Ina Coolbrith: The Bittersweet Song of California’s First Poet Laureate

Aleta George. Shifting Plates (, $19.95 trade paper (362p) ISBN 978-0-9861240-1-3
In this noble but unsatisfying biography of California’s first poet laureate, George attempts to bring Ina Coolbrith’s story to a wider audience. Coolbrith was born Josephine Smith in 1841 Illinois, named for her uncle, Joseph Smith Jr., the founder of the Mormon church (a fact she concealed by changing her name). In 1851, her family moved to California, where Coolbrith began her career, first publishing poetry at age 15. She became a contributor to magazines such as the Californian and the Overland Monthly, was published by Bret Harte in California’s first poetry anthology, and formed friendships with such notable figures as Mark Twain, Isadora Duncan, and Ambrose Bierce. She was left with little time for writing, though, as her job as head Oakland librarian and her rather dysfunctional family were equally demanding. Coolbrith seemed happiest in her later years in New York City, free of these obligations and the rheumatoid arthritis that tormented her in California. Coolbrith clearly was a woman of substantial character, but George’s portrait never quite coalesces convincingly—perhaps in part because many primary sources were destroyed by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and by Coolbrith herself. Nonetheless, George’s book enriches the kaleidoscope of American literary figures and may bring new attention to this regional writer. (BookLife)
Reviewed on: 09/14/2015
Release date: 03/01/2015
Genre: Nonfiction
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