CAS - A Reminiscence

Robert B. Elder

It is pleasant to look back and recall old friends and incidents of association with them. I often remember my acquaintance with Clark Ashton Smith with a great deal of nostalgia and even a little wonder, our meeting and subsequent friendship was so unexpected and unplanned—on both sides I am sure.

I had known who Clark was ever since I was a small boy. Auburn was a small town then—less than three thousand population—and people were better aware of their neighbors. I think most people knew who Clark was, although few could claim close acquaintance with him. He was a familiar figure on Auburn's streets, walking with a curious loping stride that was particularly his own, usually carrying a little satchel (I never learned what was in it), and generally exhibiting a preoccupied air as if his mind dwelt on things other than his immediate surroundings.

That preoccupied air also had a hint of unapproachability about it, as if not inviting close contact from others; but whether this was deliberate on his part or not, I am uncertain. At first I was inclined to think, as did a great many other people in Auburn, that he wanted people to leave him alone. But when I came to know him better, I grew to believe much of it was timidity and sensitiveness—that he would have welcomed friends but did not know exactly how to acquire them. I have heard people say they tried to cultivate Clark but found it impossible to break through his reserve. When I came to know him, I found him warm and friendly, but always suspicious of the motives of others.

It was only during the last half dozen years of Clark's life that I came to know him intimately, but in that brief time I probably knew him as well as anyone. I was the only person besides his wife who was present at both his wedding and his funeral; and a great many, if not most, of his possessions came to me.

I always called him Clark, although he had various appellations from those who knew him. His wife always addressed him as Ashton. In school he was simply Clark Smith, as I discovered from looking at some of his class papers. I believe it was H.P. Lovecraft who coined the curious name, Klarkash-Ton, which he used in their correspondence, and which some others adopted. Reviewers and critics simply referred to him as Smith, as they might have referred to Byron or Longfellow. His writings carried his full name, Clark Ashton Smith.

I was a newspaper reporter for the Auburn Journal when I came to know Clark. Although we might nod or emit a brief "hello" when we passed on the street, I don't believe I had ever exchanged half a dozen words with him before that time. I was vaguely curious about him, as I was about all writers, and thought he might be interesting to know, but I shared the general feeling that he was unapproachable.

One day when on my newspaper rounds to the court house, I was informed by a clerk that Clark Ashton Smith had just taken out a license and was on his way to be married. It caused considerable surprise as he was past middle age and had always been considered a confirmed bachelor, but it sounded like news, so I called the camera man and we hastened to the office of the justice of the peace, where the ceremony was in progress. We photographed the happy couple and my brief interview with Clark was the first conversation I had ever held with him. He appeared mildly nervous and his wife sentimentally tearful.

The following day I received a phone call from the San Francisco Examiner, asking for details of the event. I felt pleased that Clark was sufficiently well known to interest the San Francisco press, but I shortly learned that they were really more concerned with his wife.

She was the former Carol Dorman, and was related to a reputedly wealthy San Francisco family with impressive financial interests, The press man who called me was under the impression that Clark had married an heiress. He assured me off-hand that they would undoubtedly have a European honeymoon and that Clark "would get on the well with the international set, as he spoke their language." All this sounded good to me, so I did a foolish thing for a newspaper man, I inserted a sentence in my news story without actually checking further that "the couple were reportedly planning a European honeymoon."

As it turned out, the new Mrs.. Smith, although having rich relatives, did not share their wealth. In truth she was about as poor as Clark; and both the newlyweds were astonished to read about their plans in my article.

"Oh, my dear! We don't have that kind of money!" she informed me in a telephone call a couple of days later; and I had to made confused apologies about the whole mistake. Fortunately she seemed more amused than irked; and in later years when I knew them better, we often laughed about their European honeymoon which existed only in the minds of two newspaper men.

Although I had interviewed Clark and chatted with his wife, the Smiths were still very much strangers to me; so I was more than a little surprised some time later to receive a letter, this time from Clark himself, inviting me to dinner at their home. I was completely bewildered as to why, since Clark had the reputation of being anything but sociable, and I could not imagine what he could want with me. I was a little nervous about accepting, not knowing what I would talk about or how we would get on. But if I ever expected to know Clark here was the chance; and I was on fire with curiosity as to why he had invited me. So I went.

It was a pleasant spring afternoon when I found my way to Clark's rustic home, then concealed in a wooded area south of Auburn, and with some trepidation approached the door. Both the Smiths received me congenially, and I was shown into Clark's den—a small room as I recall, piled with papers and magazines, and lamp-lit. (They had neither plumbing nor electricity). The house, though primitive, was homelike and comfortable, and Clark was always fond of it. In summer time Clark's family used to move tables and furniture outside, and lived under the oaks. There was no gardening, all seeming to prefer natural surroundings. Water came from an old mine tunnel behind the house, which also served as a refrigerator to keep food fresh and cool.

Carol Smith was busy preparing dinner, so she bowed out, and I was left alone for the first time with Clark. It was then I learned why I had been invited to dinner.

Some time before I had written a novel dealing with a young man who was out of tune with his times and the world in general. Entitled Whom the Gods Destroy, it expressed in no uncertain terms the protest and disillusionment felt by many in the troubled years following the war. It had aroused antipathy in some quarters—particularly the military—and got me investigated by some organizations, for which I cared not a dime, although I have always had to contend with attempts to suppress the work. Now as I sat with Clark, wondering what we should talk about, he picked up my book from the table and informed me: "You are writing about me."

I was astonished to say the least. I don't think Clark was any more surprised to learn from me that he was going to Europe on his honeymoon than I was to learn that he was the subject of my book. But it gave us something to talk about. In a few minutes we were involved in deep discussion, all constraint forgotten; and from that time on, he and I were firm friends.

I had a moment's trepidation as to his reaction, because many people were antagonized by it, but Clark liked my book and was delighted with the portrait of the main character, which he believed he had inspired. He told me frankly: "I don't like the things other people write about me, They don't understand me." But this particular character in a fictitious novel suited him to a "T". He always referred to the book as his "soul biography," and I believe he remained convinced to his dying day that he inspired it.

In the months that followed our acquaintance grew. I visited the Smiths on numerous occasions, and he was a visitor to my home. We discussed our writing, literature in general, nature, our likes and dislikes, Our tastes were not always the same, but we had enough similar interests to make our talks stimulating. Since the Smiths had entertained me, I wanted to respond and suggested they be my guests at a restaurant, but Clark demurred. His wife had to explain to me afterwards; "Clark never goes anywhere where there are people."

But I found one of Auburn's older hotels which had a very quiet dining room, often almost deserted; and Clark consented to come. In the relaxed atmosphere with only a handful of other diners, he seemed to unbend and enjoy himself.

I had to learn not to ask Clark questions about himself. The slightest suggestion that I—or anyone—was probing into his life immediately stung him into silence. He was intensely sensitive concerning his privacy and resented the least hint of prying. I have generally refrained from writing about him, as he stressed to me so many times his deep aversion to "being dug up by the ghouls who called themselves biographers" as he expressed it. Even in an informal recollection such as this, I have taken pains to avoid touching any of the personal things I know of him because of his deep and often expressed antipathy to such. But once I had mastered my newspaper man's impulse to ask questions, we got on famously.

I was interested in his literary contacts. Clark was not unknown to his fellow writers and had met or corresponded with a number of well-known figures. I have a letter from the poet, Edwin Markham, congratulating Clark on his work. Another California poet, George Sterling, was Clark's mentor and aided him in getting his first book published. Sterling's good friend, Jack London, was also aware of Clark and invited him to visit his home at Glen Ellen. Clark did not accept because he did not have the means to travel or the clothes to wear, excusing himself on some other grounds. I could never find any correspondence with London among Clark's papers, so I assume the invitation was extended verbally through Sterling. The latter also wanted Clark to visit him at Carmel, but again Clark demurred for the same reasons. Sterling was more persistent and continued to pester him with invitations until a friend of Clark's informed Sterling of the real reason. The poet then sent Clark a bus ticket to Carmel and offered to outfit him in a suit of clothes if he would come. Clark accepted, and spent some time with Sterling, enjoying the opportunity of meeting artists and writers of the area. He seemed better able to adapt himself to the life of the artist colony than to his home town, and in after years made many visits to the Monterey peninsula, which became a second home to him.

Clark was a very generous person. He had little to give, but what he did have he was always bestowing on me. It might be one of his own poems with his signature, or one of his carvings or drawings. He gave me numerous books from his library. Not books he had written himself but others he had acquired over the years. I asked him once about some of his own books and was surprised to learn he did not have them. He admitted to me he had to sell all copies of his early books out of necessity—a sad instance of a writer too poor to possess his own work.

The closing years of his life were sad ones for Clark. Particularly after his home was destroyed by fire, he seemed to grow depressed. He had given his life to poetry, and I think always believed someday he would gain recognition, but as he grew older and saw little sign of this, it saddened him. His prose stories, which he undertook mainly to make a little money and which were ultimately to bring him most of his renown, he did not feel to be his true genre. He usually smiled in a deprecating manner when he spoke of them, although a close analysis of the better ones shows that some of his best talent went into them. I believe he always considered himself a poet.

I had the sad privilege of writing his obituary and arranging his burial when he died. By his own wish he was cremated immediately after his death, and his widow then brought his ashes to Auburn. She arrived late at night, and for some reason went immediately to Clark's old home with the intention of interring the remains. But the loneliness of the spot and the night sounds frightened her so that she dropped everything

and fled back to town. The next morning she came to me and tearfully recited her experience. I said Clark deserved a decent burial, gathered some tools, and we went back to the site where I picked out an attractive spot beneath the oaks and buried the ashes beside a large boulder. Clark's father had also been cremated and his ashes were in the Smith home when it burned. Carol and I ascertained where they would have been, and I obtained a shovel full of mould and added it to Clark's grave, hoping the ashes of father and son were together.

Carol brought all of Clark's possessions to my home and stored them in an upstairs room. They included his library, fantasy magazines, correspondence, stacks of drawings and paintings, note books and other property. From time to time I would leaf through them, gaining many interesting insights into his life and talents. In time his widow retrieved many of the articles and distributed them among Clark's friends, but I have retained some of the more interesting ones.

It seems remarkable to me that a man who lived as retired and obscure a life as Clark has influenced as many people as he has. If his poetry has not yet attained the wide acceptance he hoped for, his fantasy stories have certainly exceeded his expectations. They have been widely circulated here and abroad and have been translated into many languages. Clark has a devoted and widespread following among the admirers of science fiction, and is rightly esteemed a pioneer in the field.

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

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