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Tracks Along the Left Coast Jaime De Angulo and the Pacific Coast Culture

ISBN: 9781619029255 | 1619029251
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Counterpoint
Pub. Date: 5/16/2017

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California, with its scores of native languages, contains a wealth of old time stories—a bedrock literature of North America. Jaime de Angulo’s linguistic and ethnographic work, his writings, as well as the legends that cloak the Old Coyote himself, vividly reflect the particulars of the Pacific coast. Born in Paris of Spanish descent, he came to America to become a cowboy, and he did—as well as a doctor, a linguist, ethnomusicologist, and writer. His poetry and prose uniquely represented the bohemian sensibility of the twenties, thirties and forties, and he was known for his reworkings of coyote tales and shamanic mysticism. So vivid was his writing that Ezra Pound called him “the American Ovid,” and William Carlos Williams claimed that de Angulo was “one of the most outstanding writers I have ever encountered.”

Jamie de Angulo arrived in San Francisco on the eve of the 1906 earthquake, and soon after he began medical school, almost on a whim. But the practical application of medicine did not interest him, and he set off on a life long career as a non-conformist cowboy-academic and keen ethnographer of the hundreds of Native Californian tribes that still lived along the Pacific coast. De Angulo spent nearly three decades in a focused effort to understand the California languages that were rapidly disappearing, carrying on their lives beneath the overlay of Spanish and English. He visited Native Americans on their lands—from sagebrush flats to redwood groves—and collected what could be salvaged of their languages, believing that to reach an understanding of a single ordinary sentence might disclose a whole method of knowing the world, a metaphysic different than an English speaker’s and equally subtle.

De Angulo found the phonetic scripts used by linguists too esoteric, and the odd or specialized symbols meant that standard printing houses lacked the ability to reproduce them. His whole life he argued for a script that could be done on a regular typewriter, one that an ordinary publishing house could typeset. Using his fonetik script so much led him to cast a wry look at English too, with its obsolete spellings he considered pointless and burdensome. His letters to colleagues and friends—among them Carl Jung, D.H. Lawrence, and Ezra Pound—began to discard unpronounced letters in words: thoroly and wud.

At the end of his life, broadcasting from Pacifica Radio—the world’s first listener-supported station—de Angulo brought together much of what he had gathered in his ethnographic travels and recorded roughly100 programs of Old Time Stories. He recited Native Californian stories, sang songs, and transmitted a way of looking at life that was based on medicine power and myth—putting it all into a great, singular work. A work that is very hard to come by, and even hard to define.

In each retelling, through each storyteller, stories are continually revivified, and that is precisely what Andrew Schelling has done in Tracks Along the Left Coast, weaving together the story of a life with the story of the land and the people, languages, and cultures with whom it is so closely tied.


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