The strange thing about Joaquin Miller as a poet is that he became one at all. There was nothing in his background to naturally lead him to a career in poetry. His upbringing was not just rural, but the rawest frontier with only the lightest stamp of civilzation upon it. He was born around 1837 in Indiana, at that time the leading edge of the western expansion. Around 1852 his family found that too confining and crossed half the continent to settle in a remote section of the Willamette valley in Oregon near where the city of Eugene now stands. Around 1854, he left the family farm for the gold fields of northern California. At this time he would have been around 17 years old. At that age and with that background he came to Yreka which was in his words, "the first city I had ever seen." Five years earlier this site was untamed wilderness, now it was a gold rush town of more than 5,000 people from all corners of the earth and not a woman or child to be seen. This was Miller's background and it sets him apart from almost every other literary figure.
So what made a pioneer's son decide to become a poet? His parents were literate and it was not unusual for pioneers to become preachers or teachers and Miller certainly knew both in his growing up. And many western towns had at least one newspaper that would run poetry supplied by their readers. But all this is a long way from making poetry a career. The other western writers, Clemens, Harte, Bierce et al, all had considerably more civilized beginnings. They visited the mines and then came away to tell their stories. Miller lived the miner's life to a degree that none of the others did, spending whole years in mining camps not as a visiting journalist but as a miner grubbing for treasure in the cold mud.
Those who accuse him of being a mediocre poet have some justice on their side. Every environment molds those who inhabit it and pioneer life encourages some behaviors and discouraged others. A typically frontier flaw is a willingness to settle for 'good enough.' Pioneers were pioneers because they were more likely to move on to new pastures instead of working and re-working old ground. Much of Miller's poetry would have benefited from some editing and reworking. But this was not the pioneer way, better to move on to something fresh and hope for better luck. His reputation also suffers from his decision to position himself as a poet. America is not kind to its poets and Miller might have done better to emphasize his other output. He was the second most successful playwright in 19th century America, right after Harriet Beecher Stowe. He was a prolific journalist and speaker and wrote a number of prose works that fall somewhere between memoir and fiction.
I think Miller is at his best when he tells of life in the mining camps. This is mostly unwritten history. When people talk about the American west, there is a tendency to see it as a timeless whole where Kit Carson (1809-1868) and Buffalo Bill Cody(1845-1917) walk the same stage. In fact the American west was very dynamic with each decade being radically different from those that preceded and followed. Much of our picture of the west dates from 1880 and after when the railroads and telegraph made news from the far reaches accessible to the eastern population centers. The early days, the gold rushes of the '50s and '60s are less reported, especially the biggest of the all: the great rush of the 49ers. And here Miller is one of the best witnesses and he has many interesting tales to tell. We all know that what women there were in the gold camps were loose women but finding that one of the most notable in one camp was known as 'Bunker Hill' on account of her prominent hunchback brings a new light on things.
When he strays too far from his roots, his flaws become more apparent. One of his last works was "The Building of the City Beautiful." This is a strange book, first issued in a very limited edition in 1894 and later reissued for the general public in 1905. I see this book listed under poetry at times although I would say the poetry/prose ratio is about 50:50. It is mostly utopian fantasy with a little bit about the creation and rationale for "The Hites," his estate in the Oakland hills which in now a city park. Like so much of Miller's production, The Hites is a mix of genuine inspiration, wild over ambition and slipshod execution. So too, with the book. I found the book most interesting at its most mundane when Miller is giving some details about the creation and operation of his hillside estate. The opening and closing sections with its mixture of utopian fantasy and mysticism is so unmoored from anything believable that it is difficult to focus on it.