Clark Ashton Smith: Forgotten Poet of Auburn

Ronald S. Hilger

To most of the residents of Auburn, CA, the name Clark Ashton Smith holds little or no significance, unless, perhaps, it is associated with a street by the name of Poet Smith Drive located in the Skyridge section of town. The handful of folks who have heard of Poet Smith, might describe him as an odd recluse who lived in a little shack on the outskirts of town, and wrote a column in the Auburn newspaper for several years. Nor is this lack of recognition peculiar to the Auburn area, but is sadly apparent throughout the United States.

This was not the case, however, when the young poet was officially "discovered" in 1912, a few months prior to the publication of his first book of poetry The Star-Treader and other Poems. At that time he was hailed as a genius, a prodigy. He was compared to Keats, Byron, Shelley, his poetry admired by George Sterling, Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, and other famous California writers. When Poet Smith turned to writing fiction in the form of short horror and fantasy stories in the 1930's, he was greatly admired by writers such as H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Frank Belknap Long, and exerted considerable influence on these and other well-known writers.

Today, the prose and poetry of Clark Ashton Smith has shown a remarkable endurance, influencing and admired by such contemporary writers as Ray Bradbury, Harlan Ellison and the late Fritz Leiber. His work has also been well-received abroad, a series of British paperbacks has seen numerous reprintings, and his work has been translated into French, German, Italian, and even Japanese.

Why then, is the literary work of Clark Ashton Smith so highly acclaimed and internationally recognized, yet he remains known to only a relatively small audience?

One reason for Smith's modest success in Europe is due to the British fascination with the macabre, or "Dark Fantasy" as they refer to this genre. The fiction of Clark Ashton Smith, as well as a good deal of his poetry, falls perfectly into this category. Another reason is that many Europeans are discovering Smith for the first time, as his work has only recently been translated into the various European languages.

This is not to say that Smith is without American admirers, to the contrary, there remains a small but still growing, fervently dedicated American following, including many Auburnites. The scarcity of Smith's admirers is partially due to the scarcity of his published work. I have spent over a dozen years attempting to assemble a complete Smith collection at the cost of several hundred dollars, and still lack many important titles. If it were not for the impressive Smith collection belonging to the Auburn library, I would have had no access at all to many of these rare books.

Another, more obvious reason Ashton Smith has never achieved widespread popularity, is that the "General Reading Public" would simply rather read contemporary novels of intrigue, romance and adventure, than short stories of fantasy and the macabre.

One of the main reasons for Smith's obscurity, however, is inherent in his elaborate style of writing, which many readers find too difficult, sometimes characterized as "too wordy". Poet Smith was a highly original writer who utilized an incredibly vast vocabulary, meticulously polished to the highest levels of technical skill. He would revise the average story 3, 4, or even 5 times, reading each draft aloud to check the smoothness of the narrative and proper word choices. He wrote in this painstaking manner to satisfy his own individual expectations rather than those of the "General Reading Public", resulting in a writing style which is, in his own words "worse than wasted on the average reader, even if presumably literate." Obviously, Smith was well aware that his writing would not be appreciated by most readers, but remained unwilling to lower his standards in order to achieve popularity, or even financial stability. Considering the poverty in which Smith lived his entire life, this decision was nothing less than heroic.

The average reader, then, would be well advised to take some extra time when reading Smith, and keep a decent dictionary handy, and more importantly, USE IT! You will be well rewarded with subtle ironies, pulse-quickening terrors, tender and poignant emotions, and plenty of humor and satire. Clark Ashton Smith is the most effective writer I have yet encountered, frequently bringing tears to the eyes or goose-bumps to the flesh. You may burst out laughing one moment and then curse his audacity the next, but you will not remain unaffected.

During his lifetime Smith was referred to by many appellations, such as: The Keats of the Pacific, The Boy-genius of the Sierra, The Poet of Science Fiction, The Bard of Auburn, The Poet of Boulder Ridge, and The Hermit of Stony-Lonesome Ridge. As some of these titles indicate, Smith was by nature reclusive, reticent, and extremely sensitive. And although he shared the desire of all writers to see his work in print, he lacked the out-going personality which could only have helped in presenting and selling his work. These natural traits only increased his reputation as an "odd hermit" which in turn increased his reclusion and sensitivity. Apparently Smith was as misunderstood by most of his fellow Auburnites as his writing continues to be misunderstood today by the "General Reading Public".

Again, this is not to say that Smith was friendless. Although he never made friends easily, he did in fact enjoy many genuine, rewarding, and lifelong friendships through correspondence as well as in person, including such notables as George Sterling, H.P. Lovecraft, and Robert E. Howard.

Some outstanding examples of Ashton Smith's Auburn friends include; Robert B. Elder, a journalist and accomplished novelist in his own right; Ethyl Heiple, Violet Nelson Heyer, Genevieve Sully and family, including daughters Helen Trimble and Marian Schenck. Other friends sought out the Bard of Auburn in appreciation of his poetry and weird fiction, including George Haas, Eric Barker, Madelynne Greene, E. Hoffmann Price, Rah Hoffman, Donald Sidney-Fryer, Fritz Leiber, and many others. The remembrances and tributes paid to Poet Smith by these friends unanimously depict him as an honest, reserved, dignified gentleman with deep feelings and the highest regard for the unjaded truth, a genuine philosopher.

It was Fritz Leiber who wrote, in a letter to Donald Sidney-Fryer, "Smith is sui generis, one of the most uninfluenced and original writers I know of. A germ from Poe, a little fire from George Sterling, perhaps an acid drop from Bierce, the color and cruelty of Eastern legends. . . The more a writer stands alone, the slower posterity is to put him at his rightful level." Until his death last September, Fritz Leiber was at the center of a small circle of writers, artists, and Fantasy enthusiasts who have steadfastly carried the torch of Smith's legacy since his death in 1961. If not for the sad circumstance of his own recent death, Fritz would certainly have attended this centennial tribute.

Today there are fresh signs of a resurgence of interest in Clark Ashton Smith and his writings, as indicated by this Centennial conference. There are several books by or about Poet Smith currently in print and more are planned, thanks to the enthusiastic support of Professor William Dorman, representing CASiana Literary Enterprises; Arkham House Publishers, who currently have in print an excellent omnibus collection entitled A Rendezvous in Averoigne, Necronomicon Press, who has published a series of booklets by and about CAS, mostly under the meticulous editing of Steve Behrends, The Auburn Journal, who over the years has printed several articles regarding Poet Smith, and the staff of the Auburn Public Library must all be credited for their efforts in keeping alive the legacy of the Bard of Auburn.

We can only hope that more people here in Auburn, and indeed across the country, will come to recognize that a Poet and Author of true genius was born and lived nearly his entire life in this small foothill community, and that the contributions of this Poet-Author will endure throughout the ages as classic examples of inspired literary genius. And that is something of which the people of Auburn can justifiably remain eternally proud.

Article From: One Hundred Years of Klarkash-Ton, The Averon Press, 1996.

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