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Lincoln Steffens in Carmel

Meremar, above, was the home of Lincoln Steffens from 1927 until his death in 1936. The last 17 years of Genevieve Stebbins’s life were spent in Monterey County, most of that time in Carmel-by-the-Sea. It was a haven for creative geniuses.

Donna Marek’s Crème de Carmel is a charming guide to local history.  She reports: “The first Spanish mission in the area was the Presideo Chapel built in 1770 in Monterey, but the following year it was relocated on the Carmel River and renamed the Mission San Carlos de Borremeo.” [Donna Marek, Crème de Carmel, 8.]  Monterey became the capital of both Californias in 1770, and continued as capital of only Alta California under Spanish rule in 1804, continuing as capital under Mexican sovereignty from 1822 through 1846. Carmel remained undeveloped except for the Carmel Mission and nearby ranches until 1888 when eighty acres in Carmel Woods was subdivided into lots. The community of Carmel-by-the-Sea was created in 1903 and rapidly developed with home sites and businesses. It was incorporated as a town on October 31, 1916.

By the late 1920s the atmosphere had changed, as it was no longer an artist colony but a popular beach resort, as reported by biographer Justin Kaplan. It continued to attract famous writers but Kaplan reports that by 1927, when Lincoln Steffens arrived, “the real colony had disappeared” but Steffens welcomed visits from Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. [Justin Kaplan, Lincoln Steffens, 326.] Marek reports that “Steffens also knew John and Carol Steinbeck, and suggested that Steinbeck write a series of articles for the San Francisco News about the Oklahoma migrants and how they were treated in Monterey County. Over the next four years, those articles led to Steinbeck’s writing The Grapes of Wrath.” [Donna Marek, Creme de Carmel, 29.]

Robert Louis Stevenson had lived for several months in Monterey in 1879 and wrote articles for the Monterey Californian.  Carmel is featured in Treasure Island.  The poet Robinson “Jeffers moved to Carmel in 1916 where he and his wife raised their two sons…Jeffers built their home—called Tor house—near the ocean, an undertaking that took five years.” [Ibid., 30.] The Benedict Cottage in Carmel on Scenic Drive was the site of evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson’s 1926 scandal. “The stories that surfaced about her affair threw Carmel into the national limelight.”[Ibid, 31.]

The Sea Lion Point Trail at Point Lobos is the most easily accessible short walk to scenic overlooks where the rocky shoreline and sandy beaches can be viewed from above.  The name Point Lobos would seem to imply that wolves inhabited the area, but the Spanish term for what we call Sea Lions translates to Sea Wolf, which Jack London used as a title for a book about seafarers based in the central California coast. [Jerry Emory, Monterey Bay Shoreline Guide, 254-55.]

Lincoln Steffens relocated to Carmel-by-the-Sea several years after the Astleys moved there. He is not often associated with “the occult” but his biographer Justin Kaplan commented “Despite his later claim that he had shunned the fraternities as all bunk and pretension, Steffens was glad to belong to Zeta Psi, the oldest of Berkeley’s Greek-letter societies.  And it was on his urging that Frederick Willis, his closest friend in college, also joined. Willis was interested in theosophy, the survival of the soul after death, ‘sacred occultism,’ and parapsychology, and considered himself an expert mesmerist. Like many other students he had given himself over to the passion that motivated William James, in 1884, to establish an American Society for Psychical Research with its various committees on Thought Transference, hypnotism, and Apparitions and Haunted Houses.  In the Zeta Psi fraternity house near Bancroft Way, Steffens took instruction from Willis and began his own experiments with mesmerism, clairvoyance and thought transference.” [Justin Kaplan, Lincoln Steffens, 30.]

When Steffens was an undergraduate, Berkeley was not the thriving intellecual community it later became. Kaplan reports that “as an intellectual community, as a breeding place for philosophers, William James had said in 1883, ‘it’s a poor place’; and some of his disciples who had been invite to teach there with a sense of going into exile. Yet it was at Berkeley, fifteen years later, that James, reading his paper ‘Philosophical Conceptions and Practical Results,’ first announced pragmatism as a theory of truth and formulated his subsequent creed.”(Ibid., 29.]

Mary Craig gives an amusing anecdote about Lincoln Steffens, in which Upton insists on a morning hike in cold weather and refuses to wait for Steffens to drink some coffee.  An hour later “Upton hurried into the kitchen to prepare breakfast for his guest, and Steffens sat next to the blaze and asked grimly, ‘Does he wake up like that every day?’ ‘Yes,’ I said sweetly. Isn’t it wonderful?’ `Maybe so,’ said Steff. But he won’t get another chance to take me strolling before I get my coffee! He talked a steady stream of politics for half an hour! How do you stand such a fellow?’”[Mary Craig Sinclair, Southern Belle, 171.]

Astrology and natal chart of Lincoln Steffens, born on 1866/04/06 (astrotheme.com)

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