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Know the West

The cultural milieu of anarchist and self-taught linguist Jaime de Angulo

A Q&A with the author of a new book about the early 20th century figure.


In the mid-1970s, a young poet and bioregionalist named Andrew Schelling proposed a thesis on the writings of Jaime de Angulo, an old bohemian and homesteader, for the M.A. program in English at UC Berkeley. Six professors rejected it, saying de Angulo didn’t merit serious study. The department administrator suggested William Butler Yeats instead — “Everybody knows who he was.” So Schelling quit without a degree, frustrated but still sure that de Angulo’s work was worthwhile, convinced that it illuminated frequently overlooked aspects of California history.

It’s ironic: De Angulo — who was born in Paris of Spanish descent around 1888, did some cowboying in Colorado, and eventually landed in the Bay Area on the eve of the 1906 earthquake — was earlier rebuffed by the same institution as well. A gifted linguist and ethnographer, he’d requested that UC Berkeley preserve the rare recordings of Native California songs that he had gathered in the field. He was rejected, too.

Last year, Schelling — now a translator of Sanskrit poetry and a teacher at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado — released Tracks Along the Left Coast: Jaime de Angulo and Pacific Coast Culture, the book he had hoped to start four-plus decades ago. Less a neat-and-tidy biography than a thickety maze of tales both true and apocryphal, it situates de Angulo in a timeline that reaches back to the earliest Indigenous creation stories and forward to the literature of the present. HCN contributor Leath Tonino recently interviewed Schelling.

Illustration by Julia Lubas

High Country News: Who was Jaime de Angulo? Or, given his eclectic background, what was he?

Althea Abruscato
Andrew Schelling: For starters, he was a counterculture anarchist who built a homestead in Big Sur in 1914, when that jagged marvelous coast was days from the nearest stage post. He wrote some poems and some novels, studied medicine and psychology, but really he was a self-trained linguist, probably the finest recorder of Native California languages. He worked on almost 30 languages of Northern California and Mexico that had never been recorded. His greatest achievement was an oral presentation made in 1949 and 1950, shortly before his death, on Berkeley’s KPFA radio: about 100 broadcasts that he called Old Time Stories. The tapes are available online, and they are one of the truly ungraspable works of American literature. Like Ezra Pound’s Cantos or James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, they are compendiums of an entire world.

HCN: De Angulo has a kind of cult following in woodsy shacks around the West, but he’s basically unknown by the mainstream. What’s going on there?

AS: Part of it is that he died before he had any books in print, so he became more of a legendary figure, instead of a literary figure. Whereas with someone like Mary Austin or John Muir you could pick up a book, with de Angulo you needed to grab a seat by the campfire and just listen, either to him or to someone talking about him. He shows up on a few pages of one of Jack Kerouac’s novels, he taught linguistics to Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan and influenced other poets of the San Francisco Renaissance, and he was friends with Robinson Jeffers, Carl Jung, D.H. Lawrence, Mabel Dodge Luhan, Langston Hughes, Ezra Pound. Gary Snyder called him a great West Coast culture hero.

His homesteading at Big Sur was a practical, on-the-ground experiment that balanced his years spent hanging around with healers, medicine people, shamans, whatever term you prefer. He lived without books, singing songs to the Steller’s jays and bobcats, and supposedly pushed his cookstove off the cliff the day that he heard about the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima — sort of like, Whoa, we’ve got to take this whole technology thing all the way back to the beginning, rethink everything. It was the spirit of Henry David Thoreau: What is the irreducible minimum for a human to live on? How can you live in the wilderness, hunt, garden, gather plants, and be independent of social pressures?

HCN: Is de Angulo important today? By looking back at his life, does he point us toward a certain future?

AS: There’s that anarchist streak, which questions whether we need so much government, so many possessions, or if what we really need is a personalized relationship with the land. What I find most exciting, though, is that as you get into his writings and radio broadcasts, you start to see the beauties of an amazing bioregion — the Shasta Bioregion, Northern California — prior to development, and it gives you new eyes. Oh, I get it, underneath this road there’s an old Pomo village, and underneath this suburb is where material was gathered for arrowheads. There’s a different timescale here, and I think that for all the damage done to the ecologies and Indigenous cultures, some things have a way of coming back. The stuff that de Angulo was interested in is durable: the stories, the songs, the powers hidden deep in the woods, on the ridges.

Leath Tonino is a freelance writer whose journalism, fiction and poetry have appeared in Orion, Outside, The Sun, Utne Reader, and elsewhere. A collection of his essays, The Animal One Thousand Miles Long, was published in September 2018.