. She was to introduce "good karma" into the household; she was to be her brother Robert's better half.

The Symmeses, aside from their interests in the occult, were in many ways a typical middle-class couple, conservative in their political views, and seriously invested in projecting an image of the all-American family. Both Edwin and Minnehaha would be remembered as upstanding California citizens - he, as a prominent public works architect and she as a busy socialite who served on committees, chaired community council meetings, and volunteered her time to a range of organizations, from the Children's Home Society of California to the Kern County Council of Campfire Girls.(23)

Writing of his stepfather's family, the Symmeses, in The HD Book, Robert Duncan reported that they "had moved West...first into Ohio at the beginning of the nineteenth century, and then on, at the frontier or beyond the frontier of America, into California."(24) Symmes, and its variation Semmes are Anglo-Saxon names; several members of the clan descended upon the American colonies from England during the mid-1600s. Duncan's tale of the family's trek through Ohio seems fairly accurate. The migration of one branch of the Symmeses began in St. George's, Maryland during the mid-seventeenth century, continued into Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Short Creek, West Virginia; and finally into Ohio. There were a large number of Symmeses in East Liverpool, Ohio as of the early 1800s. Those who settled in that part of the country were potters and farmers, and descendants of the lineage still exist there today.(25) What seems less accurate is Robert Duncan's wish to merge the Symmeses of Ohio with yet another branch of the family who came to the Massachusetts Bay Colony during the early 1600s and slowly migrated West from there. In what could very well be an embellishment of his adoptive father's lineage, Duncan once wrote in a journal entry:

In my father's line American origins went back to the Calvinism of the Massachusetts Colony where the ancestral patriarch oldest son to oldest son to my adoptive father had been Reverend Zackariah Symmes.(26)

If this version of the story is true, then Edwin Symmes's ancestors were not at all linked to the Symmeses of Maryland and Ohio. Instead, they had arrived in America on a ship called the Griffin on September 18, 1634, disembarking in Boston. The ship's passenger list includes not only the Reverend Zackariah Symmes, but also the religious dissenter Anne Hutchinson.(27) Symmes, upon arriving in the colonies, would make a name for himself as one of the patriarchs who testified against Hutchinson in her trials for sedition and heresy.(28) Regardless of whether or not Robert Duncan's stepfather was a direct descendant of the Reverend Symmes, Duncan had enough interest in the story to incorporate it into his early sketches toward an autobiographical novel composed during 1941:

We are descended from witches and burners of witches. How my ancestors gave witness that she, Anne Hutchinson, had talked on deck at night with a Dark Stranger who had a covenant between them, and by the Governor of Massachusetts given birth of two monsters out of wedlock.(29)

Edwin Symmes was a frail and studious man. What he lacked in the adventurousness of his ancestors, he made up for with an obsessive Protestant work ethic. By middle age he was wiry, nervous, and chronically ill, chain-smoking cigarettes and spending long days in the offices of Symmes and Willard, Architects. He had been born on Valentine's Day, February 14, 1883, in Livermore, California to Charles O. Symmes and Elizabeth Johnson. Edwin probably spent part of his youth in Oakland, where his father was employed as a railroad engineer on the Southern Pacific line during the 1890s. Coincidentally, both Robert Duncan's biological father Edward and his grandfather George Duncan worked as brakemen and conductors for the Central and Southern Pacific lines during the same time period that Charles O. Symmes was employed there.

Edwin Symmes's later battles with ill health were foreshadowed on more than one occasion during his youth - his education being interrupted first by an injury to his foot, and later by unspecified illnesses in 1904 and 1905.(30) It was around 1904 that he met his future wife, Minnehaha Harris, during the year before he began college. And in 1905 at the age of twenty-two he registered as an undergraduate student at the University of California at Berkeley. Symmes completed his studies there in May of 1909, having earned a degree in architecture and engineering. He soon found work in San Francisco as a draftsman, and beginning in January of 1913 contributed to the construction of San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts under the direction of the master architect Bernard Maybeck. The Palace of Fine Arts would be one of the wonders of San Francisco's Panama-Pacific International Exposition which opened on February 20, 1915. It was Edwin Symmes's first real acknowledgement in his field, for which he received public honors that year.(31)

Edwin Symmes and Minnehaha Harris were married on the evening of July 9, 1913, in Oakland, some nine years after their first meeting and some four months after their engagement. It would never be a difficult partnership, but it would not be extraordinary either, despite the fact that they had been careful to arrange the date, time, and latitude of their union on a favorable astrological alignment.(32) Their lengthy pre-marriage flirtations had been interrupted on several occasions, such as in 1906 when Minnehaha moved to Oregon to teach in a one-room schoolhouse in the wake of that spring's earthquake in San Francisco. During that time she wrote extensively in journals, and like her sister Fayetta, developed a curious autobiographical writing style which bears parallels to Robert Duncan's later writing in The H.D. Book and elsewhere. In one such entry, she recalled the events of her nineteenth year:

I was torn from my city life, my companions, my studies.... I watched the autumn colorings come and go, but the rains, cold and bleak beat upon the roof and the wind thru the trees sighed and moaned, sometimes almost shrieked in its impotency to change the conditions.... The birds had flown - yet still I stayed and time went on.(33)

She was a thin woman; some described her as resembling a sparrow. Her stepson Robert would write of her:

She was a beautiful woman I suppose. She had black hair that was wild and naturally waving about her head and a fine delicate nose, nostrilled like a nervous horse...but we could see her irrational angers in those eyes.... She was perhaps in this even a magnificent creature, tyrannical with the beauty of will that the tyrant has.(34)

Duncan's ambivalence toward her, and his fascination with her authority would surface in the poetry that he wrote as an adult. But part of what he perceived as the oppressiveness of his stepmother's personality certainly came as a result of her own upbringing. Abandoned by her father at the age of two, and raised in the company of several strong-minded women, Minnehaha Harris, by early adulthood, was willful, controlling, and never without resource. The youngest of three daughters, she often found herself playing the role of a peacemaker between her equally willful older sisters Dee and Fayetta. When she met Edwin Symmes in 1904 she was attracted to his shy manner and to his professional ambitions - he was a resource she could depend on. In photographs he posed with the rigid stance of a prep school cadet, but his lanky awkward figure and his boyish face betrayed his resolve to appear stem. There was a basic gentleness about him, reflected also in the inscriptions he left in the Symmes family children's books, some including short rhymed couplets penned by Edwin Symmes for his wife and "the kiddies."(35)

Between their marriage in 1913, and the adoption of Robert in 1919, Edwin and Minnehaha Symmes lived variously in San Francisco, Oakland, Yosemite, and Alameda, California. They stayed close to relatives on both sides of the family - to Edwin's siblings Charles and Alvie Symmes who lived in Oakland, and to Minnehaha's mother and sister Fayetta, who lived in Berkeley and Fruitvale, respectively. It was during the early 1920s that the Symmeses settled in Alameda, the place that would be Robert Duncan's home for the first seven years of his life. Alameda was then, as it is today, a sleepy island town appended to the southernmost part of the city of Oakland. Originally a peninsula of the city, later separated by a manmade estuary, Alameda in its early days had been a peach orchard settled by the Spanish. The house that Edwin Symmes designed and saw built there in 1922 was at 1700 Pearl Street, some blocks away from a narrow sandy beach with a view of the San Francisco skyline across the bay. A typical Northern California town, Alameda was marked by mild coastal weather and a foliage which changed very little seasonally - palm and fruit trees yellowed during the summer droughts and blossomed into deep shades of green during the winter rains. The blocks of pink and beige adobe houses landscaped with lemon trees and several varieties of flowering plants contributed to Alameda's orderly suburban atmosphere.


1. Historical and geological information in this chapter is based on archival material available through the Museum of San Francisco [] and the United States Geological Survey [].

2. Mercedes Gardner, The Lady Alchemist and Fayetta Harris Philip, Biographical Sketch of Fayetta Harris Philip and Notes to Finish Biographical Sketch, University of California at Davis, Special Collections, Fayetta Harris Philip Papers. Two of Philip's theories - "Everything is created out of units of light" and "light is a flow of individual Units-of-Kinetic-Energy" - are documented in autobiographical manuscripts written between the 1940s and 1960s and now housed at the University of California at Davis Special Collections Library.

3. The Lady Alchemist, and Barbara Jones in conversation with the author, January 17, 1998.

4. Letter from Robert Duncan to Anne Spaulding, April 16, 1981, State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNYAB) Poetry/Rare Books Collection.

5. This anecdote about the meeting of Myrtle Carpenter and Fayetta Harris Philip courtesy Robert Duncan's biological cousin Mrs. Gladys Kennard, in a phone conversation with the author, January 14, 1998.

6. A letter written by Edward Duncan, Sr. in 1935 shows that his middle name was Howe, not Howard as recorded on Robert Duncan's adoption certificate. This fact was confirmed by Mrs. Gladys Kennard in a phone conversation on January 14, 1998.

7. Letter from Anne Spaulding to Robert Duncan, April 11, 1981, SUNYAB Poetry/Rare Books Collection. The older Duncan children included Edna, George, Marguerite, Douglas, Eleanor, Florence, and Doris Anne, all born between 1901 and 1916. Robert Duncan would, during the early 1980s, make contact with Eleanor Duncan and Doris Anne Duncan [then Anne Spaulding]. Cf. Ekbert Faas, Young Robert Duncan (Black Sparrow Press, 1983), pp. 289-292.

8. Letter from Eleanor Duncan to Robert Duncan, April 16, 1981, SUNYAB Poetry/Rare Books Collection.

9. Letter from Anne Spaulding to Robert Duncan, April 11, 1981, SUNYAB Poetry/Rare Books Collection.

10. Phone conversation with Mrs. Gladys Kennard, January 14, 1998.

11. Information in this chapter regarding Marguerite Carpenter and the Carpenters of Oakland, courtesy Mrs. Gladys Kennard in phone conversations on January 14, 1998 and January 16, 1998.

12. Information in this chapter regarding the William Carpenter family courtesy Cheryl McGraw at Http:// Detailed information on the family is also available in The Carpenter Memorial by Amos B. Carpenter (Press of Carpenter and Morehouse: Amherst, Mass., 1898).

13. Kenneth Anger pointed out the story of "the Ogre of Hanover" to Robert Duncan in an undated letter, mailed from a train station in Hanover, Germany, probably during the mid-1950s.

14. Information on the San Antonio neighborhood of Oakland and the insightful interpretation of Gertrude Stein's "There is no there there" courtesy David Howard, in conversation, October 2, 1998.

15. According to its current owner David Howard, Duncan's birth house would have an interesting history of its own. During the 1960s it was occupied by biker Sonny Barger and became a center of activity for the Hells Angels of Oakland.

16. Accounts of Robert Duncan's birth come from Ekbert Faas, Young Robert Duncan, p.290; unpublished notes of Minnehaha Symmes, SUNYAB; and a phone conversation with Mrs. Gladys Kennard, January 14, 1998.

17. In Ekbert Faas's Young Robert Duncan, Duncan's biological sister Anne Spaulding reports that Duncan was born at 1110 East 22nd Street and that he had been delivered by a Dr. Adams. This contradicts records in Minnehaha Symmes's notes on Duncan's adoption, and it contradicts the address given on Marguerite's interment papers by Edward Duncan in February of 1919.

18. Ekbert Faas, Young Robert Duncan, p.290.

19. John Chinworth, Yoko Eishima, and William Stickevers provided interpretations of Robert Duncan's birth chart for the author.

20. Robert Duncan talks about his adoption and early childhood in an interview with Joseph Cardarelli conducted during April of 1985 in Baltimore, Maryland. Cardarelli organized a "Black Mountain Revisited" series of lectures and readings in 1985 at the Maryland Institute, College of Art and produced a video documentary of those events.

21. Both "Dream Data" [1959] in Roots and Branches and "A Lammas Tiding" [1964] in Bending the Bow contain references to the Lammas Tide, and are poems that came to Duncan in dreams during the early hours of August 1. He interpreted the Lammas Eve as having ominous characteristics. Ancient harvest celebrations were festivals of the dead, and Duncan also intentionally confused the celtic "lammas" day with the malevolent creatures known as "lamias" in Greek mythology.

22. Ekbert Faas, Young Robert Duncan, p. 17, and Robert Duncan "A Sequence of Poems For H.D.'s Birthday," Roots and Branches, p. 14.

23. In 1939 a local Bakersfield newspaper named Minnehaha Harris "Socialite of the Week."

24. Robert Duncan. The H.D. Book. Volume 1, Chapter 5: "Occult Matters," [Stony Brook, 1 (Fall 1968), 4-19]. Individual chapters of The H.D. Book, were printed in various small poetry magazines during the 1960s and 1970s. Unfortunately, it still remains unpublished in its entirety.

25. Simms Genealogy Page, Http://

26. Robert Duncan. Notebook 46, page 111, April 2, [1978], SUNYAB.

27. Passenger List for the Griffin 1634, Http://

28. More information on Anne Hutchinson's life in the colonies is available in Susan Howe's The Birth-mark: Unsettling the Wilderness in American Literary History (Wesleyan University Press, 1993).

29. Robert Duncan. Notebook 4, University of California at Berkeley (UCalB). Banc Mss 71/126 c.

30. Unpublished notes of Minnehaha Symmes, SUNYAB. Minnehaha Harris Symmes kept a chronology of important events for the Harris and Symmes families, SUNYAB.

31. Conversation with Barbara Jones, January 17, 1998 and an obituary of Edwin Symmes, "Former Alamedan's Funeral to Be Held" courtesy Chapel of the Chimes Mausoleum, Oakland, California.

32. Edwin and Minnehaha Symmes's adoptive daughter Barbara Jones believes that Minnehaha Symmes found her true love some years later when she married her second husband Lewis Burtch in 1938.

33. Unpublished manuscript of Minnehaha Symmes, SUNYAB.

34. Robert Duncan. Notebook 4, UCalB. Banc Mss 71/126 c.

35. Several books from the Symmes family library are now in the possession of Mrs. Barbara Jones, Bakersfield, California.

Lisa Jarnot's first collection of poems, Some Other Kind of Mission, was published by Burning Deck Press in 1996. She is also the author of Ring of Fire, forthcoming from Zoland Books. She currently lives in New York City where she is an assistant professor at Long Island University and where she is writing a biography of Robert Duncan.
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Author:Jarnot, Lisa
Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Biography
Date:Mar 22, 1999
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