The Wild Man At The Center Of The World

By David Taylor
Sunday, May 18, 2008

SITTING ON A BENCH IN MERIDIAN HILL PARK ON A BRISK AFTERNOON, I look south over rooftops to where the Washington Monument's needle is poised to pop the blue sky. The rising breeze brings a whiff of cigar smoke from the guy on the terrace below. A young couple pushing a stroller pauses at the Joan of Arc statue.

From my book bag, I pull out my copy of Washington: City and Capital. Thicker than a Bible and heavy as uranium, it's one of 74 guidebooks (one for each state, plus the territories, some regions and a few cities) published in the first half of last century by the Federal Writers' Project, which was the Works Project Administration's Depression-relief experiment for scribes. It also has 1,167 pages, plus a map tucked in the back -- which is crazy for a travel guide. (When the book was published in 1937, Franklin Roosevelt quipped that it should come with its own steamer trunk.) But that back-straining abundance yields treasures that the guides' thinner, newer descendants have long sloughed off.

Flipping to a page halfway through, I find a story new to me, even though I grew up in the Washington area and for years lived within a five-minute walk of Malcolm X Park, as this spot was known then. It's the curious 19th century tale of Joaquin Miller, the eccentric "poet of the Sierras" who holed up in a log cabin right here for several years. And it involves the imaginary line that nearly put his cabin at the center of the world.

MILLER (1839-1913) WAS AT VARIOUS TIMES A COAL MINER, lawyer, judge, fruit grower, convicted horse thief, world traveler and Klondike correspondent for the New York Journal.

"He was flamboyant," says Karren Alenier, who founded the Miller cabin series of poetry readings in the 1970s. She and fellow members of Word Works, a literary group, obtained a permit to hold workshops in the cabin, which was moved to Rock Creek Park in 1912. "We would light candles," she says of the early gatherings. "It was dusty and kind of dark. We would nail poems to the walls because that's what Joaquin Miller did.

"None of us thought he was a great poet," she adds. "He was a poseur." One biography of Miller, in fact, is titled Splendid Poseur.

Born Cincinnatus Hiner Miller in Indiana, Miller grew up in Oregon and California, where he lived for a while in the shadow of Mount Shasta. He adopted the first name of Mexican folk hero and bandit Joaquin Murietta, published two slender volumes of poetry in the United States, and then left for London, where his outsize persona and fourth book, Songs of the Sierras, made him a literary discovery -- one in a series of "noble savages" who visited from the New World, going back at least to the coonskin cap-wearing Ben Franklin. To feed his growing legend, Miller wore colorful clothes and scurried around on the floors of London literary salons, grabbing at the ankles of British ladies and making them cry out, says Alenier. "He was quite a character."

When he later moved to Washington, Miller would sashay down Pennsylvania Avenue in Indian leggings and a deerskin coat, ignoring the heads that swiveled toward him. He told outrageous tales about how he started the West's first pony express and dispensed justice in Oregon as a judge "with one law book and two six-shooters." And he loved playing practical jokes, preferably with a big audience. Once he shaved his beard in public just to make a show. He was immensely popular for a time, and generations of schoolchildren memorized his poem "Columbus," with its scene of the explorer inspiring his crew:

Brave Admiral, say but one good word:

What shall we do when hope is gone?

The words leapt like a leaping sword:

"Sail on! sail on! sail on! and on!"

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