Biography of a Hasheesh Eater


by Dave Gross

VIII. To California

"Webster's Unabridged closes its covers in despair before the task of giving expression to the misery suffered from Salt Lake to the Sierra," Ludlow wrote, noting that the Overland Stage became only more intolerable after Salt Lake City. "The manner of packing passengers upon this part of the line evinces intellects accustomed to close storage and large profits." The bumpy ride and the silt kicked up by the horses led to "black and blue bruises - serious abrasions of the skin - [and] ulcers when these last became irritated with omni-present alkali-dust."

Furthermore, from just beyond Salt Lake City through most of Nevada Territory, there was regular danger of attack from Native American guerrillas, necessitating constant watchfulness and prompting paranoia about every sound heard in the distance. "Our six-shooters lay across our laps, our bowie-knives were at our sides... We sat with tight-shut teeth, - only muttering now and then to each other, in a glum undertone, 'Don't get nervous, - don't throw a single shot away, - take aim, - remember it's for home!'"

At Canon Station, where the stage was to change their weary and overworked horses, they instead came upon the scene of a massacre:

Under a heavy cloud of black, clinging smoke, lay the charred beams and smouldering rafters of the house - while a little further on the ruins of great trusses of hay were still steaming above the conflagration of the stables. On that further pile lay the mangled remains of all the stage stud - ten or a dozen fine animals who had perished with their halters unloosed; and nearer by, among the burning planks of the house, were stretched the bones of six horribly mutilated men, the flesh still partly adhering to them, and the whole mass rapidly becoming undistinguishable, roasting into our nostrils with the smell of mingled man and beasthood...
But once their "feet pressed the borders of the Golden State" they "came into glorious forests of ever-living green, a rainbow-affluence of flowers, an air like a draught from windows left open in heaven," and the suffering of the journey started almost immediately to be placed in memory under layers of California beauty and culture.

"It is as hard to leave San Francisco as to get there," Ludlow recalled later, of the city which formed the base camp for his west-coast travels. "To a traveler paying his first visit it has the interest of a new planet." (On the other hand, "the candid visitor must regret that the grading of San Francisco seems to have been done by a Giant armed with a fish-slice and a coal-scoop under the influence of Delirium Tremens.").

He was struck by the maturity and cosmopolitan culture of the city, "[t]he Urban Nonchalance, in other words, the one's-own-business-minding, which is so characteristic of New York, struck me as only less remarkable in San Francisco before I had been with you a week."

During his short stay in San Francisco, he stayed at the Occidental Hotel and as a guest of Thomas Starr King, the youthful California preacher and passionate public speaker who was very influential in mustering California support for the Union cause and who had written for the East-coast press about the natural wonders of the state. King was to have joined Ludlow's party when they ventured to Yosemite, but his vigorous war-relief work prevented it. (Ludlow, in a later role as secretary and historian for the National Sanitary Commission - the forerunner to the American Red Cross which was founded during the Civil War - would say that "Starr King was the Sanitary Commission in California.")

Ludlow again found himself in a vibrant literary community, centered around San Francisco's Golden Era, which included Mark Twain, Joaquin Miller and Bret Harte. Of Twain, who was at the time still a virtual unknown (he had first used the pen name "Mark Twain" in a published piece a few months before), Ludlow wrote that "[i]n funny literature, that Irresistable Washoe Giant, Mark Twain, takes quite a unique position.... He imitates nobody. He is a school by himself."

Twain reciprocated by asking Ludlow to preview some of his work, and wrote in a letter to his mother, "if Fitz Hugh Ludlow, (author of 'The Hasheesh Eater') comes your way, treat him well.... He published a high encomium upon Mark Twain, (the same being eminently just & truthful, I beseech you to believe) in a San Francisco paper. Artemus Ward said that when my gorgeous talents were publicly acknowledged by such high authority, I ought to appreciate them myself..."

Bret Harte and Mark Twain, among the creative talents Ludlow met in California

The man who dubbed Twain the "Washoe Giant" was Charles Henry Webb, who, under the pen name "Inigo," was the editor and merry-maker of the Era. He dubbed Ludlow "The Hasheesh Infant" and in an early mention publicized a literary boxing match between the three, with the punster Inigo "bent on giving Ludlow Fitz and rending the apostolic Mark in Twain."

Harte had also attracted Ludlow's attention. "I may hope to lure him from you," he wrote, "and shall certainly attempt to." He imagined that the East-coast publications he worked for would welcome a writer with Harte's "luscious richness of imagery, a high-toned delicacy, and a noble strength of original thought scarcely excelled by any author in his department now writing our language." In Ludlow's belief, "there is no eminence as a writer which he may not adorn to his own honor and that of his adopted state."

The poet Charles Warren Stoddard wrote in his unpublished autobiography that Ludlow was the first critic of worth to praise his work. Ludlow wrote that "I also like very much some things I have seen of a young poet who calls himself Pod. I wish he wouldn't..." - Stoddard soon would drop the "Pip Pepperpod" pen name - "[T]here's a future for him, I am sure."

Ludlow was genuinely impressed by the talents of the Era staff: "[N]one of our New York literary weeklies seem to me more brilliant or more readable than that to which I am now contributing. In your columns I find evidence of a class of young literary men growing up upon the Pacific coast, who... will be able to live by their pens in a manner honorable to any country supporting them..."

Ludlow had also, by this time, become a passionate defender of Darwin's recently published Origin of Species, at least according to some sources. (Although this may be speculation based on taking a facetious article of Webb's authorage too seriously, it is not too far fetched, given Ludlow's voracious science reading. And Henry Ward Beecher, the influential preacher who was a strong influence on Ludlow and who shared his passion for reconciling science with Christianity, would later also defend Darwin's theories) According to Franklin Walker, in San Francisco's Literary Frontier, the San Francisco crowd that welcomed Ludlow

were so amused to have the famous drug-addict, the DeQuincey of America, turn out to be an ingenuous proselytor for the evolutionary theory that they held a mock trial in which they accused him of heresy. Ludlow, dressed in gray flannel breeches and dragoon boots, spectacles on nose and Darwin under arm, testified in polysyllables to an amazed court and obtained a verdict of acquittal.
Ludlow also observed first-hand the ravages of opium addiction among the Chinese immigrant population in San Francisco.
I shall never forget till my dying day that awful Chinese face which actually made me rein my horse at the door of the opium hong where it appeared, after a night's debauch, at six o'clock one morning.... It spoke of such a nameless horror in its owner's soul that I made the sign for a pipe and proposed, in "pigeon English," to furnish the necessary coin. The Chinaman sank down on the steps of the hong, like a man hearing medicine proposed to him when he was gangrened from head to foot, and made a gesture, palms downward, toward the ground, as one who said, "It has done its last for me - I am paying the matured bills of penalty."
From San Francisco, the group, which now had expanded to include a few others gathered from the area's artistic and scientific scenes, ventured to Yosemite. "If report was true," Ludlow wrote, "we were going to the original site of the Garden of Eden."
"A Rest on the Ride" by Albert Bierstadt, a scene from the trip to the "Heart of the Continent" undertaken by Ludlow and Bierstadt in 1863.

On the way to Yosemite, they stopped at a Sequoia grove. "I find no one on this side of the continent," he wrote upon returning home, "who believes the literal truth which travellers tell about these marvelous giants. People sometimes think they do, but that is only because they fail to realize the proposition.... I freely confess, that, though I always thought I had believed travellers in their recitals on this subject, when I saw the trees I found I had bargained to credit no such story as that, and for a moment felt half-reproachful towards the friends who had cheated me of my faith under a misapprehension."

They entered Yosemite Valley at Inspiration Point. "That name had appeared pedantic, but we found it only the spontaneous expression of our own feelings on the spot. We did not so much seem to be seeing from that crag of vision a new scene on the old familiar globe as a new heaven and a new earth into which the creative spirit had just been breathed. I hesitate now, as I did then, at the attempt to give my vision utterance. Never were words so beggared for an abridged translation of any Scripture of Nature."

But with a writing style honed on descriptions of the bafflingly unutterable visions of hashish, he made the attempt, putting together some of the most vivid and moving sections in his travel sketches, and occasionally recalling some of the philosophy of nature first expressed in The Hasheesh Eater, where he said that "In no sense... does any such thing as dead matter exist:"

I never could call a Yo-Semite crag inorganic, as I used to speak of everything not strictly animal or vegital. In the presence of the Great South Dome that utterance became blasphemous. Not living was it? Who knew but the débris at its foot was merely the cast-off sweat and exuviæ of a stone life's great work-day? Who knew but the vital changes which were going on within its gritty cellular tissue were only imperceptible to us because silent and vastly secular? What was he who stood up before Tis-sa-ack and said, "Thou art dead rock!" save a momentary sojourner in the bosom of a cyclic period whose clock his race had never yet lived long enough to hear strike. What, too, if Tis-sa-ack himself were but one of the atoms in a grand organism where we could see only by monads at a time, - if he and the sun and the sea were but cells or organs of some one small being in the fenceless vivarium of the Universe? Let not the ephemeron that lights on a babys hand generalize too rashly upon the non-growing of organisms!
"We did not so much seem to be seeing... a new scene on the old familiar globe as a new heaven and a new earth into which the creative spirit had just been breathed."

On the banks of the Merced river, in Yosemite valley, they pitched camp, "calling it 'Camp Rosalie,' after a dear absent friend of mine and Bierstadt's." After a morning dip in the river, Ludlow would spend his days in the valley hunting, fishing, collecting butterflies ("My experience teaches that no sage (or gentleman) should chase the butterfly on horseback.... The idea is a romantic one; it carries you back to the days of chivalry, when court-butterflies were said to have been netted from the saddle, - but it carries you nowhere else in particular, unless perhaps into a small branch of the Merced, where you don't want to go."), sight-seeing and writing, while the artists made color studies of various Yosemite scenes.

It is worth noting that the areas that Ludlow described in his Atlantic article, the Yosemite valley and the nearby Mariposa redwood grove, were officially made a state park by President Lincoln in the same month that the article appeared.

From Yosemite, the group returned to San Francisco, where they stayed for several days while preparing for the next adventure. This time, just the two travelers, Bierstadt and Ludlow, would make the journey, going north to Mount Shasta, and then into Oregon, where Ludlow was struck "by a violent attack of pneumonia, which came near terminating my earthly with my Oregon pilgrimage" and which stopped their trip cold for the better part of a week. Still, the views of nature quickly erased the memories of the suffering. Of the view of the "beautiful, yet awful ghosts" of Oregon mountains, he wrote that "[n]o man of enthusiasm... will wonder that my friend and I clasped each other's hands before it, and thanked God we had lived to this day."

Ludlow enthusiastically took in the scenery, gold rush towns, and native culture of the Pacific Northwest, finding the west-coast casual manner and eager friendliness a welcome contrast to the social conventions of New England, and speculating (often with uncanny accuracy) about where rail lines would soon open up the American wilderness. They stayed for a while in Portland, delayed by notorious springtime Pacific Northwest rainstorms and capricious transportation, where Ludlow spun out a few puns for the Golden Era before returning to San Francisco:

As I go by the saloons the bar keepers look at me. They think I'm a fool because I won't get drunk as everybody else does, waiting for an inscrutable, over-due, boat, in such weather. They think I'm trying to palm myself off as a superior being because I don't. They see through that transparent pretence and know very well that the superior being in such weather is the man who gets a little drunker than all the rest. But I won't do it! It's all very well to say when you're in Rum do as the Rum-uns do, and when you're in Port do as the Portlanders do. I ain't in Port, or in liquor of any kind. And the steamer isn't in port - and I'm dreadfully out of spirits...
"They are all going," Charles Henry Webb wrote in the Golden Era, "all the good fellows that came out here to break the monotony of life in California..."
Don't be alarmed, a large gap will not be made in the population of this city, for there are only two of them, Bierstadt, the artist, and Ludlow, the author.

But I can mention ten thousand men that I had rather spare and would miss less.

...Ludlow has the material for a book among his multitude of papers that will go beyond his first and successful flight in literature, The Hasheesh Eater. We shall miss Ludlow from the Era as well as at table, but shall gain him again in the magazines, and this must reconcile us to his departure.

Ludlow, for his part, felt equally warmly toward California and the people he met there, but thought he would wait for the transcontinental railroad before venturing West again: "[T]wenty-thousand dollars would be no temptation to me to visit you again by the Overland Stage - (I don't know anybody who would make me that offer, unless I were the possessor of a vast estate and he its presumptive heir)..."
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