This Week:
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In 1890 Cincinnatus Hiner Miller, aka Joaquin Miller, was world famous, America's most popular playwright, and a highly successful author. So how come you have never heard of him? A big part of it is that he is so hard to characterize, being neither fish, nor fowl but a strange creature that is both and neither and something else altogether. Oregon in the 1850's was an extremely unlikely place to produce a world famous poet. In follows that the world famous poet it did produce was an extremely unlikely one. When Miller was growing up in Oregon it was the rawest frontier: a handful of people, a few settlements, everybody was either a hunter, a farmer, a miner. And in this environent Miller decided that he wanted to become a poet like Lord George Gordon Byron. He made a pretty good run at the Byronic appearance. Literary sophistication was a somewhat higher hurdle. Apparently he mustered enough poetry to do well with the ladies, being involved to a greater or lesser degree with (clockwise from top right) Miriam Foline Florence Leslie, Ina Colbrith, Lola Montez and Adah Isaacs Menken along with numerous others including at least two wives. He was among the first to exploit the western mystique thirty years before Buffalo Bill established his Wild West Show. He was also one of the first use the new mass media to become a celebrity. Some of his fame came from being famous and he invented some of the now familiar techniques for stoking the star maker machine. He lead a very interesting life and he did some work that deserves to be read. Unwritten History is a snapshot of the fleeting moment when the frontier was brand new and before the Indians were overwhelmed. True Bear Stories is another book that is still being read. He wrote some short stories that I think are pretty good. You can check out The silks of Mary St Clair for a taste of his work. He did a fair amount of magazine and newspaper articles which have never been collected. I think it hurts that most of his published output is poetry and no one in our day reads poetry. So is Miller worth remembering? I can't say he is a great writer but some of his stuff is interesting. And his life may be more remarkable than his work. He was admittedly a libertine, a poor husband and a worse parent. But consider this: He set out to be a poet with a background that offered absolutely nothing in the way of resoursces or training for such a program and yet he went to the place that was the most sophisticated literary capitol of his era and held his own with Ford Madox Bown, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the rest of their circle. That should count for something.
Purple Pioneer
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