Clark Ashton Smith, Virgin

Raine Bennett

Introductory Note

The cherry-snows are falling now ... Brief as the snow their stainless white.
-- Clark Ashton Smith, "The Cherry-Snows"

The mists of time veil many things. Most things, really, when you stop to think about it. They conceal, in with the rest, the day Clark Ashton Smith awoke as a virgin and retired otherwise; we know nothing whatever about it.

Yet for all that this hidden day must have been — it has for man nearly the certainty of death or taxes — I can scarcely conceive of it. Clark Ashton Smith a virgin, ever, at any time? I imagine him entering the world, randy and experienced. This man, this iconoclast, this poet, this Don Juan of the foothills, this John-John Kennedy of the hermit/literati set, was a womanizer of the first water. "If you know any superfluous virgins," he requests of poet George Sterling, "you might give them my address. But tell them to bring enough money for return fare!"1 This wholesome sentiment echoes in his dictum: "I never make love to girls. 'Only married women need apply.'"2

To hear Smith tell it, his successes were legion. That sententious voice we experience in "The Elder Tapes," positively thrilling in its grandeur, whispered duplicitous nothings into the ears of countless housewives. (And how could they be expected to resist the amorous advances of the local poet, when their husbands all sold auto insurance?) They hung like trophies on the wall of Smith's mind: "I had a dull time during the holidays (everybody's husband was home, not to mention the children!)."3 They left the wall without ceremony: "I haven't seen my ladyfriend ... for some time: she's had her father on her hands for the past fortnight. Methinks I'll begin hunting for an orphan!"4

Again, the mind rebels. Ever a time of innocence for the creator of "Ripe Mulberries"?

Under the spreading mulberry tree
When the purple fruit was falling free, I got horny and had some nooky
With my hot cookie
And she had some with me.5

Or for the poet of "The Temptation" ("One, with deft lascivious fingers / Holds the soft and coral chalice / Of her rounded vulva gaping / For the horizontal phallus"?)6 Hyperbole aside, Smith must surely have been a virgin for nearly two decades; but I am equally sure that he viewed the period as a profound waste of time. We find this attitude in his fiction. Given the number of stories he composed — over 100 — and the concomitant crop of characters he created — 300? 400? — chance alone would dictate that some number of these should be inexperienced in the ways of love. But few of them are happy. The only happy virgins I can think of in Smith's fiction are those two oddballs from "The Witchcraft of Ulua," Sabmon and Amalzain. Sabmon dwells in a but of bones; this alone explains his condition, if not his complacency. Amalzain wishes only to study his algebra; I can add nothing to this.

But enough. Let us turn now to the dark days before Smith's deflowering. Thanks to the researches of S. T. Joshi, that inveterate Blower of the Mists of Time, we have been given a glimpse into a might-have-been. The anecdote we present below was related by Raine Bennett to the infamous H. L. Mencken. Of Raine Bennett I know very little; from his letter to Mencken we gather he was part of the San Francisco literary set in the 1910s, and he knew both Smith and his mentor Sterling. In 1917, some years after the story told below, Bennett offered to publish Smith's second poetry collection — this would have been Ebony and Crystal — gratis,7 but nothing ever came of it.

Bennett tells us he met Smith on the poet's first visit to San Francisco, at. 17. We think he is off, here: Smith had not started corresponding with Sterling, his host in S.F. and environs, until after his eighteenth birthday. He paid a long visit to Sterling, perhaps his first, in June 1912 when he was nineteen; this was perhaps the time of Bennett's meeting.

This anecdote is a fine chuckle. The misfire described therein, Smith was to correct at some later date. One month after the long visit to S.F. and Carmel, Smith complained to Sterling, "I'd have a better chance with the girls of the place [Auburn] if I weren't such a pariah."8 Was this a virgin's lonely whine, or the frustrated whine of a fellow who has had a taste and wants more? Had dear old George Sterling persisted in his endeavors and succeeded? Again, those mists.

In closing, my mind is drawn to an epigram of Smith's. It argues that the only difference between hyenas and biographers — or snoopy critics in general — is that hyenas don't write.

-- Steve Behrends

* * *

Room 1438,
George Washington Hotel,
New York 10, N.Y.
26 November 1950

Mr. H. L. Mencken,
Baltimore, Md.

Dear Mr. Mencken:

This being a quiet Sunday following what the papers describe as one of Manhattan's "worst gales in history" I have indulged in a favorite indoor sport: browsing through the books of my choice. At the moment, I have finished a succulent chapter in your Newspaper Days entitled "A Girl From Red Lion, P.A."9

It recalls an experience, with a few similarities, which the late George Sterling and I had in San Francisco some years ago. Thinking it might amuse you now, I am moved to put it down on paper:

At the time, I was publishing a little art magazine called Bohemia which relied upon local talent for its stories, verses and drawings. Sterling was an occasional contributor. Moreover, he used to round up promising recruits. And so it happened one day that he brought a young man into the editorial cell who had just arrived — not from Red Lion, P.A., but from Auburn, California. George introduced him as Clark Ashton Smith. Verging on 17,10 he wrote precocious rather than atrocious poetry, and had recently achieved publication as the author of "Nero,"11 hailed by a few discerning San Franciscans as comparable to "Thanatopsis" which Bryant wrote, I believe, when around the same age.

My office, then, was on the upstairs corner of Commercial and Montgomery streets where, not long before, a madame and her five girls had been dispossessed — not because of their social activities, but because patronage had not been brisk enough to pay the rent. So our quarters were garish, and Bohemia flourished amid the ruins until our own patronage dealt us a similar fate.

After introducing Clark Ashton Smith, George asked if he would be good enough to wait in one of the rear cribs (from which I had removed the bed and refurnished with a table, chairs, and Dr. Elliot's Five Foot Shelf of Books) while certain matters were discussed with me. Smith, who had never been outside of Auburn before, assented meekly and disappeared — obviously awed by one whom he regarded as his god. Then George joined me at the front desk and got down to business: "Raine, that raw kid in there is a genius — but he lacks an important qualification as a poet. He has never been to bed with a woman. Now, look: If he could write 'Nero' under such a handicap, can't you imagine what he might produce after he has locked hips with an inspiring Aphrodite?"

This was sound reasoning, I thought, but what could the editor of Bohemia do to rectify matters?

"Just this: That filly you call your 'assistant editor' might solve our problem. I know, because — well, how do you think she was able to filch that last sonnet from me for your lousy publication? So here's my proposition: When Belle comes in, explain the problem and invoke her aid. We must humanize that fellow. Right now, he's just a stinking virgin with a gift for phrases. Have her give him the treatment. It may result in such a flow of new poetry, in due season, that he will become known as one of America's foremost bards."

We talked it over. For Belle's sake (a Modoc Indian girl, who had taken to letters) George agreed — as a necessary precaution — to escort young Smith to a Turkish bath. Meanwhile, I was to phone the dark seductress and explain matters. I could hardly assure him of her cooperation, but we might reason with her. After all, she had saved a few souls in her time.

Then George called the kid forth from the rear room — where he might have been engrossed in the stanzas of Shelley — and they were gone for several hours.

Late that afternoon, Sterling and Smith returned — the latter with a fresh haircut, the down off his chin, a clean shirt and new tie. Belle had received her instructions, and agreed to the ex cathedra duty expected of her as an assistant editor. We introduced them, and George said to Clark: "Raine and I have to discuss the next issue with an obdurate printer, so we're going to leave you together for awhile. Take care of each other — "

Then we left for old Duncan Nicol's bar, a block away, to speculate over our drinks on what might be the outcome of a noble experiment.

We lingered for a reasonable interval, while George grew increasingly impatient. I admit, the suspense was rather trying on both of us. Unable to wait longer — about an hour had elapsed — we hightailed back to take inventory.

There they were — complacent enough, I thought, to have reached an ancient understanding. George, I am sure, was convinced that the author of "Nero" had fiddled while Belle burned, and that his protégé's future was assured. As they prepared to leave for the Bohemian Club, I asked my little Indian to remain on the excuse of a discussion about certain drawings required for the next issue. When the two poets had gone, I turned to her for a report. "What happened?" I asked.

"Gosh, Raine — nothing happened."

"Great Gods, why not?"

I was then to learn something myself about women:

"Well," she hesitated, "I know it was really my fault. I'm awfully sorry to have let you and George down. But the fact is, I just haven't had enough experience, I guess, to know what to do with a male virgin."

Some years have passed their grinding way. George has joined the shades, Belle has found greener pastures, and Clark Ashton Smith may have cut a few notches in his art though I have heard little about him since. It would be uncouth to assume that his inability to soar off the ground on Pegasus might be traced back to our failure; but who can say we haven't lost a successor to William Cullen Bryant? On reading your story about the gal from Red Lion, however, this little incident of my salad days was recalled, so I thought I'd pass it on pour la sport.

The papers, awhile ago, told of your illness. I trust you are back in stride. My native land will be the poorer, surely, when you lay down your pen.

With all best wishes,
Raine Bennett

I have no dictionary at hand in this hotel cubicle, so forgive my whimsical spelling. R.


  1. CAS to George Sterling, 15 March 1925 (ms., New York Public Library). My thanks to Doug Anderson for providing information on this correspondence.
  2. CAS to George Sterling, 31 January 1921.
  3. CAS to Sterling, 3 January 1923.
  4. CAS to George Sterling, 10 May 1923.
  5. Strange Shadows (1989).
  6. Unpublished.
  7. CAS to George Sterling, 3 March 1917.
  8. CAS to George Sterling, 4 August 1912.
  9. H. L. Mencken, "A Girl from Red Lion, P.A.", Newspaper Days 1899-1906 (New York: Knopf, 1941), pp. 227-38. The story concerns an innocent-looking young woman who arrives in Baltimore and asks a taxi driver to take her to a "house of ill repute." The taxi driver, startled by the request, grudgingly takes her to a high-class whorehouse, where the young woman tells the madam that she is a farm girl from Red Lion, Pennsylvania, who has fallen in love with a local boy named Elmer and slept with him; but she now feels (after having read many romance novels given to her by Elmer) that she has lost her good name and, in the manner of romance heroines, must go to the city, lead a life of shame, and die in the gutter. She has resolutely set out on this course of action, but Mencken and a colleague — whom the madam summoned to hear the story — persuade the young woman that her transgression was very slight and she should go home.
  10. Smith was probably nineteen at this time, as his first visit to San Francisco with Sterling dates to the summer of 1912.
  11. "Nero" was first published in The Star-Treader and Other Poems (1912), although some lines of it had appeared previously in various San Francisco newspapers as a result of George Sterling's championing of the poem.

Studies in Weird Fiction 18

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