Auburn's Forgotten Son: Clark Ashton Smith

Scott Connors

The following is a transcription of a speech which I gave to the Friends of the Auburn-Placer County Library on January 18, 2002. The audience was made up largely of local residents, many of them seniors who either knew or knew of Clark, and I was asked to devote the main portion of the speech to Clark's ties to Auburn. Representatives of the Auburn City Council were also present, so I included some material showing just how and why Clark is an important literary figure. The Council is considering moving the boulder underneath which Clark's ashes were interred to Centennial Park, along with an appropriate plaque.

I am informed by reliable sources that the name of a street in the Skyridge development has caused more than a little bewilderment among current residents: just who was "Poet Smith," and was "Poet" really his first name? This reminds us of Auburn's rich literary history, which dates back to the Gold Rush Days when Bret Harte visited Eulalie, California's first female poet, and when Ambrose Bierce held court at the old Auburn Hotel. Then there were Harold Waldo and Jackson Gregory, the western novelist, and his sister, Susan Myra Gregory, the poetess, to whom John Steinbeck dedicated Tortilla Flats. But as the New Testament observes, a prophet—or a poet—is often without honor in his hometown, and literary fame is perhaps the most fleeting variety. Yet the works of Clark Ashton Smith continue to be read and published and admired forty years after he died, and that is perhaps the most immortality that an author can attain.

Clark Ashton Smith was born in the home of his grandparents, Hiram and Harriet Gaylord, in Long Valley, just off the Auburn-Folsom Road. His father, Timeus Ashton Smith, was the son of a rich English iron maker, who spent his inheritance on travel in exotic lands and on gambling before settling amidst his fellow countrymen at the Penryn citrus colony. While working as a night clerk at the Freeman Hotel he met Fanny Gaylord, who was a few years his senior. They married in October 1891, and on Friday, January 13, 1893, had their first and only child, Clark Ashton Smith.

As a child young Clark was raised in the company of adults, helping his grandfather and uncle on a gold mine on the family farm. Later he and his father would build a simple four-room frame house on forty-four acres Timeus had purchased along Boulder Ridge, about four miles south of town, where the present Skyridge Development. Smith would often sleep outdoors on an army cot, weather permitting, and watch the stars in a sky blessedly free of light pollution. Due to a rough bout with scarlet fever he started school late. As a result, his slight built and exquisite manners made him a target for bullies when he started attending the old Long Valley School. Mrs. George W. Hamilton, the wife of the Placer County District Attorney, said of Clark "I wish I could picture to your mind the loneliness of this boy's life. He is so pitifully bashful that the pleasures which interest other boys have never entered his life. He is so keenly sensitive that he does not care for crowds. His body is very frail, but his mind-we who are not poets cannot conceive of its greatness."1 Smith withdrew into books, where he became enamored of the Arabian Nights, Grimm's fairy tales, and especially the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Smith's first book of poems abounds with images of the socially isolated individual: secluded forests, mountain tops, the spaces between stars, etc. Although he was accepted to the Placer County High School, he never attended, preferring to complete his own education by reading the Britannica and Webster's Unabridged Dictionary cover to cover.

By 1910 Smith was selling poetry and short stories to such magazines as The Overland Monthly and The Black Cat. These sales brought him to the attention of Doctor Engle, the principal of the high school, and of the Monday Night Club, a local civic improvement/literary society that included the local district attorney, the postmistress, and the publisher of the Republican newspaper (all of whom were related to General Jo Hamilton). Young Smith read a number of his poems before the club with much success.

One of the members introduced him to George Sterling, the unofficial poet-laureate of California whose circle included Joachin Miller, Bret Harte, Gertrude Atherton, Jack London, and Bierce, while another member introduced him to Sterling's publisher, who offered to publish a selection of Smith's verse. Sterling was astounded at the maturity of Smith's poetry and hailed him as a prodigy. He mentioned the younger poet in a magazine interview and quoted Smith's sonnet "The Last Night" in its entirety. Sterling also showed Smith's poem "Ode to the Abyss" to his own mentor, Ambrose Bierce, who praised it as "admirable" with "many striking passages" and "a large theme treated with dignity and power."2 Sterling had invited Smith to visit him at Carmel for a month that summer. They remained close friends and corresponded with one another until Sterling's death in late 1926.

Sterling assisted Smith in the preparation of his collection,The Star-Treader and Other Poems, which appeared with much fanfare in the local press, who gave him front page coverage and hailed him as "the Boy Keats of the Sierras," in the autumn of 1912. Several of the papers quoted from Smith's powerful poem "Nero," a dramatic monologue along the lines of Tennyson or Browning, where the Emperor chaffs at the limitations of possessing merely imperial, as opposed to divine, dignities. A backlash ensued, with the poet and critic Wittner Bynner jokingly referring to the two poets as "The Star Dust Twins", a reference to the cosmic-astronomic themes the two shared.3 The Star-Treader was reviewed extensively in the US and Great Britain, both by East and West Coast journals, to largely positive responses. Some critics found his subject matter unusual—the book was largely devoted to contemplations of the immensity of the universe and man's relative insignificance therein—but it sold 1400 copies within a few years, an incredible figure for a first book by an unknown poet. However, Smith only received $50 in royalties.

Another early admirer was Edwin Markham, who would later pick lines from Smith's "Nero" in a symposium in the New York Evening Post as his candidate for the most beautiful lines in English poetry. The novelist George Work would call Smith "the greatest American poet,"4 sentiments echoed by Sterling when he wrote that "Clark Ashton Smith is undoubtedly our finest living poet... in the tradition of Shakespeare, Keats, and Shelley. And yet to out everlasting shame he is entirely neglected and almost completely unknown."5 Another admirer was Vachel Lindsey, just approaching the height of his fame.

The stress from his sudden fame, combined with his natural reticence, proved too much for Smith. He declined an invitation to visit Jack London at Glen Ellen, a visit which would have proven interesting considering that London borrowed from Smith for both the title and some of the imagery of his novel, The Star-Rover. However, Smith became ill with tuberculosis and spent much of the next few years recuperating —so he didn't have much new work available when the Book Club of California honored him by issuing a de luxe edition of his work as Odes and Sonnets. At the same time they awarded him a bronze plaque for his contributions to California literature, an honor previously awarded only to such as Sterling and Bierce and Markham. But by the time he was ready to publish his next collection, Ebony and Crystal , styles in poetry had changed radically. So-called "pure" poetry of the sort he wrote was no longer in vogue, vers libre having replaced it as a result of innovations by such as Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell and Harriet Monroe, whose little magazine Poetry became the arbiter of poetic fashion. As a result he was unsuccessful in finding a new publisher, and instead had the book printed for him by a local admirer, Bert Cassidy of the Auburn Journal. The same year that Ebony and Crystal appeared also saw the publication of T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," which was the very antithesis stylistically of the longest poem in the collection, Smith's masterful "The Hashish-Eater," which was subtitled "The Apocalypse of Evil." Sterling praised the book, calling it "very colorful and imaginative-and utterly inhuman, as probably he proposed it to be."6 Sterling was possibly right about that, since part of what Smith was trying to do was to correct what he saw as an anthropocentric bias in literature, which he tried to correct by a "gesture towards the infinite."7 His next collection of poetry, Sandalwood, also published by the Journal, was definitely more human in spirit, consisting mostly of love lyrics along with translations from the French of Charles Baudelaire (Smith had taught himself French, ith the aid of the language teacher at the local high school, specifically for the purpose of translating Baudelaire). As a result of these two books, Smith began writing a column for the Auburn Journal that would often feature an original poem, a translation from the French, or assorted pensées and epigrams in the style of Oscar Wilde or H. L. Mencken (whose magazine Smart Set would publish Smith on more than one occasion).

Ebony and Crystal brought Smith a fan letter from H. P. Lovecraft, who was just starting to write the tales of horror which would bring him a worldwide reputation. Lovecraft would later write of Smith that "In sheer daemonic strangeness and fertility of conception, Mr. Smith is perhaps unexcelled by any other writer dead or living."8 The two never met but continued to correspond until Lovecraft's death in 1937. Possibly as a result of his new friendship, Smith resumed the writing of short stories, something he had left off despite early success, but this time the tales were of a highly imaginative and macabre nature. The Overland Monthly published the first of these, "The Abominations of Yondo," in 1926, to much reader outrage at the phantasmagorical imagery and delirium of the tale. During a camping trip to Crater Ridge in the Sierras in 1927, a friend of Smith's suggested that he should try writing for the various fantastic "pulp" magazines then being published. This would allow Smith to help care for his aging parents without having to submit to the drudgery of office work or to backbreaking physical labor—with both of which he had experience. Soon Smith was a frequent contributor both to Weird Tales, wherein appeared the bulk of Lovecraft's stories, and to Wonder Stories, the pioneering magazine published by the so-called "father of modern science fiction," Hugo Gernsback. It was for Gernsback that Smith wrote what is probably his best story, "The City of the Singing Flame," which was inspired by the awesome vistas at Crater Ridge.

Throughout the 1930's hardly a month would go by without a story appearing under the byline of Clark Ashton Smith in one or the other of the magazines. There he explored new worlds, ranging from Poseidonis, the last surviving island of sunken Atlantis, to Zothique, the last continent of earth under a dying red sun. Smith wrote of "half-shaped dooms and cryptic runes."9 Then in 1935 his parents became more and more ill, making it necessary for Smith to care for them. He wrote less and less, until a combination of their deaths, the death of Lovecraft, and his growing disgust with the idiocies of pulp editors caused him to return to writing poetry. Although Smith would live until 1961, he would write only a dozen more short stories, as contrasted with ninety-odd stories between 1928 and 1937.

It was during the period of his parents' illness that Smith began a new avocation, the carving of macabre figurines from soft rock taken from the Kilaga Mine in Lincoln, which was owned by his uncle, Edwin Gaylord, a former State Senator. Smith had done much drawing and painting in earlier years, even having exhibits of his work in San Francisco, Berkeley, and New York (where it attracted the attention of Alfred Steiglitz and invited comparisons with the French symbolist painter Odillon Redon.) A French magazine wrote of an exhibition of his paintings in New York that "this artist does not lack imagination in his compositions, which are enlivened by natural and spontaneous lyricism. The eye is delighted by a rich scale of color, and by the decorative value of those pieces which the artist has created with unfailing taste and laudable feeling."10 His figurines possesses an air of great antiquity and are often mistaken for pre-Columbian artifacts. Several exhibitions of the carvings were held in San Francisco and Sacramento, and Smith sold them to collectors as far away as Rhodesia and Australia.

Just when it looked as if Smith's work would languish in the yellowing pages of the pulps, it was rescued by two of his friends, August Derleth and Donald Wandrei. They had formed Arkham House in 1939 to publish the work of H. P. Lovecraft, and the next writer they published was to be Smith. 1942 saw the appearance of Smith's own selection of his best stories, Out of Space and Time. This was followed in 1944 by Lost Worlds and in 1948 by Genius Loci and Other Stories. Reviews in the science fiction magazines were positive, but outside of California the books were largely ignored or received inadequate reviews, especially in the New York Times. However, the Times had a history at that time of disparaging works of the imagination. This was, in fact, the time when Edmund Wilson panned the works of Lovecraft, M. R. James, and J. R. R. Tolkien almost simultaneously.

Arkham House also commissioned Smith's Selected Poems, the compilation of which occupied Smith for four years from 1945 to 1949. Although it was not to see print until ten years after his death, two other collections (The Dark Chateau in 1951 and Spells and Philtres in 1958) acted as stopgaps. The last collection to appear in his lifetime fittingly bore the title of his first weird story, The Abominations of Yondo, which appeared shortly before his death in August 1961.

During the 1940's Smith spent much time out of Auburn, visiting friends in the Bay area or in Monterey. Financial difficulties forced him to sell all but two of his acres to a local developer in 1941. Having very simple needs, he subsisted on what royalties he received from his books and from the odd magazine or anthology reprint, supplemented by what he could earn packing fruit, chopping wood, digging wells, typing, etc. There were periods when he had no money whatsoever and subsisted on handouts from friends. He often received various science fiction writers and fans at his cabin, relishing the company of kindred spirits. In 1954 he met Carolyn Dorman, a divorcee with three teenage children, at his friend Eric Barker's home in Monterey. They fell in love and married a month later, with Smith moving into her home in Pacific Grove. There he worked as a gardener until a series of strokes wore him down. Difficulties with the developer to whom he sold his land, a mysterious fire which destroyed his homestead, and a court order requiring him to fill in a mineshaft on the property that he had used as a cooler, all took their toll on him, and he died peacefully on August 14, 1961.

During the years following his death, Arkham House published Tales of Science and Sorcery (1964), with a moving memoir of Smith by his fellow Weird Tales writer E. Hoffmann Price; Poems in Prose (1964); Other Dimensions (1970); and the long-delayed Selected Poems (1971). One of Smith's stories, "The Return of the Sorceror," was sold to the Rod Serling television series Night Gallery for more money than Smith had made in a lifetime of writing. The first four Arkham collections were reprinted in hardcover in Great Britain, followed by paperback editions. In this country Ballantine Books followed up their successful paperback editions of Tolkien's Lord of the Ring trilogy with four collections of Smith's stories. Other editions appeared in Spanish, French, German, Italian, Greek, Swedish, Japanese, and Finnish.

Smith's stories were among the first in modern science fiction to break the formula that made much sf nothing but westerns with rocket ships. He was the first to attempt to create convincing nonhuman environments, and his stories often dealt with the attempts of his characters to survive where they were never meant to be. Likewise his extraterrestrials were not motivated by recognizable human desires, but were presented as mysteries. Smith also brought a rich and varied style of writing to his fiction that owed as much to the Symbolists as to Edgar Rice Burroughs. Both Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison credit Smith with inspiring them to become writers. Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles in particular owes much to Smith's own vision of the red planet, as described in "The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis" and "The Dweller in the Gulf," both stories of underground horrors described on our sister world.

Of the stories he wrote for Weird Tales, CAS proved to be the most consistent literate writer in the 1930's. Some readers and critics object to tales of the imagination as "mere escapism," but to use J. R. R. Tolkien's term Smith wrote not of the desertion of the soldier but the escape of the prisoner. Anyway, as Tolkien also observed, the group most opposed to the idea of escape are jailors. Many of Smith's stories deal with a socially isolated individual crossing the boundary into another world, but often this new world is no improvement upon the mundane one just abandoned; nonetheless, Smith's characters embrace it as a change from the dreary sameness of everyday existence. Often Smith's stories follow the path of the hero described by Joseph Campbell, but with some twists: in "The Maze of the Enchanter" the reader is lulled into identifying with the bold hero Tiglari, who is attempting to rescue the maiden Athlé from the clutches of the sorceror Maal Dweb, only to have it revealed that Maal Dweb is the real hero of the story, who transforms Tiglari into a great ape! Others of his stories, such as the "Phantoms of the Fire" and "Resurrection of the Rattlesnake," are realistic sketches owing much to the influence of Bierce, but Smith said that he was always happiest when he could make up everything about a story-including the setting. Thus one of his first stories for WEIRD TALES was a tale set in Atlantis, ironically titled "The Last Incantation." Following in its footsteps, he would then set "The End of the Story" in an imaginary medieval French province, Averoigne, whose topology owed much to the region around Placer County. His two best cycles of stories were set in the prehistoric Ice Age continent of Hyperborea and in the last continent of a dying earth, Zothique. It is typical of Smith's sense of irony that the last named series witnesses mankind's reversion in its last days to a quasi-medieval barbarism and that the old gods and demons had returned under new names. The Zothique cycle contains some of the most macabre prose ever written, was described by Smith as being in no way inferior to the works of Lord Dunsany or James Branch Cabell, a view which is generally held by critics today.

Today no books by Smith remain in print in English, although this is not the case for other languages. However, he has a huge presence on the Internet, with one website containing most of his poems, short stories, and even a selection of his artwork. This coming year, however, will see no less than five new editions of Smith's work, as well as a number of scholarly articles. Next month a British publisher will publish Clark Ashton Smith: Emperor of Dreams, a part of a distinguished series of classics of fantasy and science fiction. Smith's juvenile adventure novel The Black Diamonds is to see print any time now, and the same publisher will issue a collection of Smith's Best Fantastic Poetry. Finally, Arkham House will reprint A Rendevous in Averoigne latter this year, following it with The Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith. Smith is a writer whose following will never rival that of Stephen King, but who will continue to be read, year after year, by a select discerning few who understand what Ray Bradbury meant when he wrote that to "Take one step across the threshold of his stories , and you plunge into color, sound, taste, smell, and texture-into language."11


  1. Mrs. G. K. [sic] Hamilton, "A Poet and His Poetry." The Auburn Daily Journal (March 27, 1915): 1.
  2. Ambrose Bierce to George Sterling, August 8, 1911.
  3. Edward F. O'Day, "Varied Types: XC-Witter Bynner," Town Talk no. 1046 (September 7, 1942), 7.
  4. Quoted in "Local Poet Praised by Noted Author." The Auburn Journal (April 27, 1933): 1.
  5. Quoted in David Warren Ryder, "The Price of Poetry." Controversy (December 1934): 86. Rpt. in Continuity no. 8 (October 2000): 5.
  6. Quoted in Henry Dumont, "Excerpt from A Faun on Olympus." Continuity no.9 (February 2001): 9.
  7. Letter to the Editor. Strange Tales (January 1933). In Smith's Planets and Dimensions Collected Essays, ed. Charles K. Wolfe (Baltimore: The Mirage Press, 1973), p. 19.
  8. The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature, ed. S. T. Joshi (NY: Hippocampus Press, 2000), p. 55.
  9. "The Sorceror Departs." A Rendevous in Averoigne: Best Fantastic Tales of Clark Ashton Smith (Sauk City: Arkham House, 1988), p. v.
  10. Henri de Montel-Faubelle, "Clark Ashton Smith." Les Artistes d'aujourd'hui, art, littéraire, musique, théâtre (August 1, 1928): 17. Quoted in E. Hoffmann Price, The Book of the Dead (Sauk City: Arkham House, 2001), p. 96.
  11. Ray Bradbury, "Introduction" to A Rendevous in Averoigne: Best Fantastic Tales of Clark Ashton Smith, p. x.
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