Friday, March 8, 2019

The Wild Woman Librarian who became the first California Poet Laureate

By Jacqui Nelson

Life's an adventure in a library. Meet the Wild Woman Librarian who became Jack London's "literary mother" and a Poet Laureate...

Josephine Donna Coolbrith Smith 

aka Ina Coolbrith

( born 1841 in Nauvoo, Illinois ) 

Ina in the 1850s

In 1851, at the age of 10, Josephine traveled west with her family in a wagon train. She entered California riding with the famous scout Jim Beckwourth.

Her family settled in Los Angeles, and she began writing poems and was first published in a newspaper in 1856. At the age of 17, she married an iron-worker and part-time actor. When he abused her, she divorced him in a sensational public trial.

In 1862, to ward off depression, she moved with her mother, stepfather, and twin half-brothers to San Francisco. She changed her name from Josephine to Ina and worked as an English teacher. For a decade, she supplied one poem for each new issue of San Francisco’s Overland Monthly.

Ina in 1871 (at age 29 or 30)

In 1874, to further support her family, she took the position of librarian for the Oakland Library Association. She earned $80 per month and worked 6 days a week, 12 hours a day. Her poetry suffered as a result and she published sporadically during the next 19 years. At the library, she discussed her patrons' interests and then selected books for them.

In 1886, she befriended and mentored a 10-year-old Jack London who later called her his "literary mother."

Ina in the 1880s

In 1892, she was given three days' notice to clear her desk and be replaced as Oakland’s librarian by her nephew Henry Frank Peterson. Two years later, her good friend John Muir wanted her to fill the recently vacated position of San Francisco's librarian, which she could not do because San Francisco required that their librarian be a man.

Seven years later, her artist and writer friends were able to obtain her a part-time librarian position at the Bohemian Club. Her salary was $50 per month and her duties were light enough that she could continue writing.

In 1906, the fire that followed the San Francisco earthquake consumed her house, 3,000 of her books, and her nearly complete manuscript – that was part autobiography and part history of California's early literary scene. Her Bohemian Club friends helped set her up in a new house where she resumed writing and holding literary salons.

On June 30, 1915, at the age of 74, Ina Coolbrith was named the first California Poet Laureate and the first poet laureate of any American state. She continued writing poetry for eight more years.

Ina in 1924 (at age 83)

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I always wanted to be a librarian, but the closest I came was working in a bookstore - a wonderful job, but no matter how wonderful I couldn't imagine working there 12 hour days for 6 days a week - like Ina Coolbrith did at her library. 

Do you have a favorite librarian from the past or the present? 

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Alice V said...

Love the cat. Every writer should have a furry foot-warmer.

Sheila Currie said...

You find the most interesting characters! I really enjoying reading about this woman who made her own way through the world in the 19th century. She divorced an abusive husband instead of just living with it. Not an easy life when you have to work, but she kept on working. And a nephew got her job as a librarian! Did she accept that or was she annoyed? She seems to have had a lot of supportive friends.

GiniRifkin said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
GiniRifkin said...

Thank you for this interesting post, I loved learning about this amazing woman. She crossed paths with some notable personage, and sounds like she helped so many people in and out of the library. Wonder why she picked the name Ina?

Jacqui Nelson said...

Good question, Gini. I wonder why as well. Awesome to hear you enjoyed my blog post! ❤️