We added the final step in Miller's development of this material: "The Danites - a Play in 4 Acts." This is probably Miller's most sucessful workas it was one of the most popular plays of the 19th century. Many of the themes in the earlier works reappear but, unlike "First Famlies", he takes the time to smooth things out and make everything fit together. Written in 1877, it is a broadly sketched melodrama, typical of its time but it is fairly well crafted. I think that putting it before a live audience may have helped Miller in this regard because his great weakness was laziness. The presence of a live audience may have impelled him to take the time to make everything fit together. We are closing in on an actual ebook. We still need a cover and the table of contents isn't quite right, but we are getting there.
These stories by Joaquin Miller, like Miller himself, have been almost completely forgotten for a century. Is there any reason to dig them out now?
I can offer two reasons why these works are worth reading today. One historical and the other artistic. First, the historical. The western gold rush camps were a unique environment. A world of young men, adventure, instant wealth and sudden death with no laws except those they agreed upon among themselves. Other writers described these camps, notably Mark Twain and Bret Harte but they were just passing through. Miller lived in these camps for years from the time he was barely out of adolescence. Over the years he lived in gold rush towns from Yreka to Orofino and finally as a county judge in Canyon City, Oregon.
In "Last Man of Mexican Camp" he says:
The cabin was a true and perfect relic of what might, geologically speaking, be termed a period in the plastic formation of the Republic. Great pine logs, one above the other, formed three of its walls; the fourth was made up by a fire place, constructed of boulders and adobe. The bed had but one post; a pine slab, supported by legs set in the center of the earthen floor, formed a table; the windows were holes, chiseled out between the logs, that could be closed with wooden plugs in darkness or danger. Let these cabins not be despised. Their builders have done more for the commerce of the world than is supposed. Some day some cunning and earnest hand will picture them faithfully, and they will not be forgotten.
But in many ways they have been forgotten. In their very rudeness the real early gold rush cabins and shanties have disappeared without a trace even in our memories. Even though Miller is derided as an unreliable fabulist I think his depiction of the details of camp life are accurate. Before reading Miller I never thought of Forty-niners as always wearing hip-height rubber boots or of saloon bars packed with sand bags but now they always will be part of my image of the original wild west.
A number of eighteenth and nineteenth century observers who were there and therefore ought to know have said that the hunters had a fundamentally different character from the planters and the woodsmen were a different race from the plainsmen even though one may be descended from the other. In the same sense Miller insists that the men of the mining camps were a species unto themselves. And Miller's stories are about the only chance we have to know anything about this vanished race.
Now to the artistic considerations. I cannot claim that Miller was a great artist but I will say that he is as unusual as the culture of the gold camps. Miller was a product of the American far west in the 1840's and 50's. The only way for any bit of civilization to reach the west coast was by six months of roadless walking or six months sailing around the horn or perhaps slightly less time in a mixture of both via Panama. Miller grew up in a world where lumber was abundant and there for the taking but it is likely that his home did not have a dozen nails in it. How many books had he seen by the time he was 17? It is probable that there were a few people among his neighbors (what there were of them) who had a rudimentary education. It is possible that none of them had more than that. Where did the ambition to be a poet come from?
Considering where he started, he went surprisingly far. And that is why I group these three stories together: it offers a chance to see a basically self-educated man teach himself to write fiction. If you are not interested in the process of writing, I suggest you skip the short stories and go right to the "First Famlies" because he reuses everything in the earlier pieces there. If you want good writing, just read "Last Man" which is Miller's best work, and stands up well in any company. If you wade through it all, you will learn a little about the craft of writing fiction and a lot about life in the California gold camps of the 1850's.
Dave Driscoll October, 2016Start reading Last Man of Mexican Camp