Lummis as One of L.A.’s First Bohemians

A book recently published by San Diego State University Press casts Charles Lummis as one of the first in a long line of free-spirited and free-thinking creative types who have flocked to Southern California for more than a century.  He and his artistically inclined neighbors who began building their Arts and Crafts homes in the Arroyo Seco in the late 19th century were the predecessors of the beatniks, surf bums, gay rights pioneers and hippies who were drawn to the region in the second half of the 20th century, according to the book, Bohemia in Southern California.

Each of those subcultures is covered in a chapter. I contributed a chapter about Lummis and his home El Alisal, which was at the center of the community of artists and writers who settled in the arroyo. “Taken collectively, they suggest that when la vie bohéme arrived in the land of sunshine, a unique way of being unconventional was created,” observes Jay Ruby, a Temple University professor emeritus who edited the volume, wrote the introduction and contributed a chapter about Coffee House Positano, a bohemian hangout in Malibu from 1957 to 1962.

In Southern California, Ruby writes, bohemians were liberated not only from the need to seek shelter from hostile weather. They were also unburdened by calcified eastern traditions. Drawing inspiration from the region’s colorful mixture of native, Spanish, Mexican, and immigrant Anglo cultures, they could create their own, wholly new alternative lifestyle—which is just what Lummis did at El Alisal.

Jessica Holada, director of special collections and archives at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, contributed a chapter on the Arroyo Seco, a “vibrant if scattered enclave of nonconformists,” focusing on the book printers who settled in the neighborhood. As I note in my chapter about Lummis, who started building El Alisal in 1894:

“The Arroyo Seco by the early 1890s was beginning to fill up with the homesteads of writers, artists, musicians, photographers, eccentric entrepreneurs and other free-spirited bohemian types. There was an ostrich farm a couple of miles up the arroyo, a quirk Lummis liked. At the upper end, in South Pasadena, Horatio Nelson Rust, a legendary abolitionist and noted archeologist, was developing one of the region’s first large-scale commercial citrus orchards. Rust was one of a number of like-minded neighbors who would become collaborators in Lummis’s crusades and regular visitors to his home.

“Indeed, El Alisal fit right in to the vibrant, offbeat intellectual and artistic community that was emerging in the arroyo. In the considerable wake that Lummis created, other artists and writers moved in. By the first decade of the 20th century, El Alisal had become the cultural haven’s epicenter. As Ward Ritchie, a book printer and publisher who set up his shop in the arroyo after Lummis’s death in 1928, put it in a memoir he wrote about life in the bohemian enclave, ‘The dominant figure in the Arroyo Seco culture was undoubtedly Charles Fletcher Lummis.’ ”

His stint of more than a decade as editor of an influential regional magazine, initially titled Land of Sunshine and later renamed Out West, was especially important in spurring the growth of the community of artists and writers in the neighborhood. He published the work of many of them in his magazine and was instrumental in helping launch the careers of some who went on to win wider acclaim including Mary Austin, one of a number of contributors to Lummis’s magazine who moved to the arroyo, inspired by his example. As my chapter in Bohemia in Southern California concludes:

“His iconoclastic lifestyle undoubtedly was also an inspiration to other bohemians in the Arroyo Seco who were marching to their own drummers and promoting their own artistic, literary and intellectual endeavors.”

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