Whitewashing the Point

Robinson Jeffers’ depiction of the Central California Coast as a place populated by Anglo-American ranchers and a Hispanic underclass (some if not all indigenous Californians) seems probable enough, but Jeffers’ human landscape lacks the Asiatic tone of some of the key people of the coast. Tamar is a conspicuous example of this issue.

Tamar takes place on an Anglo-American ranch at Point Lobos. The narrative lacks detail regarding the actual business of the ranch. A quick review of the history of Point Lobos reveals that Point Lobos was nothing like Jeffers’ image of the Point ca. 1917. It was, rather, a modern, industrial, and largely Japanese place from about 1900 to well after the time when Jeffers completed Tamar. The canning enterprise had, in fact, enjoyed a boom during the Great War. Tamar was a story that took place during that time, yet the story has little to say about abalone and nothing about Japanese divers.

In 1897, about 17 years before Robinson and Una Jeffers first arrived in Carmel, a Japanese marine biologist named Gennosuke Kodani arrived at Point Lobos and began to harvest abalone. By 1900, Kodani had hired Japanese abalone divers onto his operation, and began using modern deep-diving equipment in the harvest. At about this time, an Anglo-American named A. M. Allan purchased Point Lobos and went into business with Kodani. Allan and Kodani built a cannery there that operated from 1902 to 1928, and accounted for three quarters of California's abalone production. This modern operation was on Whalers Cove which, also marked by a scar from a granite quarry, was well within sight of Carmel Point, where Robinson Jeffers moved in 1919. When Jeffers published Tamar in 1924, the cannery was very much in operation.

Likewise, when Jeffers published Boats in a Fog in 1925, the cannery was shipping canned abalone out from Carmel Bay, yet Jeffers never wrote about the Japanese divers and their rich harvest of abalone, though in more than one poem Jeffers published words that described how the soil of the coast was “thick” with abalone shells. He acknowledged that Indians had harvested abalone at Carmel Point, and he lionized the white ranchers and fishermen of the region. He even wrote a good word or two for the Indians, yet nothing for the Japanese abalone divers of Point Lobos. Rather like the sea birds of his poems, he positively whitewashed Point Lobos, excepting of course his treatment of local Indians as disembodied rapists.

This whitewashing seems especially odd when one considers the oriental beauty of the cypresses native to Point Lobos. Did not the Japanese divers, themselves natives of our Pacific Rim, deserve to call this place home, and in their hazardous occupation deserve to be treated as part of the beauty of the coast?

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Jeffers made passing references to “Chinamen” in Point Joe and The Women at Point Sur. A decade later, he made a more pointed reference to the tragic deaths of “some Chinese laborers” (Such Counsels You Gave to Me, 1937).

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